Arts 101: Architecture Lingo

“A lot of architects tend to make up their own words,” says architect Evan Hall. “They’re always trying to find the new word to describe a new way of generating space, so it’s really hard to kind of narrow it down to a few we use a lot.”

Today we continue our series explaining unusual words and phrases in the arts by looking at the language of architecture.

Hall’s own style of practicing architecture involves making foam-core models of conceived structures and spaces, which helps avoid having to coin a lot of descriptive words to conjure an imagined building. He graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in architecture and worked for a year in Japan before getting a Fulbright to study architecture in Korea, where he worked in architecture and urban planning.

Evan Hall presents a building model in Tokyo

Evan Hall (at right) presents a model of a proposed structure while working as an architect at Sejima and Nishizawa Architects Associates in Tokyo. (photo courtesy Evan Hall)

Hall is now back in Minnesota and is preparing for the next chapter in his architecture career, and he recently shared a number of interesting terms from his profession.


A building that’s described as being tectonic is one where steel or wood framing and other devices are used to support the structure, where the push and pull of physical elements is evident.

Marquette Plaza

Tom Fisher, the dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota, says the Marquette Plaza building in Minneapolis — with its transparent suspension-bridge support system — is a good example of a tectonic building.


Hall says stereotonic is a good counterpoint to tectonic, insofar as a stereotonic building is one where the primary structure consists of limestone or granite, without the aid of secondary materials or structures to keep it standing. Because so many buildings combine stereotonic and tectonic elements, Hall says it is difficult to classify buildings as exclusively one or the other.

Minneapolis City Hall

Hall says the Minneapolis City Hall (built 1904) may appear stereotonic, but it has steel and wood structures on the inside to help support it.


An axonometric drawing is a three-dimensional drawing that architects make where every line is measureable. “If you were to see a perfect cube in an axonometric drawing, you would be able to go in and measure every line and they would all be the same,” Hall says. “In a perspective drawing, however, the lines start to get distorted a little bit.”


The material that is put up over an exterior wall is called cladding. It can be wood, metal, stone, vinyl … the most important thing is that cladding is waterproof.

UBS Forum exterior, showing cladding

The UBS Forum at Minnesota Public Radio is covered in sheet-metal cladding.

curtain wall

A wall that doesn’t provide any structural support to a building but keeps out the elements or separates interior spaces is called a curtain wall. Such walls are called “curtain walls” because, like window curtains, they hang from a supporting framework.


Similar to a mechanical pencil, a leadholder is a drawing tool into which an architect can insert lead or plastic pieces of various softness and weight. “Sometimes you can have a whole book of different types of pencils that you can use for different line weights,” Hall says. “The line weights are extremely important when making a drawing.”

According to Hall, the reason line weights are so important is because the thickness of a line weight connotes the architectural significance of a drawn feature. “All architectural drawings are abstractions of something that is designed to be crafted in reality,” he says. “Line weights in drawings give hierarchy to an idea.”

French curve

This sounds like a specific type of rounded detail, but a French curve is actually a tool that architects use when drawing plans. “It’s a plastic or metal stencil that has curves on the inside and outside,” Hall explains, “and pretty much any type of curve that you need to draw in an architectural drawing, you can get off the French curve in combination with a compass or a straight edge.”


When architects need to make a quick sketch of a building detail, whether from a paper plan or an autocad rendering, they’ll lay a thin piece of vellum over the plan and trace the detail onto it. This thin sheet of tracing paper is called bumwad … and yes, the name comes from exactly what one might suspect. “It looks kind of like a cheap toilet paper,” Hall laughs. “I’m pretty sure you could just use it for that purpose!”

Leadholder and bumwad

Evan Hall at his desk; in his right hand is a leadholder; the thin yellow paper is bumwad. (photo courtesy Evan Hall)

Visit State of the Arts next week, when we look at words from film and video.

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