Quoins: A Guide to Classical Architecture's Corner Details
Definition of Quoins:
Quoins, from the French word "coin," meaning corner, are the blocks that form the corners of a building's walls, creating alternating patterns. Historically, they were used structurally, primarily to stabilize the load-bearing points of walls, which could otherwise collapse under the weight of multiple stories and stone roofs. Quoins are also desribed from the French phrase l'angle d'un mur or "the angle of a wall."
history of quoins
The ancient Greeks and Romans discovered that load-bearing must be stabilized at certain points, and as a result, they built heavy granite blocks in corners to create stability. According to the Roman architect Vitruvius, quoins were used for the points where the walls met, to provide strength and support, and to hold the infilling, which might be of cheaper materials like cobbles or brick. 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.
In traditional Georgian and Roman architecture, before the advent of modern housing support infrastructures, the corners of buildings often needed extra support in order to sustain the weight of multiple stories and stone roofs. Quoins played a crucial role in this architecture by diverting and distributing weight, relieving pressure on the stone walls they sat between. Without them, the walls would have been unlikely to have been structurally sound, and many would have collapsed before construction was even complete.
In any brick structure, quoins would historically carry most of the building's weight. As such, quoins bore a significant burden and needed to be made from only the finest stone, free of any imperfections, since even the slightest crack could compromise the building. Architects through the ages have understood the symbolic significance of the role of the quoin and have incorporated them as central elements into a building's decorative theme.
Unique Examples of Quoins
One example of a classical building that is famous for its unusual quoins is the Palazzo dei Diamanti in Ferrara, Italy. The building, which was constructed in the 15th century, has marble stone walls that look like diamonds, hence its name which means "Palace of Diamonds." The diamond-shapes are believed to have been inspired by the family coat of arms of the building's original owner, Sigismondo d'Este, which featured a diamond pattern. The quoins of the palace as shown in the photo below have panelled pilasters richly carved, and similar pilasters flank the entrance door.
While some architects chose to ornament quoins, this was not a universal practice. Some architects believed that the inherent beauty of the stones was sufficient, and therefore, opted not to embellish them. However, many architects have incorporated decorated quoins into their designs, and the stones are often carved with intricate patterns, such as the "vermiculated" pattern.
This design imitates worm trails and denotes ancience, representing something time worn, worm eaten, and as such falls under the category of techniques known as 'rustication' and was very popular with architect Cuthbert Brodrick, who incorporated his vermiculated quoins on Wells House, a large former hydropathic establishment and hotel in Ilkley, West Yorkshire.
Following this short illustration, I'll show the same Wells House building again, this time with a close up and you'll notice the vermiculated quoins far more easily.
Contrasting coloured quoins
Uppark Mansion is an 18th-century country house located in West Sussex, England. The mansion features distinctive contrasting coloured corner quoins made from stone, with a projecting profile and a smooth finish. The quoins on Uppark Mansion are a notable feature of the building's Georgian architecture, and an example of quoin arrangements often found in Georgian style architecture and homes. Another word for the use of different coloured materials in architecture is "polychromy", meaning multiple colours.
Frequently Asked Questions about Quoins:
What are quoins?
Quoins are the large, often decorative, stones or bricks that have historically been used to reinforce the corners of buildings.
What is the purpose of quoins?
Quoins provide added strength and stability to the corners of buildings, and also serve a decorative purpose, it is often said they "dress" the corner of a building as a design embellishment.
What are the different types of quoins?
There are several different types of quoins, including ashlar quoins, rusticated quoins, and vermiculated quoins. Ashlar quoins are made of uniform blocks of stone or brick, while rusticated quoins have a rough, textured surface. Vermiculated quoins have a surface that resembles worm tracks.
What materials are used to make quoins?
Quoins can be made from a variety of materials, including stone, brick, and concrete. Nowadays, there are also quoins made from different materials such as wood, plastic, concrete or from fake stucco and foam.
What is the history of quoins in architecture?
Quoins have been used in architecture since ancient times, and have been a common feature in classical architecture, as well as in Gothic and Renaissance architecture.
Are quoins still used in modern architecture?
Quoins are still used in modern architecture, although they are often used for decorative purposes rather than for structural reinforcement.
What are some famous examples of buildings with distinctive quoins?
Some famous examples of buildings with distinctive quoins include the Palazzo dei Diamanti in Ferrara, Wells House in West Yorkshire and Uppark Mansion in Sussex.
For learning how NOT to use quoins, see this fantastic article on "Fake Quoins" by Mark Gerwing
In conclusion, quoins have a rich architectural history and are a critical element of classical and traditional architecture. While they were initially used for structural purposes, they have become an essential stylistic feature especially in Georgian architecture. Quoins are appreciated for their beauty and historical significance, as important corner blocks to a building. As such, they continue to play an important role in architecture today, and their use remains a popular design choice for architects and builders alike especially in period homes. We hope that the skills and art of masonry and quoins are revived, and that when building new period style homes in classical architecture styles, architects and tradesman will pay special attention not only with the freedom to experiment on the ornamentation and stylistic elements of quoins, but pay tribute to their historic and pivotal role in building designs.
Article Written by Radomir Kobryn-Coletti