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Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 14th May 2010
A strong corner is always desirable in a building, says David Winpenny

Quoin. A good Scrabble word – get it on a triple word score square and you’ll get at least 45 points.
And, of course, unless you’re challenged, you don’t have to know what it means.

For architects, quoin is a useful part of their design palette. Usually it’s found in the plural – quoins. And, as the architectural dictionary puts it, quoins are ‘the dressed stones at the corners of buildings, usually laid so that their faces are alternately large and small.’ In short, they are the decorative stones that you can see at the edges of buildings.

The word also has meanings in printing, in gunnery and (meaning a wedge to stop barrels rolling about) in seamanship, but the architectural use is the oldest, first appearing in print, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, in 1532. ‘Quoin’ is an anglicised version of the French word for a corner, ‘coin’. Shakespeare shows its derivation more clearly in Macbeth, probably written in 1605, where he writes of the ‘temple-haunting martlett’ that ‘No Jutty frieze, Buttrice, nor Coigne of Vantage, but this Bird Hath made his pendant Bed’. The bird liked the quoins, as they gave ledges on which to nest.

Since the 17th century, British architects have used quoins to ornament the façades of their buildings, following the lead of the Renaissance architects of Italy. In fact, though, like virtually all architectural decoration, quoins had their roots in practicalities. Where stone was scarce or difficult to work, it was always used sparingly and where it had most effect.

According to the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius, whose treatise on building is the only written evidence we have of the theories of Roman buildings, quoins were used for the points where the walls met. This was both to give them strength in themselves and also to hold the infilling, which might be of cobbles or of brick – cheaper materials. The stones that made up the quoins were laid alternately with short and long edges together to give more stability. The fact that doing so made an interesting pattern was coincidental.

The same idea was used in medieval parish churches in parts of Britain where stone was hard to come by. Stone quoins formed a framework for the infill of flint (sometimes split, or ‘knapped’ to show the dark face), river or sea pebbles, or brick. But by the Renaissance the practical origins of quoins were beginning to be forgotten, and they became decoration without a structural function.

There are several examples in Ripon. The Gazebo off Blossomgate has good stone quoins that form a pleasing contrast with narrow russet 18th-century bricks from which the rest is constructed. These are proper, structural quoins, as are those on the building on the corner of Harrogate Road and South Crescent that is the EuraAudit offices. In the Market Square the building that has the entrance to The Arcade punched through it has a white-painted upper storey with black quoins – a nice contrast, though not in brilliant repair. But the quoins here are not functional – they are stucco, applied to the finished surface for decorative effect.

There are similar black-and white quoins in the Magdalen’s pub on Stonebridgegate. Here, they not only mark the right-angled corners of the building, but are also used at other angles – very attractively. In Westgate, Cowen and Morgan’s opticians has stucco quoins, too, but they are treated in the same colour as the rest of the wall. They could be painted a contrasting colour to enliven the building and help ‘lift’ the street. Not far away, in Blossomgate, the King William IV pub has an attractive doorway that mixes stone quoins and glazed green bricks very attractively.

Some of the more adventurous (or spendthrift) architects would ornament the quoins they designed for their buildings. Ripon, a sober, sensible place (architecturally speaking) has largely steered clear of this, though in Park Street, opposite the Spa Baths, is a house that has good quoins and keystones, some of them ornamented with what is called a ‘vermiculated’ pattern. This is supposed to imitate worm trails (‘vermiculated’ came via Italian from the Latin ‘vermis’, a worm – it’s the same origin for vermicelli). Vermiculations were very popular with Leeds architect Cuthbert Brodrick – look out for it in Leeds Town Hall and especially on the Leeds Museum nearby.

Even less usual was to carve your quoins with icicles – so-called ‘frosted rustication’. The nearest is probably on the pillars next to the fishing pavilions by the lake at the east end of Studley Royal. Frosting was a particularly costly way to decorate. Much cheaper was a method used in some parts of the country of plastering your wall entirely flat, and then painting your quoins on it shades of grey, to give a three-dimension impression. This can give a building a fairground air.

Quoins are still used today – look around at new developments and you can often see them being used to give definition and gravitas to buildings. Like much of the vocabulary of today’s architects, quoins are a classical device that still survives, even with a lost purpose. And now, how can we use that ‘q’ to get a good score going down? Quatrefoil? Quadrangle? Aqueduct . . .

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