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Wayne L. Roosa

A Meditation on the Joint and Its Holy Ornaments

Distance and relation.

Years ago I attended an exhibition of late 19th- and early 20th-century architectural drawings. On the entrance wall the curator had placed a phrase lifted from the writings of the architect Louis Kahn. It read,

The joint is the source of every ornament.

The sheer clarity of that simple declaration struck me then, and still strikes me now, with great force. Of course today the word "ornament" is archaic in discussions of art, and we must look past its quaintness to the real insight of the claim, an insight that feels to me almost primal. What this statement lays bare is the generative dynamic that begets all manner of human making far beyond architecture. Indeed, what is revealed in this statement is not so much about the language of architecture as it is about the architecture of all "language." I say "language" because I mean here every system for signifying human thought and meaning, whether verbal, plastic, aural, or gestural.

 At heart, the observation is that wherever a "joint" exists between the meeting of two things there arises in the human psyche a need to mark that place of encounter. Apparently the human eye is not satisfied by simple, blunt juxtapositions. Nor is the mind willing to leave such encounters alone. It must offer some "ornament," some "finish," some mediation or transition. The "joint," it seems, is too naked. It causes discontent in the human mind. The mind wants to clothe it.

This is abundantly clear in architecture. Where the plane of a wall meets the plane of a roof, the blunt encounter feels unresolved. Without jambs and moldings, the opening of a doorway through a wall feels like a gaping hole. The great architect Louis Sullivan said that such bare-bones structures amounted to buildings that were "nude." For thousands of years the nudity of the "joint" has been clothed by the softening transition of cornice, entablature, molding, jamb, and pilaster. These mediate, reconcile, unify, negotiate. The mind likes a weaving together of the parts. ...

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