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The Odd Angle

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Walls and furniture fall naturally into orthogonal arrangements when space is in short supply and this is perhaps why curvilinearity is consistently regarded as a sign of affluence, and then mistaken for beauty. This post is a reminder that breaking an orthogonal geometry every now and then is a good thing if all it takes to solve some problem is an occasional angle. In this first example it’s easy to see what problem the angles are solving but it’s a problem that needn’t have been allowed to occur in the first place. [c.f. Clever Solutions]

My first example of the appropriate use of the odd angle is the 1967 Kingsway Gardens apartments in Perth by Krantz & Sheldon, and in which the 45° angles create eight radial party walls. Apartments are mirrored back-to-back around the cardinal party walls and mirrored side-by-side along the ordinal ones to create four apartments every 180°. This arrangement ensures living rooms and/or their balconies don’t overlook each other, it puts more distance between bedroom windows and it places the entrances where they need to be between the core and the living rooms. It’s exceedingly tidy. 

The 45° angle is beneficially absorbed by the kitchen on one side of the wall and by the living area on the other. In the living room shown below, the living room has been extended into the balcony area to create a species of Juliet balcony.

This configuration is no one-off. A variant of it is standard in Hong Kong where adjacent buildings commonly share walls at the ends of wings. Another common variant has the surface area increased so bathrooms and kitchen front an open-ended gap that ventilates them locally and facilitates cross ventilation for the entire apartment.

The fan-shaped building attempts to place many habitable rooms as possible along one side of a linear corridor and core. We think of the rooms as “widening” to make the window area as large as possible but it’s really the rooms narrowing to get as many of them off that corridor as possible and without making it any longer than it needs to be. Contrary to what I’d always imagined, the apartments of Alvar Aalto’s 1958-62 Neue Vahr apartment (Aalto Hochhaus) face west not south, with access and service on the east. He managed to get nine apartments in 180°. He could have got a tenth on the south end but instead decided to devote that view angle to a communal seating area that, though no doubt pleasant, seems more a consequence of the entrance lobby on the ground floor.

All the same, the living rooms are better for having no inconvenient angles and the wet rooms are better for being orthogonal. Having the space widen towards the living room and its window is especially good if the apartment is a studio apartment and wall-mounted flatscreen televisions are still a thing of the future. Large closets near the entrances reduce the width of shared access corridor but not its length and this why the planning of the apartment at the northern end is not great.

Aalto gave it another try with his 1964-67 Schonbuhl Apartments and Commercial Centre that has two large apartments sandwiching two studio apartments. With only four entrances, the length of the corridor was never going to be a problem. On average, these apartments face south-east.

Mecanoo’s often-compared 1989 Hillekop project in Rotterdam has what looks like six two-bedroom apartments per floor. Given the size of those second bedrooms, we can’t say this is equivalent to 12 studios in 180° but all face south more or less. End apartments work hard to reduce the length of the corridor.

With their 1976 Galileo apartments, Barcelona architects Viaplana and Piñon created fan-shaped apartments inside a rectangle and with a conventional column structure but it’s difficult to believe all this artifice was directed at reducing the length of the access corridor, especially since little of it is apparent on the exterior. Perhaps it has something to do with the unusually deep plan in which all apartments other than the end one were always going to be four-bedroom apartments with two of the bedrooms (plus kitchens, and bathrooms) lit by light wells.

The fan-shaped apartment building wants to be half a circular tower for which the optimum radius is a compromise between window area and apartment depth once allowances are made for the width of the core and the access corridor.

On balance, the acutely angled apartment does what it is meant to do as the space between the converging walls is easily filled with bathrooms and storage spaces while the inevitable circular core absorbs any remaining space as shafts. Another approach is to embed a rectangular grid into a circular floorplate and absorb the awkward spaces on perimeter balconies and terraces where functional constraints are not so high.  [Victor]

Polygonal and circular geometries may have had their moment [c.f. The Hexagon [a eulogy]] but this doesn’t mean their potential was ever fully explored, or that they can’t have another moment.

Meet the starfish plan! It grows from upscale loggias on the periphery and attempts to resolve the radial flaws of circular layouts with their many wedge-shaped rooms opening off circular corridors. It’s sort of a planning koan that in order for circles to work, there must be non-circles for them to interfere with. I first tried a square but a hexagon brought even numbers and symmetry. The same service and access spaces that so easily fit into rectangular geometries can easily “square up” a hexagonal floorplate to allow apartments more or less conventionally planned but with perhaps a hallway or a living room enhanced from absorbing an angle.  

I found I could avoid trapezoidal rooms by having a belt of habitable rooms around a core and corridor having a hexagram geometry. Any room that absorbs the corner receives a balcony and rich ensuite facilities.

It’s still not properly resolved. A core with a ring corridor is a sad type and circulation can’t be allowed to get out of control. Unlike scaleable structures such as simple rectangles that can be easily stretched, these crystalline plans have many geometric constraints, are not so easily adaptable, and they must be precisely crafted. On the upside, the hexagram building is attractive as its many facets have a different brightness even when ambiently lit. As many as six “corner” apartments have enhanced views and ventilation and with none of the internal overlooking of a cruciform plan (though local sunlight regulations such as we have in Russia will kill some corners of the hexagram). The structural rigidity of the tube structure is apparent even from a paper model.

With his 1952 Casa Borsolino, Ignazio Gardella showed how non-orthoganal walls are more than just deviations for the sake of being different and can actually enhance the sensation of certain spaces and even save some space at the same time.

The apartment corridor widens in front of the elevator and stairs where it needs to be wider, and narrows towards the entrance doors. Once inside that door, the corridor again narrows to lead to the living room and into it. Spaces through which people move are shaped in accordance with the direction of the movement. Kitchen and bedrooms contain large furniture and/or fixed items that, more often than not, are rectangular and as best use of space they can be. Bathrooms have neither and are therefore used to absorb the angle created by the living room narrowing towards the window. This is the quiet mastery of small deviations in walls and floors to produce subtle effects that enhance the experience of the apartment and perhaps even save a bit of space as well.

It’s more of the same at Gardella’s 1956 Casa delle Zattere in Venice.

  • The 5° angle along the front boundary generates an angled wall in plan that is used to make the apartment hallways larger.
  • The angle is absorbed by the corridor running the length of the front left apartment. Living room and corner bedroom still have two right-angled corners.
  • The other angled wall (at right angles) behind the stairs makes the bedroom larger towards the window, whilst a small dressing area serves as an ante-room to both bedroom and bathroom.
  • The living room of the front left apartment is not exactly rectangular. My guess is that the rear wall is intended to somehow direct people to look slightly obliquely out of the windows at Palladio’s Il Redentore across Venice’s Giudecca Canal.

A mastery of planning such as Gardella’s in which interior spaces are shaped not only to enhance their experience but to enhance their meaning is like an alien language and not something that’s recognized or appreciated let alone encouraged. Ignazio Gardella is not “taught” as he is not considered an architect with anything of value to offer. This of course depends on what values one values.

Even if Gardella’s intentions and techniques are now unintelligible to us, we could at least consider this floor plan of Torre Velasca (1954, BBPR) in Milan. Those angled end walls of the recessed balconies make for a wider angle of view from the living areas, and thus for more light into them. They are a good thing and, incidentally, date from a time when shuffly windows were the result of actual design effort and not the desire to represent design effort.

We could do worse than restore our design intelligence to mid-1950s levels. In the contemporary building below, whatever problem being solved by the angular geometry clearly has nothing to do with the apartment layout.



    • Thanks Iago! Actually it was you who alerted me to the work of Vilaplaya & Pinon. Do you remember this image?

      I’ve found similar images on the internet and they all seem to be from the same book. Do you know if it is the OBRA book? I had a look at Coderch’s work too and it also uses angles very intelligently. Thank you! I’ve barely scratched the surface for both these architects but I was particularly impressed with this.

      Amazingly, none of it looks forced. I really like the way the lower bathrooms are open to the service balcony. We’ve forgotten how to do this. Graham.

      I’ve just noticed the three fireplaces in the right places.