Ornamentation and Function in Architecture – a couple of examples

I’ve long been troubled by ornamentation in and on buildings.

My approach to architecture – built spaces – focuses more on the program for the structure and how occupants actually experience the structure. What life problems are posed to the architect? This is the program of uses that the building must house. How do the users of a building experience their activities within the structure? How does the architecture function to address the programmatic needs of the users of the building?

Frank Gehry

Fisher Center for Performing Arts – Bard College – Frank Gehry

Gehry is, of course, famous for his flamboyant designs. The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, is doubtless his most famous. I admit to being more impressed that rich people and corporations are willing to spend inordinate amounts of money for his designs than the actual functionality.

I have frequented a local building at Bard College 30 minutes south of Hudson. The Fisher Center is a venue for music and dance. Gehry either didn’t know or didn’t care that freezing temperatures for many months each year produce such hazards of falling ice and snow that the main entrance is frequently blocked off. But, this is not the first time Gehry has slipped up on local weather conditions. He was sued by MIT for similar flaws and others in his design of the Stata Center.1

Fortunately, Gehry worked with acoustics engineers and theater designers on the interior spaces. The sound in the main auditorium is excellent.

When you see the Fisher Center from the rear, you realize that this is a Potemkin Village affair. A bunch of white boxes with an applique of contemporary fluff for the street view.

Studio Gang (Jeanne Gang)

Gilder Center, American Museum of Natural History, New York City

On an end-of-2023 trip to NYC, we stopped at the American Museum of Natural History, where a new addition to the facility had recently opened. The Gilder Center proved to be a marvel. Here, unlike Gehry’s work above, the swooping organic curves of the exterior reflected an interior similarly filled with curved walls and spaces with loads of natural light. Designed by Studio Gang (Jeanne Gang), it is a wonderful entrance hall with exhibits on the periphery and entrances to the many levels of the older sections of the museum. Light may be its most impressive achievement.



  1. See Pogrebin, Robin, and Katie Zezima. “M.I.T. Sues Frank Gehry, Citing Flaws in Center He Designed.” The New York Times, November 7, 2007, sec. U.S. https://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/07/us/07mit.html.