Tuesday, April 10, 2018


Frieze blocks, not freeze blocks.
With its many odd and esoteric terms, the language of architecture seems forever doomed to misuse—not just by lay people, but by professionals as well. For instance, I recently saw a set of blueprints that called for the installation of “freeze blocks”.  After puzzling over this for some time, it dawned on me that the architect meant “frieze” in the Greek sense—as in, “an ornamented band on a building." 

 Not that I’m infallible or anything. In my newspaper column many years ago, I once dozingly suggested using “doors with opaque glass” to brighten dark rooms without sacrificing privacy. Privacy, indeed: An alert reader gently reminded me that “opaque” means "impervious to light.”  The word I wanted, of course, was “translucent.”   
A pocket door. Why?
Because it slides into a pocket
in the wall.

For the inveterate lexophiles among you, I thought I’d set out some of the most frequently misused architectural terms and try to clarify their meanings.  

•  Cement/concrete. This is one of the most misused word pairs of all time. Cement refers exclusively to a fine powder that hardens when you mix it with water. Concrete—a mixture of sand and aggregate all held together by cement—is the familiar stuff foundations and patios are made of.    

•  Contemporary. Back in the 50s and 60s, the stylistic term “contemporary” was more or less synonymous with “Modernist,” since traditional architecture was on the skids back then.  Today, however, contemporary could just as well mean traditional, since the word itself only refers to whatever style is in fashion at the moment.

•  Sliding door/pocket door. Lots of people use the term “sliding door” to refer to a closet door that slides on a track, or to an interior door that disappears into a wall. Strictly speaking, though, the first type is called a “bypassing door”, and the second a “pocket door”.  A sliding door is the glass kind that leads out to the patio.

An honest-to-goodness Palladian window.
•  Wall/partition. This one’s simple: a wall is a wall if it’s on the exterior of a house; it’s a partition if it’s on the interior. In general, every wall is a bearing wall, but not every partition is a bearing partition. Huh?

•  Palladian/palladium. A perennial goof in real estate ads. The term Palladian refers to a very specific window type named for the 16th-century architect Andrea Palladio. It’s divided into three parts, with a half-round “lunette” topping the center section—nothing more, nothing less. Realtors, please note: a single window with a half-round top isn’t Palladian, nor is a plain window divided into three parts.  Oh, and palladium?  That’s a rust-resistant metal, among other things.    
The part that moves is the sash;
the skinny dividers are muntins;
the pieces of glass are lites.

•  Mullion/muntin. A mullion is a relatively heavy vertical or horizontal member that divides individual window units—the familiar post between a pair of double-hung windows, for example. Muntins are the narrow members that divide the glass area itself into panes—what many window makers now call “true divided lites”, to distinguish them from the phony two-dimensional grids that are now more common in the window industry.

•  Window/sash/glazing/lite/fenestration. As you can tell from the preceding, window terms are among the most confusing in architecture, but here goes: Window refers to the entire assembly—jambs, glass, the works.  The sash is the portion of the window that moves, if any.  Glazing refers to all the glass surfaces in general; lites are the individual panes of glass that make up the glazing.  Fenestration is the arrangement of windows in a wall, though it can refer to doorways as well.  

Phew. Time for a nice cool drink with plenty of frieze blocks.

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