Architectural Ornament in Human Forms

Hermes was also honored by Greek shepherds in Arcadia, the mythical home of Pan. They sought his protection by piling up stones outside their houses as resting places for his restless spirit. In time these heaps of stones marked routes for travelers. They evolved into steles, stone shafts, that were often capped with Hermes’s head or torso. “Herms”, as they were called, were attached to buildings as column-like supports also called atlantes;  they have heads and torsos, but turn into architectural elements at their midsections.

Above and below: Hearst Memorial Mining Building, University of California, Berkeley. Sculpture by Robert Aitken.

Hearst Memorial Mining Building, University of California, Berkeley.

Left: 1347 McAllister St. Right: San Francisco City Hall, Van Ness Avenue side

Atlantes are related to Atlas, the Titan whom Zeus sentenced to forever support the heavens because he had joined a revolt against the gods. They appear here as fragments of muscular humans who wearily hold up roof cornices, balconies, etc. Their contorted faces and postures express the discomfort they experience because of their predicament.

50 Golden Gate Avenue

Whatever the origin of the enslavement of humans to architecture, the public exhibition of prisoners of war and miscreants bound or chained to structures was a common practice in many cultures.

1000 Van Ness Avenue

Malevolent spirits permanently subdued by architectural bondage often appear in the nooks and crannies of buildings. Their stony pain seems quite real.

Several types of detached heads appear on the keystones of arches, peering out from under balconies and roofs, or as parts of  friezes. They are often bearded males whose faces have curling locks that merge with plant tendrils. This kind of ornament was labeled “grotesque.”

2004 Gough Street

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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