Built To Last: Architectural Parlance

The right words are the foundation for understanding a subject. These architectural terms will help you construct a monumental vocabulary!

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definitions & notes only words
  1. aisle
    a long narrow passage (as in a cave or woods)
    Christian described how, before the pandemic, she’d pop in at her local Family Dollar discount store from time to time and prowl the aisles in search of knickknacks and other impulse purchases.
    Ala means "wing" in Latin, and that word was first applied to architecture in Medieval churches, referring to the long, open spaces on either side of the nave.
  2. arch
    a curved masonry construction for spanning an opening
    Columns frame the porte-cochere entry, leading into window-lined living spaces with arched doorways, hardwood finishes and floors of tile and carpet.
  3. atrium
    a chamber connected to other chambers or passageways
    At the Museum of Modern Art in New York, she sat perfectly still in the atrium, six days a week, for months.
    An atrium was the entry hall of a Roman domus, or house.
  4. buttress
    a support usually of stone or brick
    The vault is punctured by three gaping holes, and the flying buttresses are propped up by giant wooden blocks.
    The most famous examples in architectural history are the tall, elegant "flying buttresses" seen in the great French Gothic cathedrals.
  5. canopy
    cover with a roof to shelter an area from the weather
    A simple example, if we cross the plaza and look at the gray mosaic ceiling of the entry canopy and the lobby, you see how Seagram sets up a kind of hierarchy of materials.
  6. cantilever
    a projecting horizontal beam fixed at one end only
    We simply want to arrange our party guests on these spectacular suspended cantilevered block marble stairs and admire how shabby all of them look when they’re surrounded by Drake’s Rafauli chandeliers, a.k.a. awesome all-occasion decorations.
  7. coffer
    an ornamental sunken panel in a ceiling or dome
    Beamed ceilings hang over the formal living room, and custom coffers top the marble-washed kitchen.
    A coffer is a strong box for keeping money or valuables, and the word comes from the Greek word kophinos, "basket," that's also the root of coffin. In architecture, coffers are recessed squares used to decorate the surface of a ceiling. The most famous coffered ceiling in the world might be the dome of the Pantheon in Rome.
  8. column
    a tall vertical cylindrical structure standing upright
    Painted clinical white, its living quarters are suspended on columns above the germ-ridden earth below.
  9. cornice
    the topmost projecting part of an entablature
    The house’s architectural details reflect a Greek Revival style, most notably the cornice.
  10. crypt
    a cellar or vault or underground burial chamber
    A candle is traditionally lit with the Holy Fire in the crypt of the Holy Sepulchre by Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III, to symbolise the resurrection of Jesus.
    In Greek, kryptos means "hidden." In old churches, rooms and passages below ground were often used for interring the bodies of priests, monks, and other members of the clergy.
  11. cupola
    a roof or part of a roof in the form of a dome
    The cupola dome atop the former Nazareth motherhouse in Kalamazoo was removed Dec. 19, and remains wrapped up in front of the debris.
    A cupula is the Latin word for a small cask, which also referred to domes of similar shape.
  12. dormer
    a gabled extension built out from a sloping roof
    Upstairs, there’s a loft with two dormer nooks and a master suite with a marble bathroom and private balcony.
  13. eaves
    the overhang at the lower edge of a roof
    Its subtle curves also echo the Jiangnan-style eaves of the area’s ancient vernacular.
  14. facade
    the front of a building
    On one recent humid afternoon, a few hundred feet from Frenchman Street, the distinguished vibrato of a single violin reverberated off wrought-iron balconies and the wooden facades of shotgun homes.
    Faccia means "face" in Italian, which became façade in French. It's the technical term for a building's front side, and can also be used to describe something that's fake, or only for appearances, like a movie set where there aren't any real buildings, just a row of facades to make the set look like a city street.
  15. gable
    the triangular wall between the sloping ends of a roof
    Set on half an acre, the English transitional-style house charms with its matching roof gables, arched front door and picture windows.
  16. gargoyle
    an ornament consisting of a grotesquely carved figure
    The story centers on Lyra Belacqua, an orphan living at Jordan College in a parallel-world Oxford, in which zeppelins float and the gargoyles represent animal daemons.
    Gargouille is an Old French word for "throat," and it comes from the same root as our word gargle.
  17. grotto
    a small cave, usually with attractive features
    Outside, lawns and patios surround a resort-like pool with a waterfall, slide and grotto.
    Grotto, Italian for "cave" or "cavern," actually comes from the same root as crypt, above. If something is grotesque, that shares the same origin: something ugly or strange that looks like it lives in a cave.
  18. lintel
    a horizontal beam over a door or window
    Wheeler’s colleagues found them carved into woodwork, on beams, lintels, and hearths.
  19. minaret
    a slender tower with balconies, especially on a mosque
    The muezzin climbs the minaret at prayer time and sings, unamplified, over the Medina.
    Manara is the Arabic word for "lighthouse."
  20. nave
    the central area of a church
    We saw a dancer giving an impromptu performance in the nave of a church.
  21. niche
    a small concavity
    Those relationships are as bewildering as Santo Loquasto’s floor plan for the vast library, complete with endless niches and nooks, of the Fifth Avenue apartment in which the play is set.
  22. parapet
    a low wall along the edge of a roof or balcony
    Below the bow, the Assyrian wall, as the building’s facade is called, is decorated with shimmering gold pillars topped with parapets outlined in white lights.
    Parapet is a Middle French word meaning "fortification."
  23. pavilion
    a large and often sumptuous tent
    The nation’s public lands range from urban parks with roller-skating pavilions to iconic and popular venues for hiking, sightseeing, biking, hunting, fishing and other recreational activities.
  24. pier
    a vertical supporting structure
    Crash walls are designed to absorb the forces of a derailed train to protect nearby facilities and structures, such as piers that hold up bridges carrying traffic over the tracks.
  25. plinth
    an architectural support or base, as for a column or statue
    The slabs, called plinths, are supposed to be tightly anchored, using steel reinforcements called rebar, to a platform beneath the tracks.
    Plinthos is an Ancient Greek word meaning "square brick or stone," and "the base of a column."
  26. portcullis
    an iron or wooden grating hanging in the entry to a castle
    No moat, unfortunately, but of course the gate shut and the portcullis down.
  27. portico
    porch or entrance to a building consisting of a covered area
    Beyond the front portico is a formal entry leading to dining, living and family rooms as well as a kitchen outfitted with an island and a wine fridge.
    The port- in portico is the same as in portcullis, above: from the Latin porta, meaning "door."
  28. spire
    a tall tower that forms the superstructure of a building
    But construction was halted for weeks last summer because of concerns over lead contamination from the damaged roof and spire.
  29. turret
    a small tower extending above a building
    Hazel drew a tiny fort in the middle of the page—an austere palace framed by four tall turrets.
    Tour is French for "tower." A tourette is a "little tower."
  30. vault
    an arched brick or stone ceiling or roof
    The vault is punctured by three gaping holes, and the flying buttresses are propped up by giant wooden blocks.
  31. ziggurat
    a rectangular tiered temple or terraced mound
    At the extremities, the ziggurats descend from their maximum height of 12 storeys to four, reflecting the surrounding scale of suburban villas.
    Ziggurat is an Assyrian word meaning "height," pinnacle," or "temple tower."
Created on January 14, 2020 (updated May 5, 2020)

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