Architecture is the world's most conservative yet radical profession. While some visionaries push the boundaries of what a home can be with irregular contours, cantilevered volumes and movable walls, the "neo" brigade adapts the old Georgian, Palladian, Victorian styles to the suburbs. What we often fail to consider is that even those styles were controversial in their day. It's a wonder London was ever rebuilt after the Great Fire, or indeed San Francisco.
Today, most critics have finally come to terms with contemporary-box architecture. So it's fitting that a new generation of rebels has arrived to turn the tables. After decades of pared-back, unadorned home exteriors, architects are tiring of all that sterility and starting to decorate houses again.
Murals, paint effects and ornamental tiling are all enjoying a renaissance – in a decidedly modern way. We've seen it arrive slowly, if loudly, on the margins, spearheaded by architecture firms that cross-pollinate contemporary building techniques with art and design.
Probably the most conspicuous decoration revival is being promulgated by FAT, an irreverent London firm that seeks to "broaden the way we talk about architecture," according to partner Charles Holland. A few years ago, FAT (the name stands for Fashion Architecture Taste) unveiled a housing scheme in Manchester with exaggerated Dutch gables, cross-hatch brickwork and scallop-edged window boxes that piqued the neighbours and journalists in every sense of the word.
Next year, in collaboration with Turner Prize-winning potter Grayson Perry, FAT will complete "A House for Essex," an exuberant two-bedroom cottage on a bucolic estuary. The renderings are what you'd expect from such a "meeting of minds" – a staggered saltbox structure faced with bottle-green tile triangles, with dormer windows shrouded in laser-cut ironwork and giant Seussian finials in place of chimneys. Had they lopped off the finials and clad the house in wood, "Essex" likely wouldn't have dominated the newspapers, as it did last autumn. In its current form, though, it tells a story.
"There are narratives to our buildings, though the information's not literal," says Holland. "The ability to communicate in an ornamental language and be part of the landscape is part of their strength, and the central concern of our work."
Contemporary architecture in its purest form was once a rule-breaker, a symbolic retort to ornamentation. In time, says Holland, it "imposed all sorts of regulations. Now some of us are rebelling against that – by doing what is historically quite an intrinsic part of architecture."
If it isn't exactly a mass movement, individual homeowners are starting to back the revival of artistic embellishment. Richard Woods, a London-based artist and furniture designer best known for his cartoon-like wood-grain prints, a sort of Roy Lichtenstein take on wood siding, says he now does as much exterior work as interior.
In 2008, TV design personalities Cortney and Bob Novogratz commissioned Woods's faux wood for the facade of their Manhattan home. The artist went on to apply his exaggerated red-brick motif – stamped by hand, like a potato-print – to houses in London and Antwerp. And a family in Woodstock, N.Y., asked him to cover their farmhouse in a mock-Tudor treatment. The result takes a page out of the 15th century, as viewed through a kaleidoscope.
Yet however radical it seems, Woods's motivations are non-political. "It's about enjoyment and fun and the feeling you can do things with the place you live," he says.
"I'm not trying to be William Morris. I'm not leading a campaign for a particular type of style. The campaign I'm interested in is for people feeling comfortable playing with their house rather than the kind of austerity that prevents them from living comfortably."
It helps that you don't need particularly deep pockets to amplify your curb appeal. The Italian wallpaper designer Wall & Deco has a new range of digitally printed vinyl wallpapers for residential exteriors in bold geometrics, graphic Bauhaus abstracts, even camouflage. The OUT range (an acronym for Outdoor Unconventional Textures) goes for about $145 a per square metre. Two years ago, the upmarket paint company Farrow & Ball wallpapered the four-storey facade of its New York flagship in the popular "Lotus" print. An exterior range can't be far behind.
What will they think of next? Well, when it came time to repair his corner house in Ottawa, a former convenience store, artist Christopher Griffin took inspiration from an African mud hut, "which had been simply and beautifully decorated using fingers and sticks as carving tools." Because the cost of brick was prohibitive, he coated the exterior walls alternately with antique wood boards and slabs of concrete. Into the concrete he hand-etched cave-like impressions of running deer, underwater scenes and a mural featuring the local raccoons.
"We used to be able to view the street from our second-storey window without catching people's eyes," says Griffin. "Now, however, people are examining the building and we are more on display than before. Like old Victorian homes where you can appreciate the craftsmanship and human skill, people respond to the human touch on an instinctual level."
In Canada, where the extreme weather can make or break a facade, exterior decoration comes with generations of baggage. So architects have to tread lightly. The Toronto boutique firm GH3 has embossed and punched through a series of aged-copper panels for a home in Rosedale that will weather to a rustic effect – in a colour that echoes the masonry familiar in the neighbourhood.
"For us it's not about bringing back decoration," says Pat Hanson, a founding partner in the practice. "There's no question people respond to heritage buildings in quite a different way than to modern ones. We use surface as a way of generating architectural interest – it develops a patina, something that talks to the authenticity of the material.
"It also elicits that emotive quality you get from older buildings."