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<   No. 3352   2014-10-05   >

Comic #3352

1 {photo of a window with spiral brickwork}
1 Caption: Architectural details

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When travelling you often find yourself in cities, either by choice or by the necessity of being close to transport. While some cities have a character all their own, others can seem uniform and bland, a bit like every other city you've ever seen. One way to make cities come to life and stand out as unique is to focus on architectural details.

Eiffel Tower: detail
Eiffel Tower, Paris.

I don't mean buildings writ large, though of course there is something to be gained by considering the entire shape of a cathedral or public building. I am referring to details - the small parts of buildings that might be considered decorations or embellishments, or just the whimsy of the architect. The shapes that pop out when you step close and look at the detail of how a single corner of a building is formed, rather than standing back and taking in the entire building.

Fishy decoration
Sea life decorations, Vancouver.

Many buildings have unique shaped features that differentiate them from other structures. These are often non-functional and merely decorative, such as geometric patterns carved in relief on the walls, or bas-relief sculptures of animals or people. Corners and doorways are prime sites for such decoration. Many a dragon or lion stares out at the street from these places.

Leonine knockers
Lion knockers, Cologne Cathedral.

Railings, banisters, and fences provide another platform for decoration. These can have ornamental knobs, spheres, acorns, spikes, and other accoutrements. The vertical posts of a railing can be curlicued and form intricate patterns. Ones made of wrought iron are particular favourites of mine.

Iron Flowers
Wrought iron fence, Sydney.

Windows come in a wide variety of shapes and designs, if you just look for them. Round and oval windows are unusual, making them memorable. Lead light windows consist of small pieces of glass separated by a metal latticework, which can form pictures or intricate geometrical shapes. If the pieces of glass are slightly skewed, the pattern of reflections they produce is also interesting. And glass can be stained in all colours, producing some of the most wonderful windows when viewed from inside, with the daylight streaming through them. Even shuttered windows can present a pretty picture, with painted details and colourful window boxes full of flowers.

Study in blue and yellow
Shuttered and shaded windows, Burano.

Roofs and gutters and drainpipes, as mundane as they sound, are often also worth a look. If you can get a high viewpoint, the roofs of a town or village often show different materials and building patterns to what you get back home. The geometrical regularity of roof tiles is hypnotising when framed correctly, and can be broken up by splotches of lichen or moss. Guttering, although functional, gets a surprising amount of attention from the decorative side too.

I'm ready for the gridlock
Roof shingles, Rothenburg ob der Tauber.

And then there are gargoyles and grotesques. Technically, a gargoyle is a functional sculpture that funnels rainwater away from a building, while a grotesque is its purely decorative cousin. But both are wonderful additions to a building and worth seeking out. Be sure to look up around cathedrals and other old stone buildings.

Köln gargoyle
Gargoyle, Cologne Cathedral.

Signs of business in some areas are not only informative but can be unique, fashioned to stand out from the crowd. From the identifying wooden plaque hung over the door of an English public house to neon signs announcing tattoo parlours, business signs are infinitely varied. Ones which contain sculptural elements designed to mimic the type of business are especially fun - the tailor with a giant pair of scissors hanging over the door, or the restaurant with a brass cockerel. In some places these signs date back hundreds of years so you get a dose of history as well.

Louie's barber shop, San Francisco.

So when visiting a city, don't just become a local, shuffling about and ignoring the unique details all around you. Gaze open eyed in wonder at the ingenuity of architects and the irrepressible penchant of humanity to decorate everything and to stamp things with their own distinctive style. Everywhere you go there is something different to see.

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Last Modified: Sunday, 5 October 2014; 03:08:14 PST.
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