In his Allgemeine Theorie der Schönen Künsten, published in four volumes between 1771 and 1774, the Swiss theologian and philosopher Johann Georg Sulzer dedicated a quite extensive lemma to the cornice. After a short factual definition of the cornice as “eine aus mehreren Gliedern bestehende Einfassung an dem obersten, bisweilen auch an dem untersten Ende einer Mauerwand oder einer Öfnung”, Sulzer proceeds by further describing its various applications, to arrive at a more critical consideration: “Das Gesims dient zur Begränzung und Vollendung der Teile, die davon ihre Einfassung bekommen, damit sie als etwas Ganzes erscheinen … mithin ist es eine wesentliche Verzierung ganzer Gebäude, …” After pointing out the near infinite variety of cornices, Sulzer concludes that “[man] kann aber aus den verschiedenen Gesimsen, die auswendig und inwendig an den Gebäuden angebracht sind, gar bald den guten oder schlechten Geschmack eines Baumeisters erkennen.”
Sulzer’s remarks are not exceptional or original, but rather synthesize ideas that had circulated for centuries. This becomes apparent when we pursue the link that Sulzer indicates to his entry on “Glieder”. There, the author defines “Glieder” as “die kleineren Teile, aus deren Zusammensetzung die zur Verzierung der Gebäude und der wesentlichen Teile derselben gehörigen Hauptteile, besonders die Gesimse, entstehen.” Their apparent modest nature however belies their importance and versatility. Implicitly quoting earlier theorists like Charles d’Aviler, Sulzer writes that: “Die Glieder sind für die Gesimse beinahe, was die Buchstaben für die Wörter sind: und wie aus wenig Buchstaben eine unzählbare Menge von Wörtern kann zusammengesetzt werden, so entsteht aus der verschiedenen Zusammensetzung der Glieder eine große Mannigfaltigkeit der Gesimse, Füße und Kränze, wodurch so wohl die verschiedenen Ordnungen sich von einander unterscheiden als auch die Gebäude überhaupt ihren Charakter des Reichtums oder der Einfalt bekommen. Es ist nichts leichters als unzählige Arten von Kränzen und Gesimsen zu erfinden; aber sie in jedem Falle so zu erfinden, wie sie sich für das Gebäude und den besonderen Teil desselben am besten schicken, ist das Werk eines ganz verständigen und einen guten Geschmack besitzenden Baumeisters.”
Sulzer’s reflections on the cornice and the profile amount to a short design theory of this architectural element: the cornice is a composite of profiles, and as such occasion for almost endless invention. Precisely this freedom calls for professionalism and good judgment on the part of the designer, all the more since the cornice helps to determine the appearance of a building. Not only by establishing a degree of ornamentation, but also because it allows buildings and their parts to appear as a whole. As such, the cornice is an “essential ornament.”
From a modern viewpoint, or at least a viewpoint shaped by modernism, “essential ornament” is a contradiction in terms. In this view, the ornament is added to what is essential; and what is essential, is no longer an ornament. Essential is what derives from the requirements of construction, materials, or function. What Sulzer of course suggests is that the cornice hints at something essential that has to do with something else: the aesthetics of architecture. Sulzer identifies a desire to perceive objects as complete, just as it seems suitable to confer onto buildings a degree of embellishment that suits their station. Sulzer offers, in fact, no hint of any functional or constructive justification of the cornice. But precisely because of that, it is the element where architecture comes into its own. Echoing ideas already voiced by Vincenzo Scamozzi, Sulzer casts the cornice as the signature of the architect.
With these considerations in mind it should come as no surprise that few architectural elements have incurred as much wrath amongst modernists as the cornice. In 1930 Frank Lloyd Wright spent a full lecture at Princeton lambasting the cornice, and some years earlier Le Corbusier had issued a first version of his famous five points of architecture that included a sixth: “suppression de la corniche.” Both architects advanced similar arguments: contemporary construction had done away with the necessity of the cornice. As an ornament that recalled primitive solutions to joining wall and roof, and protecting the wall from rain, new materials and techniques had made the cornice superfluous. If the cornice remained, it was as a matter of habit or worse: the continuation of an inauthentic ornamental language of which architecture should cleanse itself. Underneath this condemnation lingered modernist anxieties about arbitrariness and contingency: eliminating the cornice is the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of necessity.
But the vehemence of the condemnation of course hints at an unspoken acknowledgment that despite its pertaining to an ‘old’ system, the cornice ‘did’ something in architecture that is specific and important, and that what it performed belonged exactly to those realms of architecture modernists – and almost all who came after them – are hesitant to discuss. Much like Sulzer’s framing of the cornice in the realm of invention and perception rather than tectonics or construction, Jacques François Blondel’s characterization of different types of cornices by comparing them to the profile of the human face, in his Cours d’Architecture of 1771, had hinted at the cornice as a site of expression and even communication. In 1982 the artist Ludger Gerdes would redraw these profiles to explore how architectural elements could convey particular characteristics and emotions. Deeply steeped in the criticism of modernism as voiced for instance by Robert Venturi, Gerdes drew on 18th century theory to uncover aspects of architecture that he deemed lost or neglected.
These aspects had however remained present in the writings and works of the very same architects that vituperated the cornice. In Vers une architecture Le Corbusier celebrated the profile (la modénature) as the hallmark of architectural authorship and beauty much in the same way as Scamozzi had done four centuries before him. Sulzer’s celebration of the profile translated into theories of the line as the expressive element of architecture that developed from the early 19th century onwards and would feed into Art Nouveau and modernism. Moretti’s text on the “modenatura” stands in this tradition, while making an explicit case for the relevance of historical precedent in architectural design.
These authors and architects acknowledge obliquely some of the architectural themes the cornice raises, and those same themes also become apparent in how the cornice figures in seemingly derivative practices. Optical research into the effect of cornices on buildings and in streetscapes as performed for instance by Constantin Uhde, in his Die Konstruktion und die Kunstformen der Architektur (1902), resonates in the common urbanistic practice of defining building volumes by means of cornice heights. And the bourgeois habit and desire of seeing doors, windows, interiors or entire buildings framed with at least a simple profile has spawned the mass production and global spread of cornices from the 19th century onwards, exactly the phenomenon that drove our modernists to rage. Still today there is a considerable market for mass produced cornices, however at a far remove from ‘architecture’, in the realm where interior design needs to meet the technical requirements of for instance large international hotel chains. The fact that the cornice is called upon to hide something of course only increases its stigma in an architectural culture that is still – or again – imbued with the modernist imperative of showing things as they are, or treating ornament less as something that is applied, than a quality inherent to the building.
In a design practice and building industry often bent at minimizing the joint and the profile, introducing a cornice is a statement, be it about context, composition, historicism, expression or even beauty. But even those buildings that seemingly forfeit the cornice – or where considerable design effort is spent to make it disappear – have to confront the questions already raised by Sulzer: how to delineate the building, have it appeal to its viewers and make it somehow fitting in a given cultural context. In that sense, talking about cornices is a deliberate provocation to begin a conversation about architecture. One which takes form, design and construction seriously, as aspects of architecture that link buildings to the various forces, agencies and actors that shape them. And one that looks closely at a particular building element as a fragment with lives, pedigrees and histories that are deeply entangled not just with architectural design, but also with issues that range from materials and manufacturing, over composition and urban design, to matters of perception and representation. In other words, bringing the literally peripheral (or liminal) cornice center stage opens up questions that are eminently architectural, while decentering the building and its designer as the sole or primary focus of attention. The cornice is architecture but also something else: just one particular element that requires at the very least a technical solution, and something that is always there, in a sustained dialogue with viewers, building elements, surrounding objects and artefacts, and even legislation. As Le Corbusier, Wright and others intuited then, talking about cornices is talking about architecture, but with an edge. It is about “eine Wesentliche Verzierung.”