11 words that architects love
Following a few months working at an architectural firm, I’ve had some time to acclimate myself to the peculiar blend of jargon favored by architects.
Filled not only with the technical jargon you expect from just about any licensed profession, the architecture world is also home to a bounty of words and terms that have some seriously deep etymologies. With so much of architecture indebted to the Greeks and Romans, it should come as no surprise that many architecture terms go way back.
The list below touches on a few – nowhere near all – of these curiosities that I have encountered.
From a French word referring to a cart, charette refers to a period of intense (often group) work usually in order to meet a deadline. The word is also used to refer to a collaborative workshop addressing a specific problem or project. In common use among architects, planners, and engineers, the word seems to have arisen from the practice of using a cart to carry student models on exhibition days at the École des Beaux-Art.
A noted architecture school in Paris, the École des Beaux-Art rose to international prominence at the turn of the 20th century, when Americans attended the school and returned to the US to lay the seeds of the “Beaux Arts” movement that would result in such noted masterworks as Grand Central Terminal and the New York Public Library. Oh, and introduce the term charette into North American English.
A term popularized by the environmental movement, sustainability broadly refers to the conservation of an ecological balance. Within the worlds of architecture, engineering, and design, the word is used to refer to a spectrum of design and construction choices and practices.
Those born before the advent of electricity would surely cock an eye at this term, which refers to the architectural practice of exploiting natural light for illumination, rather than relying on artificial light. It’s a well-documented sustainability strategy.
Borrowing from scientist E.O. Wilson’s concept of biophilia – “the rich, natural pleasure that comes from being surrounded by living organisms” – the architectural term refers to the effects on humans of the presence of flora, fauna, and “natural” stimuli (think: water features) in building spaces.
From Italian facciata, meaning “face,” via the French façade, this word refers to the face or front of a building oriented towards a street or other open space, specifically the design concerned with the façade. Also, this word is notable for having a ‘c’ with a cedilla, a little hook that appears on the bottom of several loanwords in English, to indicate a “soft” sound.
The word fenestration is essentially a five-dollar word that means “how and where the windows go” in a building. With the Latin root fenestra, “window,” this word is related to the delightful and disturbing defenestration, “the action of throwing out of a window.”
If you’re familiar with French, then the roots of this term are obvious. Meaning, literally, “coach port” in French, this term refers to the covered area at the entrance of a building into which vehicles – coaches, cars, etc. – can be driven.
If you’re talking about zoning laws, odds are that you’ll be talking setbacks sooner or later. Broadly referring to the “setting back” of a building or structure from a roadway, urban architects use setback to refer specifically to the feature of skyscrapers where higher stories are set back a certain distance behind the line of lower stories, leaving a horizontal area in front.
An elegant blend of star and architect, this word refers (usually with a depreciative edge, though not always) to a famous architect whose designs are considered extravagant, outlandish, or incompatible with their existing surroundings.
In architecture, parti refers to the “big idea” at the heart of a design that guides the decisions in assembling the specific elements of a plan. Parti or parti pris, as it is also known, comes from the French term prendre part, which means “to make a decision.”
The program of a building or space refers to its use, which is usually couched in the broad arenas of residential, office, retail, etc. Program is often pulled into other jargon, which results in collisions like programmatic synergy.