Architectural Ornament in Human Forms

The style of the representations of human beings we see most often on 19th century buildings in American cities was based on prototypes from the Classical age of ancient Greece and Rome. The 1925 Exposition des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels in Paris broadened this frame of reference with its exhibits of decorative elements from around the world. Exotic vocabularies of ornament found through archaeological discoveries such as Tutankhamen’s tomb in Egypt in 1925 and the contemporary excavations in Mesoamerica that revealed the Mayan art forms, were widely published. Egyptian and Mayan reliefs and paintings rendered their subjects in more linear, less naturalistic styles, and these influenced fashion as well as pictorial and sculptural styles.

Art Deco Woman on the Pacific Coast Stock Exchange building

The muscular woman raising her arm to allow a miniature steam engine to pass underneath it is rendered in the Art Deco style used in the design of the 1930 Pacific Stock Exchange Club by Miller and Pfleuger.  The emblematic use of transportation and other man-made energy systems was also a sign of modern times. Humankind’s dedication to unleashing nature’s energy was often portrayed by rendering people as embodiments of energy. The figures flanking the entrance shown below merge with the radiating lines of force that they strain to harness of release.

Energy unleashed at 1220 Noe Street

The female figures shown below are located above the colonnade of Bernard Maybeck’s Palace of Fine Arts, which he designed for the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. Instead of facing outward, Maybeck’s women turn their backs on the world and appear to be brooding into coffin-like planters that never contained plants, although that was his intention. By his own account, Maybeck thought that the fine arts had a melancholy tone so he designed the women and the monumental urns to create a pensive mood.

Palace of Fine Arts, Panama Pacific International Exposition, 1915

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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