Monday, September 17, 2012

The Origins of Popular Words in Architecture and Design

When buying a home, there are many architectural details that people look for to ensure they buy the most beautiful home they can afford. For example, the façade of the home has to be inviting, the stucco walls have to be sturdy and free of graffiti, the balcony has to have a fabulous view and the interior carpet has to be soft and plush.

Whether it’s a studio you’re looking for, a palazzo or a villa complete with a portico, balcony and fountains with a replica of the various Greek gods of mythology, many of the words used in art, architecture and design are rooted in the romance languages.

Origins of architecture
The term architecture refers to the planning, design and construction process of a structure. The resulting buildings or structures are considered works of art, often defining a particular period in history.

The word architecture is from the Latin word architectura. In Greek, it is from the word arkhitekton, which is a combination of words meaning chief and builder or carpenter.

Three Latin principles
According to the first century work De architecture, written by the Roman architect Vitruvius, there are three principles in architecture that would define a good building. These are:

·      Firmitas or Durability. The structure should be in good condition. This is the construction element of design.

·      Utilitas or utility. The structure should be functional. After all, what point is a building if it is uninhabitable or it has no use?

·      Venustas, meaning beauty. This is probably the most notable and what sets one building apart from another, since the structure built should be pleasing to look at. In fact, early designers often sought to inspire people’s spirits by making construction beautiful. For the Italian architect Leone Battista Alberti, the inherent beauty of a structure lies in its proportion.

The concept of venustas is the reason why some buildings literally take our breath away by the mere sight of it. Some structures that exude beauty and make our spirits soar are the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt; the Parthenon in Athens, Greece; the St. Peter’s Cathedral at the Vatican in Rome, Italy; the Taj Majal in India; the Sydney Opera House in Australia and the Kinkaku-ji or Golden Pavilion in Kyoto, Japan.

Italian words in design
As one of the most beautiful languages in the world, Italian also happens to have contributed many words and terms that are used in art and architecture. The Italian language has many words from Latin, but it is through this particular romance language that many of these terms found their way into English. For example, the material terracotta, is from the Italian word terra-cotta, which translates to baked earth. However, it is also derived from Latin.

The words façade, graffiti, stucco, balcony, palazzo, villa, portico and carpet are all rooted from the Italian language. The words stucco, palazzo, villa, studio and portico (porch) were borrowed from the language as is, while carpet is from the word carpita and balcony was originally balcone. The word mezzanine was taken from mezzanino.

A soaring arcade is one of the more striking architectural features a building can have, especially in the design of malls and other public areas. The word arcade is from the Italian word arcate, which translates to arches. The soaring dome such as the one found in St. Peter’s Cathedral at the Vatican is from duomo, meaning a cathedral church, an Italian term that comes from the Latin word domus.

A baluster or stair stick is an English word borrowed from the Italian term balaustra, the same way balustrade comes from balaustrata. A colonnade is from colonnato, which is also derived from colonna, meaning column. Every home or building has a corridor, or corridoio. A pilaster, or a built-in projecting column, comes from the word pilastro.

Places as words and colors
Places in Venice, Italy also influenced how we call some places in modern times. Ghetto used to be a small 15th century Jewish community in Venice. This was derived from Borghetto, or little Borgo although it did not have a negative connotation at that time.

On the other hand swimming pools in the United Kingdom are referred to as lido, which was a Venetian bathing place.

The color magenta is taken from the Italian town of Magenta, which is known for a reddish purple dye called fushine. It was found in the mid-19th century. At the same time, sienna is from the Tuscan city of Sienna, Italy. The dark color umber is from the region of Umbria, although the term is from the Latin word umbra, which means shadow.

As an aside, the term casino is translated in Italian to mean small house. It was originally used to refer to a place that was noisy or messy.

The French influence
The French aesthetic also contributed to the development of architecture and design. As lovers of art and beauty, it is inevitable that some French terms have found their way to describe some terms in the field of architecture.

The term avant-garde is used to refer to something that is highly innovative. It is of French origin that literally translates to advance guard or vanguard.

The term baroque is from the French word baroque, as well as the Spanish term barroco or barrueco and the Portuguese term perola barroco. All these words translate to mean imperfect pearl. Today, we understand the word to refer to something done elaborately, with many details, especially the architectural styles that became prominent in Paris during the 17th and 18th centuries. However, critics first used the French term as a derogatory way to describe excessive design.

The Spanish touch
The material adobe is a Spanish word referring to sun-dried brick. If villas came from Latin, then haciendas came from Spanish, which is a large house. It literally translates to things to be done since there’s so much work involved in maintaining such a large estate. Another architectural term from Spanish is the patio.

Descriptive words
Beautiful architecture is described as brilliant, which is from the French word, or the Italian word brillare. Magnificent, from the Italian word magnifico, is another adjective used to describe impressive architecture. Magnifico is from the Greek word megalo, meaning great, a perfect word to describe the Gare do Oriente in Lisbon, Portugal, the Paris Opera house in France and the Crystal Cathedral, in California, USA.

On the other hand, if you truly don’t like something, you may describe it to be grotesque. This comes from the Latin word grotto, which refers to a small cave. By the 18th century, the French, German and Italians (grottesca) started to use to the word to describe something strange, unpleasant or downright ugly.

Some may even describe a building or poorly designed structure as a disaster, from the Italian word, disastro; the Greek words dus, meaning bad and aster, meaning star; and the French word desastre. Contrary to popular belief, the term gaudy doesn’t come from the 19th century Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi.

These are just some of the words often used in architecture and design. Whether you live in a tiny studio (the Italian word meaning to study), want to buy a grand home in the suburbs or like taking pictures of the great architectural buildings at any of the world’s major cities, it’s good to know the language of design to give you a better appreciation of what you see.

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