A skeuomorph is “a design feature copied from a similar artifact in another material, even when not functionally necessary.” Like the body shape of an electric guitar.
“i sing the body electric…”
Examples include the shutter sound on a digital camera, lightbulbs shaped like candle flames, the newstand app that looks like a wooden bookshelf, and plastic lumber with wood graining.
I announced my intention to write a blog about skeuomorphs in architecture and my dear friend Elizabeth Milnarik pointed out that “architectural history = skeuomorphism, or the rejection of skeuomorphism, more or less.” She is right.
“…meets some fragment huge and stops to guess…”
The classical (in every sense) example is the capital of the Corinthian column, derived in the 5th century BC by the sculptor Callimachus when he saw acanthus leaves growing around a votive urn or basket, according to Vitruvius.
The Greek and then Roman temple is itself a collection of forms borrowed from other materials and rendered into stone.
These forms have been in turn borrowed on the largest architectural scale to signify the elevated nature of government buildings,
houses of worship,
Khmer architecture in stone is based on wooden precedents, which explains not only its rampant skeuomorphism, but also its goddawful engineering.
the spindled windows and
the shingled galleries and
the carved corners and
the constantly collapsing corbels
Chinese architectural tradition, even when it remained within familiar material (wood), often exaggerated and/or multiplied once-functional architectural features for aesthetic effect. The duogong bracket system originally provided structural support from column to roof purlin, and cantilevers called ang allowed the adjustment of roofline curves (in itself practical originally, since it protected structural elements from weather and allowed more light and air within).
Eventually the duogong became decorative and nonfunctional
Gothic architecture, as its name implies, is a kind of skeumorphism squared, retaining distorted features of previous architectures, the natural or wooden forms long forgotten.
“…oppresses like the Heft of Cathedral Tunes…”
Oh look! It’s the transition from Romanesque to Gothic at Durham Cathedral!
The Renaissance and the Baroque totally doubled down on the whole skeuomorph thing, refining forms with forms and creating a massive vocabulary of design elements completely abstract in their relation to any original natural inspiration.
“…getting and spending we lay waste our powers; little we see in Nature that is ours..”
sort of like heavy metal
Modernism of course was a rejection of historical styles, which is to say a la Milnarik a rejection of skeuomorphism, most neatly summed up in the German phrase Neue Sachlichkeit which can be translated as new objectivity. A plain box devoid of ornament seems an apt expression of engineering and need.
But the fact of the matter: there is always that attempt to sweeten, to make forms subjective, even without ornament.
now the soundtrack should be New Order
the practical aspect here is the separate architect/lover’s entrance, not visible
Frank Lloyd Wright understood architectural ornament as “the conventionalization of natural things, revealing the inner poetry of their Nature.” The Egyptians conventionalized the lotus; the Greeks the acanthus; civilization itself was “a conventionalizing of our original state of nature”; and architecture “the highest, most subjective, conventionalization of Nature known to man”.
This is a conventionalized hollyhock
Wright didn’t need to retain skeuomorphs that would make you feel more comfortable. He didn’t care if you were comfortable..
Wright apprentice Barry Byrne designed modernist Catholic churches, assiduously avoiding skeuomorphs in an idiom that almost requires it. You can buy the Byrne book here.
But enough about the big styles, what actually got me going is one of the most basic and baffling skeuomorphs: the square chimney. We have so long identified the square chimney as the appropriate form, even though the structural element is circular, a tube. This is given away by the Victorian chimney pots, which follow the shape of the smoke vent even as the masonry does not.
I see a chimney. I know it is a chimney because it is brick and square
So I see new houses built, or old ones with new fireplaces added like this, and they put cylindrical metal chimney tubes, and then they add rectangular plywood boxes around them – because that is the shape they are supposed to be – and then cover the plywood with fake brick – because that is the material they are supposed to be.
Terra cotta is a material whose sole rationale is skeuomorphism, more easily rendering detail than carved stone or other masonry material.
I suppose the most ubiquitous, and arguably outrageous skeuomorph is the Palladian window, which is based on a Roman triumphal arch, so it was never a window at all but now it is everywhere, not because it helps the window to DO anything, but because it signifies classicism just like those columns and pediments…
i got a classy house
actually this is our house back East
and this is my office here in California
Even Frank Lloyd Wright was not immune to Palladian temptations..
Speaking of windows, the whole multi-paned window like the one you see here – which is a nasty, short-lived plastic replacement window that won’t last as long as Real Housewives of Atlanta is perhaps the most common architectural skeuomorph. The multi-paned window goes with Classical and Georgian styles.
So, this 19th century building in Mount Carroll, Illinois has the multi-paned windows, just like this ACTUAL Georgian Building in Trenton, New Jersey:
But the fact of the matter is that by the middle of the 19th century you could produce reasonably large sheets of glass almost anywhere, so the old crown (English) and broad (German) methods of manual glass production were over with and you could produce windows like this throughout the civilized world in the 1850s:
In fact, technology would have allowed a single pane in each sash but the popular Italianate style went for paired things (brackets, arches, panes). We still see multi-paned windows everywhere, which are skeuomorphs for something that has not needed to exist for 200 years. The modern ones are just strips of plastic that reduce the amount of light you get inside. but they SIGNIFY Classicism or Americana or Oldy-Timeyism or something.
It is the signification carried by certain forms – and perpetuated by form-givers – that ultimately explains the skeuomorph. Architectural history is indeed a history of skeuomorphs and the rejection thereof, so Elizabeth is right. Or Wright.