Architects have confronted the corner “problem” or the turning of the corner throughout architectural history. While the expression is common throughout architectural discourse, theoretical inquiry on the corner condition exits only in scattered fragments – a body of work has yet to holistically examine this concept and its overall significance. Why is it that the corner, a seemingly simple and standard feature, is actually a complex entity that has created a ‘problem’ in architecture?
As can be seen throughout architectural history, the corner problem has been solved by a variety of architects in a variety of ways. The architectural exploitation of the corner is deeply rooted in history both in its physical and conceptual presence. An architectural photograph or rendering frequently employs a perspectival approach that preferences the oblique; a condition indicative of the corner. While the response to the corner problem initially began as formal one its wide array of architectural responses is linked to spatial and social implications.
In ancient Greek and Roman times, the relationship of the viewer to the building based on the corner condition was used for both social and political purposes. The Greeks intended space to be conceptualized and seen by a viewer at 45-degree angle to the building. The approach to the Acropolis along the 45-degree angle created a deliberate alignment with the sun that signified not only directionality but also spatial and political hierarchy. This diagonal relationship drew particular attention to the corner, manifesting a particular vantage point known as Greek Space.
Greek space derived from the corner in response to a tectonic condition. The material change of the Doric Temple from wood to stone created a corner problem that the Greeks and Romans solved in different ways. The change from wood to stone affected the temple structure, which in turn affected the corner . The Greeks maintained symmetry about the corner when viewed from a forty give degree angle, and frontally appeared irregular.
Architrave Material Change, Greek and Roman Temples
Image Source: Peter Eisenman
The Roman’s alternate solution to the corner problem generated an emphasis on frontality. Since the Romans’ sites were mostly confined, the gap between the front and side triglyphs at the corner was rarely noticeable; opposite from the open sites of the Greeks. Thus, the Romans favored a perpendicular relationship between the viewer and the façade that maintained aesthetic purity.
This emphasis on the exterior corner condition was replaced during the Renaissance with emphasis on the interior corner; a response to the development of internal courtyards (palazzo cortiles) as urban public space. During this time, the reentrant corner was heavily employed for both conceptual and aesthetic purposes.
At the courtyard of Palazzo Ducal, Urbino by Luciano Laurana, each façade ended with a column, which produced the intersection of two columns at the corner. To maintain a formal relationship at the corner, Laurana combined structure and ornament together by doubling the columns to create L-Shaped Piers.
Left: Palazzo Santa Maria Della Pace, Rome, Bramante c.1500
Middle: Palazzo Chiericati, Vicenza, Alberti 1548-57
Right: Palazzo Ducal, Urbino, Luciano Laurana 1465-73
Unlike Laurana’s move at Urbino, Bramante solved the corner problem by preserving a formal relationship of part to whole at the Palazzo Santa Maria Della Pace. Alberti’s corner solution at the Palazzo Chiericati in Vicenza, Italy combined the aesthetic and geometrically unified corners of Laurana and Bramante. Alberti responded to the “problem” of the double column at the exterior corner of the palazzo by combining them on a 45 degree angle that implied a third pair.
Altes Museum, Shinkel, perspectival view
During the Neoclassical period, emphasis was again given to vantage points that preferenced the oblique and in turn the corner. Shinkel’s perspective drawings of the Altes Musuem, emphasized the diagonal approach and the closed corner of the building, which implied the building’s recession into deep space. Philip Johnson would later echo this favor for the diagonal with his designed approach to the Glass House.
Fallingwater, PA, Frank Lloyd Wright 1935-39
Image Source: Mary Ann Sullivan
While the palazzo cortiles and perspectival images dealt with corners of a defined box, Frank Lloyd Wright introduced a new spatial effect for the corner by destroying the box. This voided corner type created open space by attacking the traditional room at its point of greatest strength-the corner . In plan, Wright generated flowing space by dissolving the corner. At Fallingwater, Wright employed tectonic methods of cantilevering volumes to manifest the corner as a void.
Rietveld Schroder House, Gerrit Rietveld, 1924
Image Source: Ernst Moritz
Farnsworth House, Mies, Chicago, IL, 1951
Image Source: Brennan Letkeman
Following Wright’s corner was the modernist rhetoric of the corner as a didactic countermove. Gerrit Rietveld’s Schroeder House denied the corner in order to accentuate the transparency between inside and outside space. At the Barcelona Pavilion, Mies van der Rohe manifested phenomenal transparency with a series of planes that produced an indeterminate spatial organization that not only framed views but promoted publicness. At the Farnsworth House, Mies considered the corner as void to articulate the transparent relationship between indoor and outdoor space by having the vertical plane operate as a void .
At IIT, Mies countered these transparent corner solutions by solving the corner problem with an additive corner. At each corner he exposed two I-Beams creating a reentrant corner that in its absence of closed definition became a signification of the corner. Robert Venturi continued the spatial dialogue between revealed and concealed corners by masking the corner in his design for his Mother’s House. Venturi detached the façade from the volume of the house so that the corner was present but not completely evident. The modernist response to the corner proved that the corner could embody an architectonic system-reflective in materiality, form and scale.
Mie’s Corner at Crown Hall, Chicago, 1950-6
Image Source: Gregory Bencivengo
Masked Corner, Vanna Venturi House, 1961-64
Image Source: Vladimir Paperny
Kunsthal, Koolhaas/OMA, Rotterdam, 1992
Image Source: Netherlands Architecture Institute
Contemporary architectural designs continue to employ the corner to influence the perception of space. Koolhaas/OMA’s Kunsthal is an example of where the corner was employed as a deliberate strategy. Koolhaas used the corner as a tactic of spatial definition to define the circulation armature of the museum. The corners are mitered to not only juxtapose materiality but to create a seamless sequence throughout the building. At Peter Zumthor’s Therme Vals, the corner is the origin for the offsetting of bond joints and is used to create a seamless visual continuity.
While some may argue that the corner is disappearing in contemporary practice – the corner does not necessarily have to exist in the x,y,z axis and discussion of the role and meaning of the corner is still valid in today’s society. The corner embodies an architectonic system that can influence the perception of space. The significance of the corner is dependent upon the architect’s intent and how he or she implements the condition within his or her architectural syntax. How does the architectural evolution of the corner influence how architects treat the corner in contemporary practice today?