Architectural Ornament in Plant Forms


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.

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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