Back in September, we asked our readers to help us make the definitive list of weird words used by architects, and we got an astonishing response. The resulting article, 150 Weird Words that Only Architects Use was one of our most popular of the year, ranking highly in our most read articles of 2015 and our editors' picks of the best articles of the year. But while it was well received, a number of people commented that something was missing in our list: definitions of all the words, to both aid readers' comprehension of the list and to debate over how different people had interpreted the same word. With that in mind - and considering that it is the time of year for generosity - we've revisited our list to bring you fun definitions for all 150.
If you're looking for an architectural reference dictionary, we assure you that this isn't it. But we hope you'll have fun all the same.
A covered walkway lined by columns. Used only on the fanciest of buildings.
A style of architecture whose entire manifesto is summed up in its one-word name.
A concrete-based architectural style that the non-architects in your life just don’t understand for some reason.
Building Envelope (noun)
A combination of the walls, floor and roof of a building. Hopefully more substantial than an actual envelope.
Gravity-defying overhang favored by students and architects with infinite budgets.
An intensive design event in which architects get even less sleep than usual and encourage each other into ever more insane ideas.
Used to conceptually justify a design which is kind of boxy.
A style of architecture which describes the separation of a design into its own constituent parts. Architectural deconstruction is much less related to philosophical deconstruction than it would like to be.
Simple, but often in a good way.
Rooms in a straight line, with a pretentious name.
Fitness for use by actual humans.
The cover by which your book will be judged.
Someone who refuses to admit they’re lost.
Genius Loci (noun)
Often translated as “Spirit of Place,” sites with a strong genius loci usually shouldn’t have a building added to them.
The worst thing that could possibly happen to your neighborhood. Gentrification always starts after you moved in, of course.
The shape your design had before it was ruined by the clunky machinery on the roof.
The quality of the materials which form an object. Thanks to modern manufacturing wizardry, a building may have a wide variety of materiality even if it is 99% plastic.
Used to conceptually justify a design which blows the entire budget on glass.
Describes a construction system for a building which could be added to indefinitely, if only the client would pay for it.
A vertical element separating panes in a window.
A horizontal element separating panes in a window. Bizarrely, not nearly as widely used as mullion.
A method of designing by computers, so you don’t have to.
A diagrammatic interpretation of the concept that you stick to the top corner of your computer monitor for fear of forgetting it.
A derisory term used to describe work that is more popular than yours.
Sustainability on steroids... organically grown natural steroids.
A sensory understanding of human experience that leads to architects talking about light quality for hours.
Like pillars, but simpler. The name is more complicated to compensate.
The part of an architectural drawing which you’ll detail later.
Describes urban areas which a regular person might call a “dump” but a real estate investor might call a “gold mine.”
The often-inconvenient basic description of what a building is for.
A recessed strip. Usually used to hide an ugly joint between materials.
Made up of rectangles.
The art of selectively forgetting the unpopular parts of modernism.
The outermost layer of the building. Architects often use anthropomorphic language to describe buildings because it makes them feel better about spending more time with their latest project than with their family.
In classical architecture, the top step.
A term borrowed from environmental sciences, in architecture a design’s sustainability can be measured in trees per render.
The boundary between two spaces, often marked by a door, change of flooring, or similar change. Also marks the boundary between what was and was not your fault as a designer.
A shape with its corners chopped off.
Type. The suffix -ology usually describes the study of something; for reasons unknown, it was unnecessarily added to the word type without changing the meaning.
A structurally expressive barrel- or dome-shaped ceiling. The kind of ceiling you wish you could add to every project.
Vernacular (noun and adjective)
A combination of tallness and uprightness. One might assume that it has a complementary partner in horizontality; one might be wrong.
Of a neighborhood or urban area: a function of how close everything is and how much it usually rains in the area.
Simple Words Given New Meaning by Architects
To design something which emphatically highlights a particular feature of itself or its surroundings.
The single most important part of a design. Must be upheld at all costs.
The existing state and history of a site which every new building has the potential to ruin.
To architects, a device is literally any object that does anything.
A length. Also used to vaguely describe a quality possessed by an object.
Something which has the appearance of moving; rarely in architecture does this refer to anything which actually moves.
The most visible part of a design, drawn in a manner that nobody will ever actually see it in.
To extend to a logical conclusion; as with many architectural favorites, this word from mathematics and science is rarely used in a mathematical context by architects.
Of a building or a city; in architecture, this word rarely refers to cloth of any kind.
Related to forms. Not to be confused with the same word related to formalities.
Any feature of a building which attempts to communicate to the user useful information such as “the door’s over here, dummy.”
Usually urban grain. Contains no nutritional value.
Describes the relative importance of different elements of a design. Architects take great pleasure in organizing things based upon importance, for reasons that Sigmund Freud would find very interesting.
Architects can infer meaning from even the most insignificant things; as a result, they see “language” everywhere.
Because architects see language everywhere, all sorts of things including buildings can be read - providing your building is... umm, “neatly handwritten,” I guess.
Though architectural metaphors share a lot in common with linguistic metaphors, they are often less precise.
Used by architects to refer to an object or space, as in “this doorway is a nice moment.” By using the language of time to refer to space, architects are able to give the impression that they are higher-dimensional superbeings. Not to be confused with the engineering term describing force around a fulcrum, which architects know nothing about.
Most architects spend more time negotiating with their own design than they will negotiating with an employer or a client for more money.
Nodes (noun, plural)
The connecting point of a network, usually of roads or paths. To an architect, each one is an opportunity.
Pods (noun, plural)
Anything small and round-ish.
Sticking out, as in “the countertop is proud of the cabinet” or “my building sits proud of the streetline because it is more important.”
Drawing showing a vertical slice through a building. This is many architects’ favorite type of drawing; it is also the one that non-architects find the most confusing.
Space is architecture’s canvas; it’s not just an absence of stuff.
A system of classifying building and object types, required by architects for reasons described in Hierarchy.
Obscure Words that Architects Overuse (Or Misuse)
Adjacencies (noun, plural)
Convenient alignment of two different concepts.
The way something looks.
An excessive adding-together of things.
The state of being undefined; an architect’s natural state.
Caused by the activity of humans; usually by their stupidity.
To make one’s own. Users appropriating an architect’s design is usually seen as good… provided they don’t do it too much.
To express an idea coherently; also to join things together. Architects are unique in being able to perform both forms of the verb in the same action. For more on this see Language.
A conceptual pile-up.
Because “boring” is too subjective, architects use banal to give an impression of authority.
Designed in a way that convinces the client to part with their money.
Split, but in some fancy way.
Aloofness caused by an excessive familiarity, often with a place or experience.
An event or object which sparks a radical change; often related to regeneration.
The act of making an idea or system definite. Regularly used by architects due to its allusion to their favourite material.
Confluences (noun, plural)
Modern, but not modernist. Contemporary is used to avoid confusing the two.
To choose. These days, just about anything can be “curated,” even breakfast.
A contrast of two opposites; for example what you designed and what the contractor built.
A lack of correlation between two ideas, such as how much you work and how much you get paid.
A description of a place’s homeliness. An appearance of domesticity can be generally simplified to “junk on shelves.”
A system of complementary concepts, such as light and dark, ying and yang, or built and unbuilt works.
A combination of two unrelated ideas that probably don’t belong together.
Having the ability to generate; usually used to describe a concept.
Describes a visual system where the whole appears greater than the sum of its parts.
The prevailing system or culture; usually one which the user of the word is planning to dramatically overturn with a single brilliant thought.
Holistic, also Wholistic (adjective)
Demonstrating a commitment to thinking things through properly.
A collection of objects demonstrating the same characteristics. An example is architects themselves.
Visually striking. Rarely used in reference to actual icons.
Something that seems to only exist at 3am, or when you don’t have a sketchbook to hand.
Almost always attached to the noun space to denote spaces between things. Architects are fascinated by interstitial spaces even though, almost by definition, they serve no purpose.
One step of an incremental repetitive process that i probably taking much longer than you expected.
Two opposites placed together for increased effect. Nine times out of ten it is used to describe an obviously new building among old existing buildings.
A category of design architects either love to hate or hate to love.
Describes a space at a boundary or threshold; the most inconsiderate place to stand in a room.
Large, solid and made up of one part. Generally implies an object that is awe-inspiring, hence its popularity among architects in describing their own work.
Shape. Like typology, morphology rarely refers to the study of anything.
Motifs (noun, plural)
An important element of a design that is often repeated throughout that design. Usually an element that the architect considered to be their best idea during a design.
Subtle inflections in meaning which architects are uniquely sensitive to.
Artificially designed to look organic.
The word palimpsest was taken from archaeology and redefined by architects, but it still bears traces of its original meaning.
A model for understanding and interacting with the world. In architecture, a “paradigm shift” occurs roughly every time a new building is completed, according to the building’s architect.
An effect in which two objects seen at different distances make the viewer realize that, surprisingly, they are in three-dimensional space.
To go into.
The elements of a building which communicate and enable its purpose.
An ordered succession of things, usually spaces.
A situation in which something is either no longer useful, or exists solely in case of emergency. Both of these cases are true of the T-square you’ve had for decades but can’t bring yourself to throw out.
Usually done to places which are post-industrial, regenerating a place usually heralds the beginning of gentrification.
Of a method or idea: unquestionably sensible. Of an object: resistant to bulldozers.
A split between things. Traditionally used to describe a split in beliefs or ideals, it is now widely used to describe just about any sort of split, because it is fun to say.
A defined order of items.
A property possessed by two or more things which occur at the same time.
A condition of not changing, like the architectural education system.
Describes a work built in cut stone.
To place one thing over another.
Tectonics/Architectonics (noun, plural)
The expressive elements of a design, usually shown in how different parts are joined together. Not to be confused with plate tectonics.
Not occurring for long, like a meeting on a Friday afternoon.
The “spirit of the times.” Trying to mold the zeitgeist to suit one’s own agenda is what separates architecture from mere building.
Unusual Terms or Phrases that Architects Love
Activate the space
Done by any design feature which encourages people to occupy a space. For more see public realm.
Create/provide a gesture
A long-winded way of saying “design something.”
Explores the notion
Code for “comes to no definitive conclusions.”
How the ____ is received by the ____
Often used in describing structural elements, which are apparently very polite to one another.
Always used in opposition to things that are considered too big. Smaller-than-human-scale doesn’t exist.
Like a room without a roof.
Alignments in purpose of different elements of a building’s program, which an architect can exploit to convince the client that they’re very clever.
A place, usually outdoors, where people can go to secretly watch and judge other people.
Architecture isn’t just a type of language, it’s also frozen music. Therefore, space can be arranged and composed in addition to being read.
Strange Concepts Within Architecture
Bottom up/Top down
A description of who gets to make changes in a certain political or economic system. Bottom up has been flavor of the month for 314 consecutive months.
A lot of buildings have an inside and an outside. But which of these gets celebrated is a critical conceptual question.
A concept that has been greatly encouraged by the use of 3D modeling software.
Served and Service
A concept well suited to the ever-increasing amount of pipes contained within buildings.
A concept arising from the groundbreaking realization that things can be there, but things can also be not there too.
A concept based on the fact that, much like architectural language, buildings can be clear and easily understood - or they can be impossible to comprehend when seen from the perspective of an outsider.
If you're looking to know a little more about why architects might use such language (and whether or not they should) don't forget to check out the original article here.
Main image via Shutterstock.com