I have never made it a secret that I love to incorporate curves into my designs.
The correct juxtaposition of curves against straight lines creates a visual tension which is at once graceful and sensual. It draws the focus of and subliminally excites a viewer while relieving the severity of the building “box.”
Unfortunately, the correct use of this technique is something most modern architects have perhaps never learned.
It is simply discarded as either too expensive for the commodity housing developer or as running counter to the angular expression of the 21st-century modern style we’ve seen so much over the last fifteen years.
When they do, apparently grudgingly, utilize curves, it is most often expressed with the occasional porthole window. Its location is more often dictated by interior requirements, rather than adding to the exterior presentation.
In the past, I have spoken in this column about my ongoing love affair with the 1930s Art Moderne (or Streamline Moderne) architecture style, simply because the buildings evoke the visual equivalent of Coco Chanel’s iconic little black dress from the world of fashion. Elegance is achieved through its composition of clean lines and curves.
That said, the technique of juxtaposing curves against straight lines, to a greater or lesser extent, has been used to outstanding effect by architects throughout history.
Allow me to illustrate this by looking at a few examples of historic houses here in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
At 165 Queen St. stands the MacDougal-Harrison House. The first thing one is likely to notice about the building’s facade is the brickwork that stands proud of the wall.
Reminiscent of the Roman Colosseum, relatively slender pilasters are capped with light brick imposts from which rise semi-elliptical arches, on both first and second stores, creating an arcade.
Now, I’d like you to imagine this house without its arcades. The building’s facade, taller than it is wide and set very close to the street, would present three bays in which six openings would pierce a severe presentation that would loom over the passers by; an impression only accentuated by unbroken brick parapet end walls.
Even its main entry, despite the gorgeous fan and side lights, would be diminished within such a sombre character.
It’s the arcade and more specifically, the repeating curved lines of the arches contained within the straight lines of the building form, which lift and lighten the facade to convert the presentation into a formal, graceful and elegant.
To a lesser extent, you can see similar decorative arcades on several other period houses in town (eg Stewart-McLeod House at 42 Prideaux) as well as on the circa 1825 commercial building, Alma’s Store at 46 Queen St.
And, since we are on Queen Street, let’s slip over to the corner at King Street where we will find the Niagara Apothecary where, using semi-circular arched windows, the circa 1866 renovation dressed this facade with its own arcade that delivers a comparable formal grace to a pretty humble building.
Next, let’s examine how a single correctly utilized curve can completely change the impression of a facade by contrasting two very similar houses on opposite corners of Johnson and Regent.
Both Barker Hall (ca. 1831) at 46 Johnson and the Jones-Eckersley House (ca. 1833) across Regent at 58 Johnson are two-storey cubic form Regency dwellings with hip roofs and are clad in clapboard.
Each house was substantial and likely cost within the same range.
However, when we look at the first one, then the other and finally both, it is the Jones-Eckersley House which delivers a more satisfying and refined impression.
It is not the slight asymmetry of Barker Hall that causes it to suffer in comparison to its neighbor, but rather the single striking semi-elliptical arch above the main entry of the Jones-Eckersley house which serves to create a complementary tension (and relief from ) all the straight lines which define this cubic building.
All through the Victorian era, curving lines were deployed to heighten that impression of “elegance” as defined by the societal taste of the time.
The pointed and segmental arches common in Gothic Revival houses (not uncommonly emphasized with dichromatic brick), the semi-circular arches of the Italianate, Second Empire, and Romanesque designs, the porch and eave brackets of all the aforementioned styles, the expansive curving porches of the Queen Anne homes and eyebrow dormers seen on Arts and Crafts houses are all examples of the effective use of the curve in historic design.
Just to be clear, simply introducing curves into a design does not necessarily result in a better end product. It is the correct use of the curve which accomplishes this result.
Let’s imagine a simple symmetrical two-storey commercial building design with five bays. In each of the four shouldering openings, we will install large single full-height (ground level to three feet below the roof eaves) rectangular windows, while in the fifth center bay, we will create a semi-circular arched opening with a double main entry door and large single window rising above.
Now, if we maintain a single continuous maximum height across all the openings, the impression will be a smaller, less welcoming, entry invitation.
Nor can we allow the impost points of the arch to exceed the height of the eaves due to the likelihood of destroying the building proportions.
To achieve that exciting tension, we should start and end our arch level with the top of the shouldering openings such that the entry is welcoming but not overwhelming.
In my opinion, some of the best architectural designs combining both curves and straight lines today are coming out of a new generation of Chinese architects. It is worth a Google to see.
Brian Marshall is a NOTL realtor, author and expert consultant on architectural design, restoration and heritage.