Roundels and Spandrels and Lintels

Oh, my!

As I begin my first year of architecture self-study, I have chosen Memphis: An Architectural Guide as my first text book.  (A big thanks to the public library for having a copy, especially since it is out of print).  This book was referred to several times in a great Memphis Magazine article, Modern Man, on the life and career of architect Roy Harrover.

While the guide book is very interesting and brings back many memories of my home town, it is a more difficult read than I expected.

First of all, the book is a guide.  It assumes you are standing in front of (or driving by) the neighborhood, building, or home you are reading about.  Not all of the structures discussed have photos, and the ones that do, are shadowy black-and-white.

Second is the terminology.  Take this sentence:

The heavy stone quoins at the corners suddenly, at the top, turn into pilasters carrying capitals that have bizarre cartouches stuck on them.

I doubt a photograph would have helped me with that one.

I did come across one familiar term, though I didn’t know it had anything to do with architecture.  While reading the description of the commercial building on 76 North Main Street, built in 1880, I realized just being “familiar” with a word wasn’t going to be enough in the architectural world.

…a long row of masonry piers supports a series of arches, with roundels in the spandrels.

The only context I had ever heard the word “roundel” used before was in the name of the BMW Car Club of America’s monthly magazine and the BMW logo on its cars.  (My favorite auto maker, remember?  And I do read the magazine every month, cover to cover – entertaining, informative, well-written).

Since there is a photo for this building, Jack’s Food Store #1, in the book, it’s easy to see that “roundel” is just a sophisticated word for a circle (more architecturally speaking, a small, circular panel, niche, or window).

“Spandrel,” on the other hand, is a completely new term to me.  It turns out that “spandrel” describes the triangular space outside of an arch, or the space between two arches.  Who knew that area actually had a name?  I can see why that space is worthy of its own noun – spandrels can be quite ornate.

an ornately adorned spandrel

Sadly, when I Googled Jack’s Food Store #1 for a better look at its “roundels in the spandrels” than what is pictured in the book, the entire building seems to have disappeared.   However, the authors’ felt it was “strikingly” reminiscent of the Bibliothèque Sainte-Genèvieve in Paris, built just a few decades earlier.  Luckily, that one is still standing (and Google-able).

roundels in the spandrels

A lintel is more structural than geometric.  It is simply a horizontal member that spans an opening – door, window, or space between two posts – and may or may not support weight above the opening.

Stonehenge is an example of stone lintels spanning stone posts.  While living in New Mexico, I became acquainted with adobe architecture, where it is easy to find lintels doing their job above windows and doorways.


I’ll save quoins, capitals, and cartouches for another day.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks! I thought it was just me. Every time I try to study architecture, I find the most basic terms’ definitions involve at least 5 terms I don’t know, and I’m off on an exponentially ramifying tangent. Baby steps I guess. Just nice to know I’m not unusually dense.

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