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Architectural Ornament in Plant Forms

by LiveModern Webmaster last modified Feb 17, 2012 01:05 AM
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by Sally B. Woodbridge last modified Feb 14, 2012

When used as ornament in western architecture plants have generally been rendered naturalistically as if they grew on the buildings they adorned.



When used as ornament in western architecture plants have generally been rendered naturalistically as if they grew on the buildings they adorned, as shown in the example below.

This frieze of acanthus leaves is on a building at 330 Sansome Street.

Plants are not just the low-lying vegetation that we may grow in gardens, arrange in a vase, or eat. Trees are also plants, and it has been suggested that they played an important role in the evolution of the much admired Greek temples of classical antiquity. Theoretically, those temples began as altars set in groves of trees that were perhaps roped off  and roofed to indicate a sacred precinct.

The trees may also have been adorned with the fruits and flowers of the harvest or with the physical remains of the sacrificial fowl and animals produced by the harvest. Battle trophies replicating the armor of slaughtered enemies might be hung from the trees as symbols of victory.

The familiar "egg and dart" motif might have been derived from sacrificial remains.

Evidence of sacrificial rites such as the beaks and claws of birds shown above may have been hung from tree branches along with the many small bones of the sacrificed creatures strung together on ropes with votive tablets and other paraphernalia assembled to invoke the divinity. Our Christmas tree continues the originally pagan practice of honoring trees associated with sacred events.

Temples made of wood, none of which survive, were the likely predecessors of stone temples. Vitruvius, the Roman writer from whom we have gained much of our knowledge of Greek building practices, theorized that posts made from tree trunks became stone columns. The columns supported the horizontal superstructure called the entablature, which was originally a series of wood beams that, in turn, supported the roof. The absence of arches in Greek temples may indicate that the Greeks did not explore the structural possibilities of stone because they valued its durability more.

The frieze of a Doric temple is composed of alternating triglyphs and metopes. The three vertical parts of the triglyphs are thought to have been wooden strips used to disguise or protect the rough-cut ends of the ceiling beams. Translated into stone and no longer structurally necessary, such motifs served both as reminders of former construction methods and as ways to create a pattern of light and shadow to delight the eye.

The rules that governed the architecture of temples were culled from famous examples in Greece. Roman builders grafted Greek forms on to such important buildings in Rome as the Colosseum as a way of increasing the prestige of their new culture. Centuries later, Thomas Jefferson used the Roman temple form to validate the fledgling republic of the United States. To promote confidence in the stability of the country’s civic and commercial buildings, Americans applied temple fronts to government buildings, banks, and other important commercial structures. Viewed as a kit-of-parts, the neo-classical buildings used borrowed structure and useful symbols to bridge the cultural gap between our new country and the ancient western world.


The gods were often identified with trees–the oak with Zeus, the laurel with Apollo, myrtle with Aphrodite, and so on. With its roots below ground and its  branches lifted to the sky, trees linked the earthly plane of human experience to the those of the underworld and the heavens.

However, the Greeks did not originate tree worship. In ancient China, shrines to divinities were often installed at the roots of trees remarkable for their size and beauty. The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil figured prominently in the Garden of Eden and was also an essential component of paradise in Sumerian, Persian, Hindu, Chinese, and Japanese cultures.

A version of the Tree of Life, designed in a Mayanesque style, rises above the entrance to the Medical/Dentil Building at 450 Sutter Street

The trees native to lands of the ancient world were a popular source of  ornament. The evergreen laurel or bay tree signified honor and victory as well as renewal and resurrection. Its leaves and berries, were woven into decorative wreaths like the one in the drawing below.

The oak leaf and acorn were also popular, but the acanthus was by far the most ubiquitous plant in the Classical vocabulary of ornament. The fame of the acanthus may have originated in a Greek legend, which tells of a young woman from the city of Corinth who died just before her marriage. After her burial her nurse gathered up some of her favorite possessions and put them in a basket, which she placed on the maiden’s grave as a memorial. She covered the basket’s top with a tile to weigh it down and keep out the rain.

But the basket rested on top of an acanthus root which, struggling to grow, pushed its tendrils out from under the basket. In time, the leaves curled around the base of the basket and under the tile lid. The legend’s end featured the architect Callimachus being inspired by the resulting composition to design the famous column capital we have labeled Corinthian, which comes in a variety of forms, as shown below in the drawing of  a stack of Corinthian capitals.

The only verified part of the legend is that Callimachus was a real person mentioned by the Roman writer Pliny and the Greek traveler, Pausanias, as a builder of monuments in Corinth. He was also known for his bronze castings and may have replicated the acanthus leaves in his work.


As for flowers, the rose has symbolized perfection in many cultures. The architectural ornament called a rosette is a flower with a varied number of petals that resembles other flowers. The rosette was used singly and in series. Bosses in the form of rosettes, also called paterae were used to cover bolts, nails, and awkward or unsightly joinery. In such cases its symbolism would not have mattered. As with the lily, which was turned into a trefoil and a quatrefoil, its decorative possibilities were more important than its meaning.

Flowers were sometimes exaggerated as is the case with this band of outsized posies on the tower of the Queen Anne house at 2007 Franklin Street, the location of the San Francisco Architectural Heritage Foundation. These are generic flowers; their purpose was to enliven the band’s surface in the same way that an ornate belt adorns a garment.

Ornament made by sawing flat boards was another way of creating abstract patterns that could be applied to building walls as shown below.

Flat-sawn floral ornament on a residence at 2255 Pine Street

By and by, the rules were set aside in favor of the excitement of ornamentation itself as is illustrated below by the surface treatment of the columns imbedded in a wall to which they have no structural relation.

The last image, below, shows a frieze and a lighting fixture adorned with fruits and foliage, which embellish the City Hall of Oakland. The image recalls the  primeval temple draped with the bounty of the harvest which we conjured at the beginning of this article. Thus, Oakland’s City Hall testifies to the vitality of ancient customs by being adorned with vines laden with grapes and other fruits that symbolize California’s agriculture.

The text is divided into the following chapters:

  4. PLANT FORMS, and the most decorated features of buildings:



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