Post 723 –by Gautam Shah
Corners are affairs at street turns and junctions, formed by land-road configurations and architectural built-forms. The street corners mature historically or are arranged through intensive planning.
Building corners result largely due to the shape of the plot and its alignment to the abutting street. But building corners are also formed for architectural oddity through the obliqueness. Odd-shaped plots and flawed-alignments of streets (front and sides of the plot at odd, non-90° angles), are historical consequences or adventurism in the city planning.
Historically streets developed over a very long period of functional moderation and visual maturation. The imposition of a diagonal pattern was to break the regimented monotony of the iron-grids of streets and generate variegated visual interests. Squared streets’ junctions have predictable quality, where one can see three opposite corners, and all have the same character, except the architectural form. The odd angled streets, however, offer outward (acute) and inward (obtuse) corners.
The skewed corners, are more expressions of the road edge, sidewalks, curbs, streetlights or road sedge trees, and less of definitions emerging from the architectural design of buildings. Buildings are often, stubbornly unconcerned of the street lay. It is very common to see acute or obtuse cornered buildings imposing their ‘majestic effect’ on the right angled (90°) streets. Similarly buildings, with inward corners are placed on outwardly cornered streets.
Very large street junctions were formed as public spaces. How to occupy, the extensive space has remained a problem. The low density and slow traffic (carts, etc.), crossing the extensive central-space was a chaotic, requiring-marked path. For managing the heavier and faster traffic, a turn-around was needed. The turn-around and its centric architecture (of memorials) fail to enliven the junction or connect the distanced corners. A corner flourishes, only in conjunction with other corners. But, that concurrence is dulled by very wide distances at the junctions. Very extensive centric spaces at road junctions, edged with tall architecture can reveal the corners, provided their design follows the street lay.
In case of heavily built street junctions, the perception of the corner configuration, is more definitive due to the tall facades or their visual continuity. But at ground level, the forms of corners, however, are affected by the surface, colour, texture, reflections, occupation (storefronts, entrances, etc.) and street facilities (street light poles, signage, barricades).
Corners gain a meaning, when the shape-contributing vertical surfaces are larger or taller than the perceiver. But, if the form, size and scale of the corner-forming vertical surfaces, all have the same colour, texture or pattern, the Iron-Grid pattern becomes boring. To avoid the tedious scenery of the 90° iron-grids, some cities have opted for hexagonal or floral grids.
Older towns and cities have naturally curved streets, and with the same or varied widths. Curved streets ‘turning away’ seem mysterious or less revealing, in comparison to streets ‘turning inward or towards’, which slowdown the movement and so are divulging. A curved street, or one with many crooked corners results from the illegal encroachment, and inversely street corners, gaps or setbacks are engulfed, both actions occur gradually over many years.
It is said that the “curve form of the street has strong ‘perception-effect’ with the ‘left or right handed traffic movements, and culturally the prevalent script writing manner such as left to right or right to left”. But no one knows, how the East Asian (China-Japan) scripts flowing from top to down, can affect the perception of the curved streets.
Street corners are also formed on straight roads with setbacks of buildings. However, when the plot width is narrow, and if the front street face is not right angled, the square form of a building does not fit into the plot shape. Such, plots have forced setbacks. Building setbacks are also enforced (for the entire form or just the upper floors) to meet the height regulations (calculated as an incidence of the angle from the opposite edge of the street).
Street corners of historical towns are multifarious junctions. The complexities arise due to the variations of mid-angles (axiality) between the adjoining streets, and their different widths. The front-edge of adjacent streets also follow their own angular convention. It becomes a polygon of unequal and differently angled faces. The Polygon, becomes non-centric, when one or few buildings, functionally and architecturally dominate the space. The streets serve not just singular way for feed or exit, but turn dual traffic channels with other back of the artery connections. Varanasi, India is a classic example of such confusions.
Buildings designed for very narrow corners (Grid-Iron building in central plaza, NYC), often face two unequal street environments. The differing environments exist due to the unequal widths of the abutting streets. The street width affects the allowable building height, the rents or sale values, degree of commercial development and the density of foot-falls (traffic). So should one adopt different architectural styles for each face?
There have been two sets of buildings, squared and angled fronts. Squared buildings follow the street line, whereas the angled ones result to conform the sides of the plot, rather than the street. The angular front faces may manage the situation through their own articulation, typically serrations or some bizarre endowments. The street line compliant or squared-front buildings are commonly axially symmetrical.
The corner of a building, plot enforced or concept-formatted are exploited as an element for design. Acute cornered building offers little design freedom but obtuse (wide) cornered buildings have larger periphery for commercial exploitation, broader visual face and greater scope for form manipulation. Squared shape-volume buildings are sometimes, strongly affected by an askew neighbouring building, more so, if added later-on.
Buildings at street junctions, pose a design quandary, what to do with, inward or outward varieties of corners? A corner as a simple ‘union’ of vertical facades does not justify the happening of the change. An emphatic mass is used to intervene. Such a mass just separates the two faces, but will not allow the change of the character of the facades. The intervening mass, if too massive the side-faces get belittled, and if too flimsy, its capacity to interpose is lost. So, the intermediate-mass rise up as a cylinder, several floors, above the side-faces. The cylinder is capped with a crown, clock or ‘a steeple like a lantern’. No one seems to have separated the cornered edges, with emptiness (like the Brazilian Congress, Petronas Towers, Malaysia, or Time Warner Centre, NYC).