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76: BUILDING WORDS

May 24, 2014

#76:  BUILDING WORDS.   I love looking at old buildings, and no other art’s terminology tickles me nearly so much as that of architecture.  I have no scholarly or deep historical interest in the subject, but I find a delightful pedant’s poetry in hearing about quoins, bucrania, blocked pilasters, segmental pediments and pulvinated friezes.  I’ve never greatly cared for vermiculated rustication, but I love a heraldic shield in a spandrel, and could gaze with great interest on your escutcheon.  I can live happily with a depressed arch and have never been bothered by an overhang.  If you share this amusement and don’t want to wade through the daunting technical depths of so much architectural literature, I highly recommend Rice's Architectural Primer, by Matthew Rice, published by Bloomsbury in 2009.  The earth-toned drawings are charming, the brief historical sketches readable, and the book is no end of fun.  Here you will painlessly learn much:  to tell renaissance balusters from colonettes, and to be told sternly that an Oriel window sticks out but does not go to the ground.  It’s a kind of Latinate linguistic fancy-dress ball, and could you ask for more?  Rice’s book is enirely on English architecture; if you want something a bit closer to home, you should dig for a copy of Harry Devlin’s To Grandfather's House We Go:  A Roadside Tour of American Homes (Parents’ Magazine Press, 1967).  It was published as a kid’s book but it’s a great easy way into the topic, and examples of many of the styles shown are only a short drive away if you live in New England.  Another inviting and entertaining book, in which you will be treated to barley-sugar columns, keeled lesenes and waisted-oval lucarne windows, is The Visual Dictionary of Buildings, published by Dorling Kindersley (1992) in the Eyewitness Visual Dictionaries series, and gorgeously illustrated.

     There has been much complaint, cavil and cat-calling at the errors of British postwar architecture, some of it learned and concerned, some of it a mere and raucous blowing of razzberries.  Prince Charles has weighed in, pontifically.  But if you want to see the whole issue reduced finally, comically and unnervingly ad absurdum, I recommend the inimitable Phaidon collection Boring Postcards—the British edition, please, which for some reason beyond human explanation has the humorous edge over the American volume.  Some genius—“Collection Martin Parr,” the book says laconically at the end—has gathered postcards of fifties and sixties vintage depicting such important and exciting places as the Market Precinct, Scunthorpe; the Moota Motel, Cockermouth; the Fast Reactor at Dounread, Caithness; the Transport & General Workers Union Recuperation Centre at Leithport and (my personal favorite) the Giro Centre, Bootle.  Faded, postmarked and eerily underpopulated, it’s a parade of modern architecture at its most purely horrific—a comedy of the meretricious.  As a single-finger sendoff, it may surpass even Jacques Tati’s genial comedy “Playtime,” in which the characters wander through a modern, impersonal Metropolis that used to be Paris.

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