October 2002 * The Star * 23

Corbels and brutalism, historically speaking

by Alice Cotton


During my architectural classes and tours, participants often ask questions about terms and theories. What follows are just some of the most frequently asked questions.


Q:       Where does the word "baluster” come from?

A: The term "baluster," which comes from the Italian word blausto or balaustra, meaning the flower of the pomegranate, refers to the rail of a staircase. It is a small column or a round, short pillar.


Q: What is the difference between wrought iron and cast iron?

A: Wrought iron is a tough, malleable, relatively soft iron that is readily forged and welded, having a fibrous structure containing approximately 0.2% carbon and a small amount of uniformly distributed slag. Cast iron is a hard, brittle, nonmalleable iron‑based alloy containing 2.0% to 4.5% carbon and 0.5% to 3% silicon, cast in a sand mold and machined to make many building products.


Q:What is the difference between Art Nouveau and Art Deco?

A: Art Nouveau is a style of the fine and applied art that was current in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is characterized by fluid, undulating motifs often derived from natural forms. Art Deco refers to a style of decorative art developed originally  in the 1920s with a revival  in the 1960s, marked chiefly by geometric motifs, streamlined and curvilinear forms, sharply defined outlines, often bold colors, and the use of synthetic materials such as plastics. The name Art Deco was shortened from the title Exposition Internationale Des Arts Decoratifs et Inclustriels Modernes, an exposition of modern and decorative arts held in Paris in 1925. Many of our downtown Portland buildings were designed by architects who were heavily influenced by the Art Deco style of architecture.


Q: Why did " balloon framing" become popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s. What was wrong with the good old "post and beam" framing that was used for at least a thousand years?

A: l believe it is tied to profit, commercialization and the invention of three items: 1) The machine‑made nail, which made nailing far less expensive than when hand‑pegged joinery was used. 2) Advanced circular‑saw mills, which lowered the cost of standardized sawri lumber. 3) The development of a housing industry, which promoted standardization of materials and methods.


Q: What is the difference between Flemish bond and English bond brickwork?

A: First of all, "stretchers" are full‑sized bricks, "headers" are half‑sized bricks and a "course" is a single horizontal line of bricks. A "bond" is any of a variety of arrangements of bricks having a regular, recognizable, usually overlapping (or staggered) pattern to increase the strength and enhance the appearance of the construction.

A "running bond" or "stretcher bond" is composed of overlapping courses of stretchers. This is the most common kind of brickwork we see. The "common bond" or "American bond" has a course of headers between every five or six courses of stretchers.

            “English bond” has an alternating course of headers and stretchers in which the headers are centered on stretchers. The joints between stretchers line up vertically in all courses.

            “Flemish bond” has alternating headers and stretchers in each course, each header being centered above and below a stretcher.


Q: What is "coping"?

A: When used to describe architectural features, “coping" refers to the top layer of a brick or stone wall. It is usually built with a slope to shed water.


Q: I use the word "corbel" in furniture-making, but what exactly does the word mean in architecture. Is it the same thing?

A: Not really.  A corbel is a projection from a masonry wall, sometimes supportinga load, sometimes for decorative effect. It is a masonry or stone feature, not a wooden one like in furniture-making.


Q: What is Brutalism?

A: The term Brutalism was coined in England  in 1954 to characterize the style of architecture Lc Corbusier, who was the leader of the International style of modern architecture. Brutalism usually refers to rough, exposed concrete. The south building of the Oregon Historical Society is an excellent example of Brutalist architecture, particularly with its use of raw aggregate projections and textures.


Alice Cotton is an architectural illustrator who holds architectural design classes and tours. She can be reached at www.artemisillustration.com or email her at alice@artemisillustration.com