Architectural Motifs

Architectural motifs are structural or decorative designs and repeating patterns found in the construction of buildings. In music, a motif is a short melodic phrase that reoccurs throughout a song. In works of art, a motif is a noticeable element that appears throughout the work. An architectural motif can be found in the details, or can be the dominant design concept.

Many motifs can be traced to ancient sources. Classical architecture continues to provide inspiration for modern architects. Just as the chords and phrases in classical music are echoed in the jazz standards, the columns and pediments of classical architecture are reflected in modern architecture.

Classic Architectural Motifs


The meander motif is typically found in a decorative border. The meander is formed by a continuously twisting and turning line. It’s named after the Meander River found in modern day Turkey.

Meanders were important symbols in ancient Greece; symbolizing infinity and unity. Some ancient Greek temples incorporated the meandering architectural motif.

Mosaic pavement patterns using the meander motif were found in villas all over the Roman empire.

Blue and white floor tiles with meander motif on the border.
Blue and white floor tiles with meander motif – photo by Vadim Babenko
Meander - Greek key pattern.
Meander – Greek Key pattern on a stove in Bucharest, Romania – Beautiful Buildings Pics, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Example of meander architectural motif found on building in Paris, France.
Example of meander motif found in Paris, France – image by Evergreen68, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The video (below) explains that “ancient Greek motifs can give individual distinction and visual interest to contemporary works. These motifs are useful design resources for today.”

Video – The foundations of Classical Architecture: Motifs and Details


A keystone motif features the classic keystone design of stone arches found in ancient Roman architecture. The keystone is a wedge-shaped stone placed at the very top of a masonry arch.

When a keystone is placed into position, it locks all the other stones in the archway – to keep them from falling or shifting — and allowing the arch to bear weight.

Keystones are a symbol of strength, stability, and quality architecture. Some modern designs utilize the keystone primarily as a decoration, since the keystone is really not needed for the structural integrity of the building.

Architectural motif - 3 doors with rounded arch windows with a large keystone across the top of each door.
Three white doors. Several classic architectural motifs are used in the design of this modern building, including the keystone motif.

Circular Architectural Motifs

Circular Architectural Motif - example - a spiral staircase
A spiral staircase in Stockholm – photo by Ludde Lorentz via UnSplash
White and green tiles - example of mosaic circular architectural motif
White and green tiles – circular motif.
circular pattern - rose window motif
Circular pattern – rose window motif.
circular motif in Hong Kong architecture
Circular motif in Hong Kong architecture

We have only scratched the surface of these concepts. There are many more examples of architectural motifs. See the resource section (below) for links to other examples and tutorials on this topic.

Sources, Resources, and Related Links

  1. Patterns in Art – Motifs can be described as “units of pattern” in architecture and art.
  2. Keystone Motif – The keystone motif is an architectural design pattern found in many ancient and modern buildings.
  3. The Foundations of Classical Architecture (part 3) – Motifs and Details – video lesson
  4. The Roman Arch: Definition, Construction, and History – video lesson
  5. Definition of Motif – Merriam-Webster Dictionary
  7. Free Images – How to find high quality free images for your blog or website

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