The Botany of Architecture

Blogger: Maggie Moros, Digital Communications Manager | Princeton, NJ, USA
August 15, 2011

In The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan explores the mutually beneficial relationship between humans and plants. Much as flowering plants began producing nectar to entice honey bees to spread their pollen, Pollan theorizes that plants have manipulated humans to spread their genetics, evolving to become valuable to humans as sources of food, medicine, beauty, or a delicious vanilla latte.

The chapter I’m reading now describes the tulip, which has enjoyed great popularity in the past with the Dutch, French, and Turkish (and me), and continues to thrive around the world as a florist’s staple.

Pollan observes that the tulip stands apart from most flowering plants in what he describes as its Apollonian beauty (from the Greek god Apollo, who represents harmony, order, and reason) which contrasts the Dionysian beauty of many flowers (from Dionysus, the Greek god of ecstasy, madness, and abandon), exemplified in the rose.

The tulip has no smell and no special texture, soliciting only a visual response. Its structure is logical, precise: two long leaves, a long sloping stem, six colorful petals protecting six delicate stamens. When describing the arc of the tulip’s stem, Pollan says the stalk evokes the functional beauty of a suspension bridge.

The rose, by contrast, grows in thorny, tangled bushes or vines that climb in (seemingly) random patterns. It is a beautiful mess of silky petals: its smell sweet, its bloom sensual. It invites you to touch it, to pull it to your face and breathe in deep, to indulge in a moment of euphoria. (recall the film American Beauty)

When it comes to architecture, I think of engineers as Apollo and architects as Dionysus (contractors are, of course, Hephaestus). Good architecture must be Apollonian: the building must do its job cleanly, thoughtfully, dutifully. But great architecture does something more than just fulfill the function of the building; great architecture is Dionysian. It produces a strong emotional response in its visitors: delight, jealousy, comfort, warmth, awe, inspiration. Buildings that illicit no emotion are merely feats of engineering. However, without that strong, responsible core—without Apollo—all the inspiration of Dionysus would collapse into a pile of rubble. Apollo and Dionysus must work together.

And then there’s Hephaestus, saying, “Great, but how do I build this thing?” But that’s another story.

Image —Flickr CC: BotheredByBees

Reader Comments (9)

I found this article to be both informative and entertaining.  Very well written.

I appreciate the use of the Oxford comma.  Proper punctuation is what separates us from the animals.

What a graceful transition between Pollan's book on botany (which I now want to read) and architecture -- using Apollo and Dionysus as antipodes. How cool is that! Thank you for reminding us that to realize architctural design, it takes all kinds, working together.

I was certain that classical references had been entirely replaced by pop culture references to Seinfeld and the Simpsons. I stand happily corrected to find that classical archetypes are still with us, in writing and in architecture.

Love flowers, love to read about them when the parallels are so creative.  Even love that the book author's name is "Pollan."

I didn't know everyone DIDN'T use the Oxford comma - what is this country coming to?

I'm embarrased to admit that I'm not as well versed in joining a conversation when the topic is about literature; I much rather watch the movie version (...what can I say - I'm a visual kind of guy). Your post stimulated my interest in how you compared architects, engineers and contractors not only to flowers, but also to Classical Greek gods as well. Now I can't stop looking at the contractors at the jobsite without thinking they're all wearing olive wreaths on their heads...

This post is AWE to the SOME. Flowers, Greek gods and architecture. What more could you ask for?

What a great post!! Informative and entretaining.

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