Architects’ more concrete vocabulary

Part of the magic of language is finding just the right word for a particular need, and architecture is full of such specialized terms.

Joanne Ciccarello
The roof soffit at the Sheep Dog Hollow farmhouse in Connecticut is designed to allow for proper ventilation for the roof tiles.

Last week’s column considered “150 Weird Words That Only Architects Use,” as compiled by the architecture website Archdaily.com.

Some of the buzz around the list suggests that many of these “weird words” are a lexicon of blather that architects use to snow clients and planning boards when they’re seeking approval of a design.

But the list of “weird words” also includes some quite concrete vocabulary: terms such as mullion and muntin and even stylobate.

The language of architecture and construction is full of terms that, while quite simple, are nonetheless rich in metaphorical possibilities: door, window, roof, ceiling, basement – or cellar. Where would sportswriters be if they couldn’t refer to the home team at the bottom of the standings as “cellar dwellers”?

But another type of architectural vocabulary has a different appeal to the lover of words. It’s language that isn’t a source of metaphor; it satisfies by providing just the right word.

When you call someone a “pillar of the community,” you draw on a mental image of an architectural element that supports the weight of a whole structure (and also has a tendency to bulge in the middle, which may also happen to people who have reached the stage in life when they achieve “pillar” status).

But you wouldn’t call someone a “pilaster” of the community. A pilaster is “an upright architectural member,” to quote part of Merriam-Webster’s definition, but rectangular, not round; part of a wall, not free-standing; and often ornamental, not load-bearing.

So what about muntin, mullion, and stylobate? Muntins are the strips that separate panes of glass in a sash. Mullions are vertical strips that separate the windows. Stylobate sounds daunting, but, according to Merriam-Webster, is “a continuous flat coping or pavement supporting a row of architectural columns.” The word has Greek roots, and the underlying metaphor seems to be that of “the path a row of columns walks along.”

Sometimes homeowners don’t realize they even have this or that architectural doodad until the term for it appears on a contractor’s estimate: That’s how soffit got etched into my consciousness, as my neighbors and I arranged for repairs of last winter’s storm damage. Fortunately our modillions didn’t need repair, but I’m glad to know that term, too: It refers to the ornamental brackets under a cornice.

For those who don’t know their astragals from their aedicules, there are a number of visual glossaries available online, including one from the Chicago Architecture Foundation. That’s where I recently learned, among other terms, acroteria, “the pedestal and sculpture at the top and lower sides of a triangular pediment; originally found in ancient Classical buildings,” but in our own day also in such places as Chicago’s postmodern Harold Washington Library Center

Words are tools, and part of the magic of language is finding exactly the right term for a specific thing – like finding just the right tiny Phillips screwdriver to turn a particular tiny screw.

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