We find something like a circle in the rings of a tree, in the structure of a cell, in the shape of our planet. But we do not find the particular thing that we have come to call a circle outside of the realm of our own creation. More than anything, it is a concept. Something like the square exists in the columnar structure of certain soils, of volcanic basalt. But where in nature can we find the thing that we have come to call a square? All of the geometries that we have created are perfect, standardized approximations of shapes that we find in nature. For how can we describe the unpredictability - the profound minutia of irregularity found in the shapes that exist outside of human creation - with mathematical formula? How can we understand them? We have created these idealisms of shapes in the same way that we have defined words as approximations of concepts that are far more intricate and irregular than those words can ever communicate. Over time, our species has become more and more obsessed with the standardization of nature, with the subjection of it's logical complexity into the practical simplicity that we yearn for it to be. Increasingly, we desire to create a world of perfect circles and perfect squares.
Before we began in earnest, to seek this standardized world, the things that people created - tools, adornment, art, structure - took on the peculiar irregularities, the particular character of the piece of the world from which it was made. Each post of a structure had a slightly different diameter. One had the stub of a branch protruding from its midsection, another was kinked two-thirds of the way up its length, another was bowed into an elegant curve. Early Indian monasteries, for example, were built without blueprints, allowing the evolution of the buildings the freedom to take on the character of the materials. Today, we throw away a slightly warped 2x4 because it doesn't fit neatly into our plan. But early builders knew not only how to work around these irregularities, but how to work with them. They had to.
We see this in many early building typologies. Not surprisingly, many early building types are 'circular' (the circle that exists in the tree ring, not in the geometry textbook). The circle has a more self-supporting structure when extruded into a cylinder, cone or dome, and does not lose this integrity as easily with the imprecision inherent in working with non-standardized natural materials. The Native American tipi is perhaps one of the simplest examples of an early building typology - long sticks supported by the ground at the bottom and by themselves at the top. Because the people had no way (or no desire) to standardize the sticks, they developed a structure in which each could be a little taller or shorter, a little bent, crooked, kinked or bowed, in which the building's footprint didn't need to be a circle as scribed by a compass for it's structural integrity, only a circle as the tree ring is a circle.
In India, people have been building 'circular' houses out of earth for millennia. The most basic technique was simply packing wet earth into the shape of the walls and letting it dry in the sun, layer by layer. Like sculpting with clay, truly smooth curves were possible. In the construction of the dung house, common in India, the dung patties were made by hand into circular shapes, used as a crude type of building block. Yet the method of construction was such that the building did not demand that each be the exact same size or shape. Then there was the invention of the brick - perhaps the first great leap towards standardization in building practice. Each brick was formed into the same shape (though still today, master earth builders trained in the artisanship of antiquity form each brick by hand, each barely but truly different), with standardized length, width and height. Though people continue to build round houses from standardized brick, the roundness is one achieved by the overall effect of many short, straight segments. Through the standardization of building blocks into square and rectangular forms, we had reduced the circle from its holistic conceptualization as a single smooth curve, into a collection of straight lines. Yet, the irregularity of nature would remain reflected in human structures even into the modern age.
Antoni Gaudi, in the early 20th century, was one of few architects of his time to see not only beauty, but opportunity for structural and typological innovation, in the complexities of nature. Today we are still captivated by the way that his buildings stand out from their rectilinear neighbors, oozing with character, whimsy and irregularity. Even in his time, it came at great expense to craft individually each stone, to brush of the standardization culture and persevere in a disappearing culture of artisanship. He died wearing rags, hit by a trolley on his way to prayer, penniless, having used everything he could scrape together to build the Sagrada Familia stone by stone. The presence of the profound whimsy, complexity and beauty of nature in the constructed environment was dying, too.
Buckminster Fuller won international fame for the innovation of the geodesic dome. Like Gaudi's whimsical structures and parabolic arches, in the 1950's and 60's, when Fuller was attempting to popularize the dome as a new building typology, it was a radical departure from an architecture that had become standardized into right angles and straight lines. Yet Fuller's curved surfaces had more in common with the architecture of its era the structures of antiquity - wigwams constructed using the natural curves of tree limbs and roots, earthen vaults sculpted by the smooth curve of the mason's mind. Fuller's dome was deeply mathematical, and is more notable for the extremity of its standardization and ability to be mass-produced than for its reintroduction of the curve into architecture. For his curved surfaces were not, in fact, curved surfaces, but collections of straight lines delineating a series of flat triangular or hexagonal planes, which when put together, approximate a dome. Yet, one of the major criticisms of the dome, and reasons that it never became as popularized as Fuller had dreamed, is that building materials were already standardized into rectangles, and mass production domes demanded the development of a new industry that was mass producing plywood and glass in triangles. Thus, the further we go down the path to complete standardization, the more limited our options for building types become.
Today, there are still architects who are captivated by and determined to build with the complexities of form and structure that we find in nature. Frank Gehry's multimillion-dollar sculpture buildings have won international acclaim mainly for one reason - they are not square. Of course, they are not circles either - they appear as though they are no shape that we can describe with mathematical formula, except that they have been created through the utilization of extremely complex mathematics and computing. Thus, in a way we are returning to an organic architecture - but where we once allowed the materials of nature to dictate the curvature and irregularity of the structure, today we take standardized rectangular materials, imagine a complex shape, and at incredible cost re-form the material into something that appears non-standardized.
Gaston Bachelard, in his Poetics of Space, explores the idea of the house as an extension of the womb, and argues that we feel more comfortable in spaces that parallel our instinctive subconscious memories. He argues for an architecture that forces us to recall our origins in the natural world. There is no doubt the public imagination is still, perhaps more than ever, captivated by the forms of nature - but today these forms are reserved for buildings with astronomical budgets and complex methodologies.
Anybody who has tried to draft a complex organic structure on AutoCAD, or to build one out of 2x4's, knows that we have developed an industry hostile to the creation of these forms. We seem to have imprisoned ourselves in a perfect square, and we look through the perfectly round bars to see the trees, the birds' nests, the clouds, and wonder what it would be like instead to live there.
J McDonald is an architect and artist working in New York City.
"When a man rides a long time through wild regions he feels the desire for a city. Finally he comes to Isidora, a city where the buildings have spiral staircases encrusted with spiral seashells, where perfect telescopes and violins are made, where the foreigner hesitating between two women always encounters a third, where cockfights degenerate into bloody brawls among the bettors. He was thinking of all these things when he desired a city. Isidora, therefore, is the city of his dreams: with one difference..."Read More
By J McDonald, Issue 16, Squares & Circles Issue, December 2012