Architectural Ornament in Plant Forms


As for flowers, the rose has symbolized perfection in many cultures. The architectural ornament called a rosette is a flower with a varied number of petals that resembles other flowers. The rosette was used singly and in series. Bosses in the form of rosettes, also called paterae were used to cover bolts, nails, and awkward or unsightly joinery. In such cases its symbolism would not have mattered. As with the lily, which was turned into a trefoil and a quatrefoil, its decorative possibilities were more important than its meaning.

Flowers were sometimes exaggerated as is the case with this band of outsized posies on the tower of the Queen Anne house at 2007 Franklin Street, the location of the San Francisco Architectural Heritage Foundation. These are generic flowers; their purpose was to enliven the band’s surface in the same way that an ornate belt adorns a garment.

Ornament made by sawing flat boards was another way of creating abstract patterns that could be applied to building walls as shown below.

Flat-sawn floral ornament on a residence at 2255 Pine Street

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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