Acanthus Leaves

Acanthus: the plant you’ve seen in art more than you’ve seen in real life.

At the top of a Corinthian column (the kind of column found at the Pantheon, the US Capitol Building, a classical bank near you, or pretty much any Greek-inspired building that wants to be taken seriously) you will find carved acanthus leaves. Corinthian column capitals have been ornately carved with the leaves of the acanthus plant since at least 450–420 BCE but the style became popular after the Romans borrowed it (as the Romans borrowed many things from the Greeks).

The acanthus leaf motif has changed over the millennia.

The acanthus plant, and specifically the Acanthus mollis, is an invasive perennial plant that grows around the Mediterranean. Its big toothy leaves can grow to be 20 inches long and when it flowers the stalk can be taller than a person. Historically its big leaves were used to wrap and store food. The salt in the plant helped draw air out of food, serving as a preservative. The acanthus was used medicinally for joint pain and burns, and for reasons that aren’t completely certain it is also called “bear’s breeches.”

The Acanthus mollis in bloom and a close-up of its giant leaves.

As the story goes, the Greek sculptor Callimachus supposedly saw a basket left on the grave of a little girl and acanthus leaves had grow around and weaved their way through the basket. Moved by this he used it as inspiration when he carved the first Corinthian column capital. The curved jagged edges of the leaves work well visually both up-close and far away (such as at the tops of columns).

Over the following millennia the acanthus leaf motif migrated its way around the art world from Corinthian columns to the present day. It’s everywhere. You find it in the 19th century Arts & Crafts patterns of William Morris, it’s in arabesque patterns, in carpets, furniture, wall sconces, lamps, churches, jewelry, clocks, funerary urns, etc. The acanthus is one of, if not the, most artistically represented plants in the world.

Just a few of the ways the acanthus has been used over the years.

Googie Architecture

1950s American suburban sprawl created an architectural movement

The American post-war economy of the 1940s boomed. With this increasing wave of affluence many Americans joined the middle class and subsequently moved to the suburbs. If you were living in the suburbs then you had to drive everywhere and as you flew down the road in your new car, business owners knew they’d better stand-out to be noticed. Enter, Googie Architecture.

If you threw some rocket ships, neon lights, trapezoids, and boomerangs into a 1950s blender, you’d get Googie Architecture. It’s mid-century modern but with a lot of flair. The name comes from a now demolished Hollywood coffee shop called Googies. In 1949 famed architect John Lautner designed the Googies shop with striated lines, odd angles, and in big neon letters “GOOGIES” with eyes in the O’s. Soon other businesses created their own energetic designs, and from the late 1940s through the 1960s it was a architectural arms race for customers’ attention & dollars.

The Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport

Today many Googie buildings are gone, replaced as design trends have changed. The Googie style McDonalds of the ‘50s with giant golden arches & cantilevered roofs, were replaced by the rectangular beige shingle roofed McDonalds of the ‘70s (which were also replaced).

Still, some excellent Googie buildings live on. The Seattle Space Needle, the Theme Building at LAX, the buildings in The Jetsons, the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas Nevada” sign, and more still stand as testaments to a mid-century space-age era where function followed form.

An added bonus: Wildwood, New Jersey is full of Googie architecture, but there it’s referred to as Doo-Wop architecture. Also with the return of American soldiers from the Pacific, 1950s America produced another kitschy architectural style known as Tiki which celebrated an exaggerated/fanciful version of South Seas Polynesian culture.

In Wildwood, NJ, Googie is called Doo-Wop architecture

More on “Less is more”

The idiom “Less is more” is by German-American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. “Less is more” was at the core of his design philosophy.

“Less is more” is about simplicity. It’s that keeping things to the absolute essentials is more effective than including extraneous additional elements.

Mies

Ludiwg Mies van der Rohe was born in Germany in 1886. His architectural career started by apprenticing at various design firms but it was in Berlin in the early 20th century that he gained greater exposure to the new progressive ideas of the age. This gained even more momentum after World War I. People in the Weimar Republic were living in a world of increasing industrialization, fast-paced metropolises, and greater reasons to turn away from traditional views. The old constructs of thinking were from a bygone era that weren’t compatible with the modern industrialized world. It was in this environment that Modernism was born.

Modernism embraced new ways of thinking. As people struggled to find their place in a world broken by the old regime, modernism explored new ways forward. It found it’s way into design, art, literature, philosophy, music, and other fields as experimental new ways that were alternatives/rejections to the rules of the past.

Modernism was at the center of Mies’ architectural thinking and he quickly became a leader in this new school of thought. While serving as the third and final head of the famed Bauhaus design school, Mies realized the political climate in Germany was becoming increasingly hostile and emigrated to the USA in 1937, eventually settling in Chicago. It was in Chicago that he worked the rest of his life creating some of his masterpieces in modernist thought such as the Farnsworth House.

Less is more

His entire approach to architecture stripped designs down to the absolute essentials; removing classical architectural decorative ornamentation entirely. It was from this design philosophy that “Less is more” was born. It was a utilitarian approach where a design is more powerful the less you add. Basically a design is better the less stuff you add to it. Keep it simple.

Ornamentation served no functional purpose so it was omitted. It took Louis Sullivan’s idea that “form follows function” to the extreme. A building’s visual style should take a backseat to its purpose.

While celebrated as a design visionary and as a father of modernism, Mies’ aphorism of “Less is more”  has taken on a life of its own where it is arguably more famous than he is.