Alexandra Lange | Essays

Ornament & Time

The minute we got to Copenhagen, I noticed the clocks. Big, beautiful, architectural analog clocks like this one on the Imperial Hotel. Just behind Arne Jacobsen's SAS Hotel, clearly from the same era, looking like a modernist desk object blown up to city scale.

I noticed the architecture behind the clocks too. Above the neon signs and global brands on Storget, the pedestrianized shopping street, there were a series of lovely buildings blending into a continuous fabric, this one a little bit Art Nouveau, that one a little bit Milan in the 1930s, the next one with the stepped gables I associate with the Dutch influence in New York. What was striking was how modern, of different eras and places, everything was, and how almost every piece of the built environment had just a little bit of ornament. The flat travertine panels on the pseudo-Milanese fronts were studded with brass mounts. Or had jaunty yellow awnings. The edges of the tile roofs tipped up. The cobblestone pavements were laid in scallops.

Stockholm was much less charming, larger scale, more grand, more tombstone slabs, but it still had the clocks. And the light fixtures. And the pavements. Fragments of unself-conscious and applied ornament that seemed to shrug off the anxieties of the Bauhaus or Corbusian strains. All those glorious Scandinavian textile patterns make their way into the gray streets as architectural jewelry.

At the Woodland Cemetery, there was this lovely timepiece, in black and gold. Gunnar Asplund's architecture is severe, but he bothered to design tiny gold leaves, in the shape of hearts, to end the hands.

On the Ahlens department store at the center of Stockholm this clock, adding just the right amount of gilt--and a dramatic end-of-day shadow--to the windowless brick block.

Seeing these made me sad about the reign of the digital clock which will never have the same architectural grandeur. My association with digital clocks is Times Square on New Year's Eve, the 10-9-8, the afterglow of lines as the numbers change. Digital clocks aren't pretty. They just sit there, counting down or counting up.

In Brooklyn we do still have the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower. I could tell the time by the bank from my old bedroom window, and it was an important point of orientation for me when I was new to Brooklyn. Now other buildings, without clocks or spires, have topped the bank and crowd around. But maybe there's a lesson for future architects who know their buildings need to add a little something in all these examples. The clocks I loved in Scandinavia were quite low, meant to be seen from the street, and mostly located near the center. There was no need to check your phone to know it was time. They made you look at the buildings.

Posted in: Architecture

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