Architectural Ornament in Plant Forms

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.

Trees may have played an important role in the development of the Greek temple

5 Responses

  1. I appreciate your comments and look forward to more o future posts,

  2. Tom Lease says:

    Incredibly well researched, well written, and very interesting article. Great job! I learned a lot of new words and new things today. Thank you!

  3. Sally,
    This latest piece is very insightful as to what has been lost by an architectural tradition that devalues ornamentation in favor of abstraction and and purity of form. Architectural critics who speak disdainfully of decoration as a distraction from the power of clean lines and a minimalist aesthetic forget, as you have so precisely demonstrated, the narrative power of ornamentation. If great buildings are those that make us pause and reflect, ornamentation such as you cite in your examples is proof that less is not always more. Architects’ continued aversion to the use of ornament on new buildings is an unfortunate legacy of modernism that seems to persist. These postings help us understand what we are missing when ornamentation is not a taboo aesthetic.

    Thanks again,
    Jay Claiborne

  4. Jay Turnbull says:

    I have enjoyed each part of your text on ornament. What interests me is the care and deliberation that underlie the inclusion of ornament for all but the most recent buildings – there is an interest in composition, in interplay of light and shadow, and in moving from drawing, to sculpture, to final realization. All this points to a system of belief that, sadly, now seems lost. Thank you for reminding us!

  5. Robin Chiang says:

    Hi Sally:

    Thank you for this splendid synopsis on the historic influence of plants in architectural ornament. Now that green architecture is popular wouldn’t it be charming if designers looked once again to plants for inspiration?


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