The facades of buildings in Paris may be compared to many things, but rarely are they likened to coral. This however was the inspiration behind my latest challenge, a question that I received recently from Mary Kay;
When I was in the States recently, I took a photo of a cross section of coral that my daughter is using for her research. After returning to Paris, I noticed that it is identical to an architectural feature that is used on many buildings here, for example at the base of the Louvre. Can you tell me if this feature has a name and anything else about it, such as its origins?
Mary Kay kindly sent me a photo of her daughter’s coral (pictured above), and I was immediately able to see what she was referring to. It is indeed very similar to a feature that is regularly seen on buildings in Paris (and in many other places around the world). However, the name of this feature has nothing to do with marine organisms, but is in fact connected to a creature that is much closer to most of us – the worm.
Generally found on stones at the base of a building, this gouging or chiselling of a smooth surface is known as vermiculation (from the Latin vermis, meaning worm), and is just one form of an architectural technique known as rustication. It first began to appear on buildings in the Renaissance period, with the Louvre palace being a particularly good example.
Following classical architectural theory, the idea behind using forms of rustication is that they provide a rough, “natural” surface at ground level which give the building a feeling of solidity, and offer a feature that then contrasts well with ornamental stonework and columns on floors above, particularly the “piano nobile.”