CORNERS and Public Spaces

Post 696 –by Gautam Shah

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This is the 4 th article of series: ‘CORNERS’.

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Public spaces turn impromptu arenas with political, social and cultural interest, accompanied by some economic activities. The spaces manifest as gathering places, where events recur on specific days like full-moon days, low tide days, Sundays or annual days. Such places occur with some preexisting location cues like a built-form or a natural feature. A gathering place is the starting element of a larger concept of a social space. Defined passageways or casual pathways feed these places. The ending faces of such feed points, give unique and lasting shape to the form. The architectural contour may take ages to evolve on its own, or is remastered for a style by a ruler or plutocrat. In both the cases the essence of social place and shape of the form are sustained.

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The words plaza, place and piazza have the same Greek origin, with plaza being the Spanish adaption, place in French, and piazza the Italian one.

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Public spaces subsist on enclosures. Enclosures occur first by barriers of natural elements like terrestrial masses, water bodies, edges of terrain contours, silhouettes. Public spaces are realized as the physical reach, limits of power or sanctimony and the sensorial perceptibility. The public spaces are delineated by the facade planes and mass of the built objects. Facades’ perimeter becomes extensively lineated when the space is multi-angular, and the connecting passages do not abut at right angles. Compared to these, variations in ‘squared public spaces’ are too few, flat and uninteresting from any spatial position and at any time of the day. The multi cornered irregularly, shaped public spaces create vivid spaces. But straight roads converted into public or pedestrian space just by eliminating the vehicular traffic create a static space.

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Squared public space is rarely a natural development. The improvisations touch only the main level, but other floors continue to operate with their unrelated businesses. The public is expected to get the relief of participation by coming here out of their ghettos. The space making barriers of plants and shrubs, architectural contours, or street occupations like stalls or fountains and furniture, forge the visual depth and physical reach, but behind it, the enclosures of the facades remain unchanged. Squared architectural public spaces remain sterile entities, in spite of occupational interventions.

Different Illumination Conditions Change Functional and Visual character

The enclosures of public spaces occur by a mix of circumstances and situations. The variations of sunny and shadowed sections through the day and across the seasons are recurrent, and so taken for granted. But sunny and shadowed zones affect the functional spread, and define the usage schedules of public spaces. These also promote the use of moderating devices like awnings and screens, which in turn create vibrant edges. The varying sunlight brightens up the facades, more so when these are oriented at acute angles. The daylight variations in morning haze and in evening twilight the change the perception. The edges recede or advance, and add new effects of diffused or enhanced silhouettes. Night illumination of public spaces was once spotty, but by contrast highlighted the warmly lit interiors. Modern outdoor illumination of the floor and facades transform the spatial definitions. At night the unseen undulations, angles, depths, reach of interiors, scattered elements of space, all reveal new formations.

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The environmental variations in ‘squared public spaces’ are prosaic and uninteresting, because the spaces, facades remain constant. The illumination is without any variation and consistent from all locations. Lack of angles in the space fail to create dark-light contrasts. There are few surprises. What has been formatted on the ground was perceived through as a ‘site-plan’ or site-model’, always viewed from above. Nowadays ‘walk-throughs’ as 3D modelling are attempted, yet the comprehension is extremely narrow, selective and subjective. The squared public spaces remain naive ‘compositions of horizontal and vertical surfaces which create volumes of vacancy’.

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11 Palacio de Bellas Artes, preeminent fine arts hall in Mexico, Fore areas of Important Public buildings become spaces of gathering Wikipedia Image by ChaneekPhotography

Public spaces are of three basic types: naturally evolved, remastered with buildings or landscape design, and freshly planned. The considerations are visual edges, skyline or silhouettes, spatial interventions through elemental positioning, barriers, scaling, mastering patterns, perspectives, etc. But corners are rarely ‘designed or exploited’, yet they are omnipresent and unassailable. Corners remain, characteristic essence of the space.

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The enclosures, of long walls facades, make the area finite. But the feed streets or lanes serve as reference points and with their depth increase the perimeter. The corners at feed points are inclusive, because here the change is noted, but open to negotiation. The sited elements do not form the public space, but the movement of light, shadows, sources, strengths and spread of illumination, people moving around perceiving the changing orientation of objects, visual changes in colour, texture and scale, all give a temporal scale.

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In this respect, Cullen made a valuable distinction between ‘enclosure’ and ‘closure’. Enclosure, he argued, provided a complete ‘private world’ that is inward -looking, static and self-sufficient. Closure, by contrast involved the division of the urban environment into a series of visually digestible and coherent ‘episodes’ retaining a sense of progression.

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Vertical enclosing elements strongly scale the open spaces. The difference is acutely realized when older open spaces begin to be surrounded by tall structures. It is also true that denser and taller surroundings provide more footsteps. Public buildings like places of religion, court of law, or government offices, older monuments with large fore-spaces are compressed by taller surroundings.

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In public spaces, a dramatic change is experienced when architecture and environment, together differentiate the exterior versus the interior. The realization is spatially extreme and temporally sudden, in terms of scale, temperature, and illumination. It is something akin to what Peter Zumthor has described, the transition as an incredible sense of place, an unbelievable feeling of concentration. We suddenly become aware of being enclosed, of something enveloping us, keeping us together, [and] holding us.” Crossing the threshold from outside to inside bring the sudden feeling of being confined, and in reverse direction it is a relief. The thresholds are well marked and easily sensed, though some allow a slowed transition.

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In Western India, areas beyond the Fort gates of towns and cities are impromptu public spaces, formed by traders and others who have no visitation rights. But the gate leads to narrow road branching out at a point called ‘Chakla’. Chakla is a smaller scale public space as commercial hub for the insiders. It was also socially safer.

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Public spaces are more envisioned by the spread of the floor. The floors unless contoured and with patterned colour and textures, do not offer any divisions. The floor patterns have been explored as coalescing and regimenting factor. The imposed geometry of the pattern connects diverse and askew elements in the open space. Floorings are free flow or with bounding the perimeter, but are not the physical edges. Other important elements of floor occupation are the shadows of sunlight and night illumination. Both of these, cast visual and functional zones.

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477 AGORA and FORUM -as public spaces

The terms public space or gathering place is often used for large spaces that are mere cross road junctions. The surrounding areas have high commercial activity. The users are business visitors, tourists or commuters, but no local users. The movements are of Two types: One set is between adjacent feed points generating peripheral traffic, and other consists of cross traffic dividing the space into various sections. The First, creates impinging circumferential pressure on near by buildings, whereas the Second, scales the space, till the density and intensity are low remains low, giving it a perception of ‘manageable zones’.

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Distinct urban connections are desired for public places, but not ones that create the impinging circumferential pressures or divide the space into various sections. The simpleton urban design strategy is to devise ‘traffic free spaces’ by blocking and diverting the movement. The plan should be to favour the local residents over the business visitors, tourists and commuters. In many of the public spaces the local residents are shifted out in favour of non resident visitors.

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‘Piazzas feel like being in human-scaled outdoor rooms; very large courtyards, not like the aforementioned parking, cars and sometimes skyscrapers that are associated with plazas’.

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CORNERS and Neighbourhoods

Post 678–by Gautam Shah

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This is the 3 rd article of series: ‘CORNERS’.

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Neighbourhood is a realm of certain scale, resilient extent, variable sensorial reach, activities, intra-personal contacts, diverse implications and ever-revealing spatial character. Neighbourhoods have no particular pattern or shape. There is no formal arrangement of spatial entities, like buildings and objects. The spatial entities, building and objects remain static, but the mediating spaces carry different personal relevance and meaning. The neighbourhood represents a sentiment of people formed by the spatial character. The character, where small changes are noted and relished.

Lisbon Street Image by Paulo Guedes (1886–1947)

1 The scale in the neighbourhood is defined by the sensorial reach of the person such through the physical reach capacity, vehicles or means of conveyance, routing, climate, obstructions and the linkages such as bridges, access conditions etc.

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2 The extent of Neighbourhood is a resilient factor, because the reach capacities and needs are personal and so different. Senior citizens cover only that distance, which can be traversed back. A road with high density traffic reduces the spread of a neighbourhood.

3 The Sensorial reach is variable as it relates to the perception faculties like touch, smell, taste, see and listen. A child is required to be within the visual field, but a little older one can stretch it to distance of shout call.

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4 Activities in neighbourhoods, have an excuse and purpose, as these manifest due to people, space, and season. These are as casual as calling on new settlers and offering help, introductions and directions, or formal like parties and celebrations.

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5 Intra-personal contacts flourish at spatial locations like shops, corners, seat-out places and near objects in space, but facilitated by the sensorial reach (of touch, vision, hearing or smell). The reach defines the functional adequacy for interpersonal relationships and related behaviour. Intra- personal contacts occur as encounters, of recognition, casual gestural and verbal greetings and durative exchanges. The routes, space use occupation, time schedules are very deliberate. The spatial character of the neighbourhood is formed by the intensity of activities, which in turn foster the intra-personal contacts.

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6 Implications of neighbourhoods are evident with how people realize the spatial features. This is vitalization that formats the space as the place. This is always a synergy, impossible to inculcate through design, or difficult to bring in about by outsiders. Neighbourhoods are about dwellers of the place, and not visitors to market places or parks. The dwellers have certain attributes like age, social status, economic activities, cultural-religion affinity, duration of stay and sense of belonging. These form diverse sets of human interactions and compatibilities.

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7 Neighbourhoods continue to reveal their spatial character. One becomes more comfortable with the functional potential and variety it offers. New sensorial connections emerge from smell of foods, sounds of speech and music, visual accent of colour and texture) and the tactile liaison through handshake, caress or hug. These connections are embedded in the people, environment, built space and objects.

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The essence of a neighbourhood is the spatial character that is natural, and not a designed one. When people begin to associate the spatial configuration as a participatory extension of their home, it offers a wider sense of belonging. Neighbourhoods are vicinity where people, place and the objects have empathetic connections with synergetic interaction system. The shared identity and related spatial significance are not rationally grasped by many, but all do understand the new experiences that continuously evolve here. The neighbourhood as empathy grows over a period of time, maturing as a distinctive personal domain, different from other settlements.

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A neighbourhood is a community place, where the dwellers or ‘locals’ acknowledge the co-residents. This leaves out the gathering or visiting places of ‘non-locals’, and which may be at some distance, like the parks, zoos, markets and malls, etc. A neighbourhood is always a space with uncertain markings. Its extent is fluid, depending on the person’s physical reach capacity, vehicles or means used, routing, climate, obstructions and the linkages such as bridges, access conditions etc. On the other hand gathering or visiting places of ‘non-locals’ are zoned and regulated spaces, strongly defined by barricading elements or contained within set of other places. These places flourish due to the connections with the outside world but neighbourhoods thrive on the internal strengths.

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The neighbourhoods have reach regulated by distance. Reach is accessibility to people and objects through familiarity, reliability, predictability and security. ‘These references have historical traces in the race, cast, craft-activity, food, dresses etc. of the dwellers.

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Observation is participation in a neighbourhood place. A mother will not allow a child beyond visual field or shout-out reach. A youngster reaches out, to go to known places like friends’ house, school, or playground. Buildings and objects on daily routes of travel seem part of the neighbourhood. Objects beyond the cross barriers, such as busy roads, water-bodies, railway-tracks, hillocks etc. are considered parts of other neighbourhoods.

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Historically, small neighbourhood spaces had characteristic commercial component in the form of small stores and services (tailor, barber, laundry) shops. The traders with shop-home combination were also the informal watchdogs (policing) and communicators (gossip). Such places within the neighbourhood formed the loitering places and play areas for children. The commercial component was dissolved with shops and services being pushed to the main roads by zonal regulations. In towered apartments the population density is often great, and shops and services requirements are greater. But these are also pushed away in non-organic layouts. Loitering and play areas for children are vacant lots, used except for few hours. The tall tower dwellers with cars are encouraged to do intensive Saturday-Sunday shopping.

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Every little change is not only noticed, but routinely probed. People recognize the spatial changes. Around the corner or beyond the nominal perspective’ the changes are more apparent. A turn is a reversible change cutting off or initiating the connections. The change is worrisome, both by its presence, if sudden and extensive, or through its absence like when not of expected scale and quality. The neighbourhood fabric is disturbed by faster change in dwellers’ profile, new buildings, zoning laws, access to media and means of communication, rapid changes in urban-architectural character beyond the neighbourhood.

 

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Turning around ‘a corner is a limit of the home precinct for the child, but an additional adventure for a youngster’. To the elders, the corner is interesting from the opposite side, as it allows a wider perspective. Street-corners are good locations to observe and passively participate in social activities. Street corners are not always road junctions, but estate or plot edges that are shaped acute, obtuse or diffused. The old planning dictum to always hold the street Line’ or else time will erase all the spared space on the edge. ‘Put your building right out at the sidewalk, instead of behind one of those dreary concrete plazas’.

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The street corners are the ‘territory break lines’, not just for dogs and gangs, but also for the users. Within the personally ‘felt’ territory or limits, people move around without explanations, embarrassments or fear. Such ‘discretion’ are helped by the multi-angled-toothed layout of the neighbourhood, rather than a long straight street or squared edge layout.

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In Ahmedabad, India the genesis of the neighbourhood was in the ‘Chakla’. It was the first multiple road junction after entering the fort gate. The road from the fort gate was straight, whereas the Chakla had multiple nooks and corners, to be a place for everyone. Neighbourhoods were also formed as the gated communities such as the Pols of Ahmedabad, ‘for the purposes of defence, group preservation, sociality and convenience’. And within the Pol, there were other public or community spaces, in the form of Chowk and Khancho (literally a setback). These were irregularly shaped relief-spaces, identified by the temple or important dweller or the caste-community.

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‘A good city street neighbourhood achieves a marvel of balance between its people’s determination to have essential privacy and their simultaneous wishes for differing degrees of contact, enjoyment or help from the people around’. (p59 The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs).

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An existing convenience store in Toronto, Mimi's Convenience Store

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Corner bars, cafes or grocery stores were places of convenience, and preferred ‘joints’ because of the commanding view they offered. The owners of such commercial entities were not outsiders, but residents who dwelled up-above or on the back side of the ‘joint’. But with zoning regulations, these were pushed out to the main roads on the edge of neighbourhood or exclusive commercial zones. The ‘joints’ of the neighbourhood were not always in the corner, but known as: 7to11, 24×7, Morn-Eve, Bodega (from Latin apothēca, or apothecary =storeroom or wine-cellar), konbini (Japan, approx abbreviation of konbiniensu sutoa =convenience store), Arabe du coin (Paris), packie, delis (delicatessen), dépanneur or dépanner (French) shortened to a dep, party store, offy for off-license shop, sari-sari store (Philippines), milk stores or bars, Mama shop (Singapore).

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The CORNER -metaphor

Post 672 by Gautam Shah

This is the 1st article of series: ‘CORNERS’.

A corner is convergence of two lines or surfaces, respectively to a point, or line. It can be an outward entity with crowning vertex, and an inward form of a depressing nadir. A vertex and nadir both are zero measure elements, mere points, abstract representation of a corner. In comparison a corner is far more substantial due to its wedge like spread.

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‘Nature has no corners, you are the vertex or nadir of it’. -unknown.

Terrestrially directions are always well ‘based’, real and cardinal (North, East, South, West), whereas, Corners occur as inter-cardinal ephemeral entities. The spatial sensualities of the human body, format the sense of emplacements and orientation, such as the Left-Right, Up-Down and Front-Back.

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Indian mythological space has 10 corners (four cardinal points + four angular points + up & down). The Kshetrapals (Guardians of the estate), however reside in four corners of the plot. The Global locations are defined through the corner formed by longitude and latitude. The Global Positioning System (GPS) was based on tracing of radio frequency, but now multiple satellites (as many as 24 or more in different types of orbits) work as regional and global location noting system. Besides location, the satellites also define movement and its direction, and altitudes. Currently photographs have embedded information about location (like longitude and latitude through GPS), but in very short future this will be reinforced with information about angle or direction of the shot.

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Estate corners have been assigned specific meaning and preferred tasks in Indian Vastu Shastra (Classical cannons of design-building). East direction should be open, light, bright and clean. West direction is for stability in life. North is holiest or purest direction. It is for wealth and prosperity. Energy flow out so should be lowest in level. NE is for deities to reside. South direction is considered inauspicious for entrance. It is owned by Yam, Hindu deity for death.

Some similar approach is offered in Jewish-Christian traditions. God created all sides, but left the North unfinished, saying, ‘whoever declares own-self to be God, allow the person to finish this corner, and then all shall know the truth’. From that unfinished corner, demons, winds, earthquakes, and evil spirits come forth to the world. From the north shall disaster break loose (Jer. 1:14). Because of the cold North winds, it was identified as the abode of evil spirits.

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Egyptian pyramids and other buildings are squared and well oriented. These have axial depth depicting space sequences. But the Egyptian art has total absence of oblique except for the Ra’s rays, ropes of weighing scale, wide feet and few gestures of the hand. There is a datum line that divides the scene into several strata, but does not become a scaling device. There are vertical elements that frame (a built-frame like mandap or chupah) the important person but it is a planner view. Architecture is gravity stable, with sloping faces of columns, obelisks, pylons, ceremonial ramps, and oblique faces pyramids.

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A corner is a recognizable, and long-lasting point or mark on a property. It is a point, from where a change (of direction) occurs. A corner marked property, has edges that define the exterior versus the interior attributes. It also defines, ours versus others domains. Corners define convex or concave (outward or inward) character of a spatial entity. Corners, if belong to the inside, mark what is included, and if on the outside, define what is excluded. We traverse an estate as a planner entity of corners, and for this, the contoured undulations are not important. A triangle, a three-cornered shape, has three vertices, and it is the minimum entity. Large country surveys are resolved to triangles, as the sharing of vertices, edges, and angles creates a linked universe.

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The prime cornered entity has been the Dice, with its potency to turn the fortunes. The dice, on one its six sides, has 4 dots at corners (like the city cross road diagonals). This was known as quatre (French), and anglicized to cater. Somewhere along the time, the word Cater came to be truncated to ‘cat’, and corners were identified for the cat to be in. No one asked the feline creature, if she preferred, a window sill instead?

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corners

Corners are right angled, acute, obtuse or reflex. Solids have corners with two exterior faces and hollow objects have two interior faces. The outward sides of an acute or right angle corner are difficult to comprehend simultaneously, because one of the side remains concealed, till one turns around. The exterior corner can be grasped fully, if only one moves away from it. Obtuse and reflex corners sometimes defy the perspective view. Solids have impersonal exterior faces, and hollow objects have compassionate interior sides’. Acute corners of an isometric view create visual aberration, where outward and inward corners look identical.

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A megaphone, trumpet, bullhorn, etc. are cone-shaped acute corners whereas speakers have a wider cone of an obtuse angle, both are meant to amplify the sound. The conical angle enhances the power of sound and radiate it in desired direction. A ‘listening cone’ for hearing fetal heart sounds of babies, is acute angled, whereas a dish-antenna is an obtuse-angled device that captures sounds (or energy) from a wider source, and concentrate it at the narrow end.

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A plane vertical edge enhances the corner, but if the plane is not a true square or has surface perturbation like single or double curvature then visual distortion is very ambiguous. An outward incline of the edge-plane over a corner push the centre of gravity away from the base, and makes the solid unstable, conversely an inward lean of the edge-plane over a corner is visually depressant, but offers an assuring gravity-stable solid.

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Corners are secluded spaces, ideal for intrigue, but the occupants remain unaware that conversation gets amplified and others can overhear. Secretaries, maids and butlers use reverse wine glass for listening to secrets. A corridor is a good sound transmitting tunnel, unless properly baffled or insulated. A corner protects you from sides, but does not allow any offensive action. Corners have little freedom of movement, and so one cannot hope to play blind-person’s buff.

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A corner entrance offers deepest traversing distance, so on any estate (party-place, banquette hall, game or fun-park, museum). Just like the main course of dinner, the entree is longer lasting and satisfying. Corners are closed and dead, but seclusion of a corner is dissolved by a gap in the end, like a funnel. It drains away the energy, but also acts like a pressure release valve. This technique is well exploited in public spaces like piazzas, plazas, courtyards, etc. The sides of parallel (square or rectangular) remain uninvolved but a cornered entity (parallelogram, triangle or multi-cornered) offers hopes of involvement.

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Corners were re-realized when ‘perspective machines’ began to offer rational views with regulated corners. For architecture, the corners were  conceived for the perspective, but in paintings, these were exploited to put everything to scale and format a unified composition. The view making corners were most obvious in Greek Parthenon Here, not only the site was cornered, but built-form was also angled, but much later Baroque period created its own multi cornered architecture irrespective of the site.

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Parthenon Athens Greece (1978) Wikipedia Image by Steve Swayne

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Essence of a corner is its end point, and not the sides, inside or outside faces. In a perspective, corners mark the change of plane, but due to the taper, scale the scene. The corners, in perspective exterior or interior ones, all really occur inside a hypothetical cone. Performance stages were once round, but for controlled perception, have turned into wedge form. The tapered form of the stage has several advantages: On solid wall stages tapered shape reinforces the sound delivery like a megaphone, the wedge shape adds to the visual depth, it also allows the sides of the set to be visible from the audience arena. Games have corner shots as penalties. Loneliness is not confined by the sides, but it is just a personal low point, in an empty or crowded space. In a corner, if the change over is spatially distanced or time delayed, it turns into catch-22, a paradoxical situation of opposite set of rules (title of 1961 novel, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller). Corners must be negotiated quickly and decisively, and as in games one must negotiate (‘cut’) it from a distance or get shot by hidden opponent.

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A corner is also a joint, and here two different things have some generative encounter. Joints are conditions of adjacency between two or more objects, which offer some spatial surprises. Many different social and political activities flourish at corners, investing a different meaning to the architectural space.

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The word corner derives from > ‘corne, corner, horn, cornū, cornua, cornere, corniere, corna (horn or hyrne), angle. Use of cater (French quatre =four”), as a verb can be traced to the 16th C as meaning ‘to place something diagonally, move diagonally, place diagonally or cut diagonally’.

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