I recently returned from a trip to Argentina, where I spent the majority of my time in Buenos Aires. Of the many times I have been to Buenos Aires, this was by far the most interesting intellectually. My mom is Argentine, so I grew up traveling south every couple of years to visit her family. Because of this, I hadn’t seen many of the “touristy”–but of course, touristy for a reason—places of Buenos Aires. Of all of the beautiful European-style architecture, out-of-this-world food, and breath-taking music, one of the things that struck me the most about the city was the design of the streets, and more specifically, the corners.
Every corner in Buenos Aires is cut off so that all corner properties are irregularly shaped. The name for these corners, ochavas, reflects the resulting octagonal shape of the blocks. In most buildings, it is only the ground floor that has the missing corner, leaving the top floors with an overhang that reminded me simultaneously of San Francisco’s bay windows and a precarious ledge waiting to collapse.
These corners may be a rather unusual thing to notice—though not for an Urban Studies student interested in design—but they serve many purposes that compensate for the buildings’ lost square footage. I was thankful for them every time I was driven somewhere in the city, for intersections without stoplights have no stop or yield signs in any direction, giving the first car in the intersection right-of-way. With aggressive drivers and narrow streets, this is a recipe for disaster that would result in even more accidents if not for ochavas. Because of the missing chunk of building at each corner, visibility is extended many feet into the cross-street, giving drivers a better opportunity to see the taxi tearing across the intersection ahead of them and slow down, instead of getting broadsided.
Buenos Aires, like most dense cities, is made up of many independent shops instead of big-box retail. Bakeries, butcher shops, stationary stores, restaurants, book stores, shoe repair shops, and countless ice cream shops are interspersed throughout every residential street, and ochavas give an corner-property owners a chance to create impressive display windows or seating for customers. This extra wall seen from all angles also gives corner properties a definitive entrance, instead of having to choose one street to serve. In a city dominated by pedestrian activity, the wider sidewalk area also gives people a place to stand when waiting to cross the street. And when standing at any corner, intersections seem open and inviting, with signs and doors oriented towards the pedestrian.
Where did ochavas come from? Why are they a part of urban design in Buenos Aires, and not Los Angeles? Some sources explain that traditional corners cause dangerous collisions that become particularly unsafe when people are carrying goods, ladders, or are in a rush. In the past, since many people carried canes or were armed, simple collisions could escalate into fights. According to my mom, this explanation is both insufficient (normal corners exist throughout the world without any sort of social collapse) and incomplete: apparently, opening up corners with ochavas helped decrease cuchilladas, or stabbings, of people who were approaching intersections. With nowhere to hide, walking the streets of Buenos Aires became safer, and octagonal blocks became standard building practice mandated by the government by the early 20th century. Whatever the reason, they give character to the otherwise monotonous grid that characterizes the city, creating an urban aesthetic with softer edges.