Architectural Ornament in Human Forms

Do buildings speak to us when we pass them on the street? If so, what do they talk about, and what language do they use?

Like humans, buildings talk about themselves, but architectural detail, or ornament, once so common, is no longer used around doors and windows, sections of walls inside and out, ceilings, etc., or even understood. Modernism replaced ornament with a different vocabulary of details involving straight lines, right angles, and clean edges. Still, since we admire buildings from the time when ornament was popular, it seems that revealing the meaning of decorative motifs would broaden our understanding of what they are trying to tell us and increase out pleasure in passing by them. They contribute to the urban texture of our cities.

Architectural Ornament Collage by Sally Woodbridge

The collage above is composed of details of well known buildings in San Francisco, which you may not recognize because. as fragments taken out of context, they don’t really belong together. Their locations are indicated by numbers; some may be neighbors.

But what is architectural detail? The word “detail” is rooted in the French word “tailler,” “to cut” plus the “de,” which means “apart.” So details are small, secondary, or accessory parts of larger things. Ornamental details such as wreaths, garlands of fruit and flowers, medallions with humans heads, continuous bands of waves or chevrons, lion heads, scrolled leaves, and varied moldings do not appear randomly on buildings; they are deliberately placed. They mark the location of floors, define edges, and call attention to windows and doors.

The design of buildings has much in common with that of clothes. The holes cut in fabric for the head, arms, and legs have always offered opportunities for decoration. The various approaches to cutting cloth, making seams and finishing edges have helped to create distinctive styles. In both clothing and architecture the pendulum of fashion swings back and forth between the lavish and the simple. Indeed, it seems that human beings are driven to ornamenting whatever they design and produce.

Before written characters morphed into signs that represent sounds, much early writing was pictorial. Today we have logos, short for logograms, that are modern, often decorative, hieroglyphs. The $ sign is perhaps our most familiar symbol. Many motifs used in architectural ornament are highly compressed visual abstractions like logos that would take up too much space if they were fully explained.

Despite the many learned histories of architectural ornament, new theories about its origin and use continue to appear. Many ornamental motifs we see, for example, on older buildings of our commercial centers were originally symbolic, but their meanings have been lost and the loss of meaning has rendered them mute.

However, the public’s interest in buildings that have the kind of small scale detail and texture that were familiar features of the discontinued historic styles has grown. Were these forms created simply to delight our senses or do they express aspects of the buildings’ structure and its purpose? Or did the use of humans, animals, flowers, fruit, and scenes have a didactic purpose?

This article is not intended to be another learned history of architectural ornament. Its purpose is to provide a context for increasing our appreciation of the buildings that furnish out urban environment.

The text is divided into the following chapters:

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

4 Responses

  1. Elizabeth Meyer says:

    Thank you Sally for this illuminating piece, and for the welcomed reminder to look up and ponder not just the beauty but also the meaning of our built environment. I look forward to my next trip downtown – will definitely have this essay in mind as I keep an eye out for these stone and concrete urban inhabitants.

    And I look forward to your next chapter!

  2. John Ware says:

    A wonderful insight into our urban built texture. So helpful to understand details as meaningful expression of the culture and time that they were built. As modernists we appreciate the function and form of details, but we would be ungrounded without the context and meaning provided by the past.

  3. A brilliant introductory essay and a much overdue topic to be explored by one who has walked the walk! Particularly appropos as places begin to tire of ornament-less architecture and promote its return as “civic art” which tends to be devoid of narrative and often unrelated to location and context. I will be compulsively returning to the site to read the next “chapter.”

    Jay Claiborne

  4. Dan Gregory says:

    A marvelous exploration/explanation of architectural ornament — like a sort of “Tales of the City” in stone and terra cotta! I leaned a lot and especially liked this description of the support figures:

    “Their contorted faces and postures express the discomfort they experience because of their predicament.”

    I want to link to this in one of my own future posts…

    Many thanks.

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