Sunday, June 30, 2013

Architectural Word of the Day; 1 - 10


A capital is the uppermost termination or 'head' of a column. Unsurprisingly, our English word “capital”

directly derives from the Latin ‘caput’ simply meaning ‘head’.

Many of our apparently abstract architectural terms in English are anglicized French, Latin and Greek words. As with our initial example of ‘capital’ we’re going to explore how so many of these terms are nothing more than everyday words used as a metaphor for what an architectural element visually resembles or what function it holds.


Sounds so exotic, right? Well it’s just what it looks like. In ancient Greece they called it ‘bous’ (βοῦς) meaning ‘ox’, ‘kranion’ (κρανίον) meaning ‘skull’. Yep, just plain old ox-skulls.

The reason this became an important motif for the Greeks in temple architecture stems from religious ceremonies that included sacrifices of oxen to the gods. Early on they used to actually mount the sacrificial skulls but eventually the stylization of the ‘bucranium’ was carved in relief directly into the frieze of the temple.


When it came to architecture the Greeks and Romans had style…and it usually came in groups of 4, 6, 8 or


What do I mean by that? The ancient Greek word ‘stylos’ (στῦλος) meant column or pillar. For example a temple front that had 6 columns in front would have been called ‘hexastyle’ or six column temple. The image attached is an example we all recognize of a ‘tetrastyle’ or four column portico.


This term used to described a deeply sunken ceiling panel has its origin in an everyday item it resembles. The ancient Greek word ‘kophinos’ (κόφινος) refers to a common basket.

Notice the stylized flowers filling the ‘baskets’ of this coffered dome.


Characterized by the large, sprial volutes this style became fully developed in Greek Ionia, modern day
beautiful rendering by Steve Shriver
Turkey. In Greek mythology, Ion was the progeny of Apollo and often temples prominently featuring Ionic designs were dedicated to him.

However, the origins of the Ionic go back further east to Mesopotamia, Persia and the Indus Valley. For example, the Torah indicates that Noah’s grandson, ‘Javan’ (the Hebrew variant of Ion), was the forefather of the Greek people.


The pediment is typically the dominant feature of a façade surmounting a row of columns or crowning a door or window.

Although there are many variations the oldest and most common shape forms a triangular gable. The name 'pediment' is thought to be a mispronunciation of 'periment', itself an alteration of the Egyptian 'pyramid' whose shape it resembles. 


Of singularly English origin, fan vaulting in stone is a development of the third and last period of Gothic architecture, the Perpendicular. The earliest extant example may be found in Gloucester Cathedral, circa 1351.

It would later be emulated in Gothic Revival architecture as a purely decorative ‘fan tracery’ of ceilings in plaster. The 1852 renovation of the ceiling of the Unitarian Church in Charleston, South Carolina is a great American example.


For the Greeks ‘doma’ (δωμα) simply meant a domestic ‘house’. However, with the spread of Christianity

basilicas with a resident bishop came to known as the Lord’s house, abbreviated to ‘duomo’ in the vernacular Italian.

Sometime in the 17th century, the English modified ‘duomo’ to describe the ‘cupola’ crowning many of these prominent Italian basilicas.


This is the stone that lies at the apex of a masonry arch. It must be angled, wedge shaped to receive the opposing stresses for the arch not to collapse.

As this is a natural focal point such as for the arched entrance to a building the keystone is often beautifully decorated with a motif that carries meaning for the owner or institution.


The term ‘architrave’ has a divided heritage. The prefix, ‘archi-’ indicates that what follows is of great importance. A Greek leader was titled an ‘archon’ (ἄρχων) to denote his primary status.

‘Trabem’ on the other hand was the Latin word for ‘beam or timber’. Thus an ‘architrave’ is the great beam resting atop the columns and the primary support for the roof above. 

Contributed by Patrick Webb  

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