Spring 2002

A Common Architectural Decorative Motif in the Temperate Mesophytic Region: Rubus Armeniacus

The possibility of the blackberry

Office for Soft Architecture

Stain of rubus in form best known to us.

The secret of improved plant breeding, apart from scientific knowledge, is Love.
—Luther Burbank

Illegitimate, superfluous, this difficult genus of frost-tolerant hermaphrodites seems capable of swallowing barns. It propagates asexually. Purplish thumb-thick stems nudge forth several feet per year. Thorns enable the plant to climb. Last year’s shoot with inflorescences, this year’s shoot with leaves.

In Species Plantarum (1753), Linnaeus identified two European species of rubus within the large, five-petal Rosa famil , thus beginning one of taxonomy’s largest fields of study—Batology. He described rubus as polygynic: “twenty males, many females.”

Our own relation to rubus has been as jam makers rather than batologists. The sweet, plump drupelets of the Rubus armeniacus, or Himalayan blackberry, grow free and copious in lesser-groomed residential alleyways, vacant lots, chain-linked sites of abandoned factories, and similarly disturbed landscapes of our city. Environment Canada classifies this non-native introduced taxon as “minor invasive alien.” It makes tasty, if somewhat seedy, pie.

In late 19th-century America, rubus enthusiasm was a faddish adjunct to horticultural orientalism—the identification and importation of Chinese brambles enriched the picturesque aspect of shrubberies, pergolas, and pleasure grounds. Our favorite blackberry was introduced to this continent by the Californian entrepreneurial horticulturalist Luther Burbank in 1885. Burbank approached botanical hybridization using mass production methods. He sought novelty, hardiness, and yield; each taxon was a potential product. He selected this new bramble import, purportedly “Himalayan”(now proven by chromosome-counting taxonomic technologies to be European in origin) for its exuberant productivity, subjecting the alien taxon to rigorous hybridization. By crossing it with a pale indigenous bramble, Burbank would make a seemingly bleached fruit, wonder of plantsmen, “the white blackberry,” almost disproving his own pantheistic claim that “the human will is a weak thing beside the will of a plant.”

The Himalayan blackberry escaped. The plant’s swift rhetorical trajectory from aestheticized exotic to naturalized species to invasive alien, all the while concealing a spurious origin myth, displays a typically hackneyed horticultural anthropomorphism.

Rubus’s habits are also democratic. In Fordist fashion it maximized distribution through the temperate mesophytic forest region; that is, from California, up the Northwest coast as far as southwestern British Columbia, and inland to Montana. But what we have come to appreciate most about this rubus, apart from the steady supply of jam, is its bracingly peri-modern tendency to garnish and swag and garland any built surface it encounters. In fact, the Himalayan blackberry insistently makes new hybrid architectures, weighing the ridgepoles of previously sturdy home garages and sheds into swaybacked grottoes, transforming chainlink and barbed wire to undulant, green fruiting walls, and sculpting from abandoned cement pilings Wordsworthian abbeys. We, too, are fascinated by its morphological lust.

After some study the Office for Soft Architecture reached the opinion that our alien is the dystopian epitome of the romance of botanical pattern as applied architectural decoration. To illustrate our opinion we’ll lead the reader through a picturesque landscape of quoted fragments. We’ll pursue an etymology of ornament, following the rubus runner back to the screen memory of the 19th century.

If architecture is entombed structure, or thanatos, ornament is the frontier of the surface. It is at the surface where lively variablility takes place. The architect Gottfried Semper said of Cuvier’s display of comparative anatomy at Le Jardin des Plantes, “We see progressing nature, with all its variety and immense richness, most sparing and economical in its fundamental forms and motives. We see the same skeleton repeating itself continuously but with innumerable variations.” The Office for Soft Architecture finds the chaos of variation beautiful. We believe that structure or fundament itself, in its inert eternity, has already been adequately documented—the same skeleton repeating itself continuously. We are grateful for these memorial documents. But the chaos of surfaces compels us toward new states of happiness. We concur with John Ruskin, who in The Stones of Venice, stated:

We have no more to do with heavy stones and hard lines; we are going to be happy: to look round in the world and discover (in a serious manner always however, and under a sense of responsibility) what we like best in it, and to enjoy the same at our leisure: to gather it, examine it, fasten all we can of it into perishable forms, and put it where we may see it for ever.

This is to decorate architecture.

Yes. For Ruskin, foliage, flowers, and fruit, “intended for our gathering, and for our constant delight” are paradisial decorative motifs. And paradise has room for both parts of binary Man: “The intelligent part of man being eminently, if not chiefly, displayed in the structure of his work, his affectionate part is to be displayed in its decoration.” Although Ruskin insisted on the balance of intelligent and affective tectonics, he defined balance as an orderly subordination of decoration to structure. Finally he preferred to govern ornament. (It would be gentler to say that Ruskin’s delight unconsciously mirrored taxonomic systems of subordination.) Gottfried Semper, however, proposed a four-part unsubordinated architectural topology, where surface was in a non-hierarchical dynamic relationship with molded plasticity, a framework of resistance, and foundational qualities. The transience and non-essential quality of the surface did not lessen its topological value. Architectural skin, with its varieties of ornament, was specifically inflected with the role of representing ways of daily living, gestural difference, and plenitude. Superficies, whether woven, pigmented, glazed, plastered, or carved, receive and are formed from contingent gesture. Skins express gorgeous corporal transience. Ornament is the decoration of mortality. Nor did Cuvier participate in the subordination of surface to structure. For him, sheer variability kept the surface in vibrant dialectic with structural essence:

We find more numerous varieties in measure as we depart from the principal organs and as we approach those of less importance; and when we arrive at the surface where the nature of things places the least essential parts—whose lesion would be the least dangerous—the number of varieties becomes so considerable that all the work of the naturalists has not yet been able to form any one sound idea on it.

We are Naturalists of the inessential. Our work will never end. In the researches of Semper, Cuvier, Ruskin, and Rubus, we recognize the dialectic that we believe continues to structure architectural knowledge: Modification vs. Frugality. Enough of the Least. The limitless modification of the skin is different from modernization – surface morphologies, as rubus shows, include decay, blanketing and smothering, dissolution and penetration, and pendulous swagging and draping as well as proliferative growth, all in contexts of environmental disturbance and contingency rather than fantasized balance.

Rubus armeniacus is an exemplary decoration, a nutritious ornament that clandestinely modifies infrastructural morphology. Here, affect invades the center. Rubus puns upon the proprietous subordination of affective expenditure to intelligence. Tracing a mortal palimpsest of potential surfaces in acutely compromised situations, rubus shows us how to invent. This is the serious calling of style.

The Vancouver-based Office for Soft Architecture concerns itself with documenting civic spuriousness. A walk and a site report appear in the current issue of Arcade (Seattle). “Spatial Synthetics: a Theory” can be accessed online at www.jacket.zip.com.au/jacket14/robertson-lisa.html [link defunct—Eds.].

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