There’s a German saying that mocks architects: “If their thoughts become infertile, they’re sure to draw a circle.” But why does this unique geometric figure have a bad reputation with many designers? In the form of the discs of the sun and the moon, the circle has always been a sublime daily and nightly encounter for all living beings on earth. That would actually lead us to expect that it would be regarded in aesthetic perception as the most valuable of all forms.
Whoever examines the corresponding discourses in archaeology and history realizes that the circle does indeed have very positive connotations. In prehistoric times, it was an extremely familiar basic geometric figure for both temporary structures, such as tents and igloos, and more permanent structures, such as huts, places of worship, fortifications and settlements. It was a logical choice for reasons of both construction and logistics and thus seemed obvious – long before lines and rectangles began to dominate construction as principles of design. Looking at recent building history with a spotlight on the circle, you can see alternating phases of clear attention and avoidance that reveal a highly ambivalent relationship to this shape over the centuries.
The circle is currently experiencing a renaissance as the footprint of numerous contemporary buildings. “Strong geometries” are generally on the rise. And with them comes a return of the notion of architecture as a radical combination, composition or subtraction of geometric shapes. In Switzerland, this is often the case with the teachers and (former) students at the Università della Svizzera italiana in Mendrisio.
But why do we again encounter the circle more often at this point in time – despite or precisely because of its ambivalent characteristics? Circles (and closely related shapes such as cylinders and domes) have two very different spatial-psychological properties. For one thing, they invite participation and demonstrate subtle openness. But they can also have an entirely opposite effect: They can be introverted, detached, closed or defensive. And they can even become tools of control and repression, as, for example, depressingly portrayed by Michel Foucault in his look at the panopticon in the 1975 book Surveiller et punir.
The meanings ascribed to the circular form go far beyond its functional and spatial-psychological properties, however. Circles, cylinders and spheres were and are used as symbols in the realms of mysticism and cosmology – and more recently in politics and marketing, too – and they are used to render diverse worldviews. Their power in these realms refers anew to the deep entrenchment of the circular form in cultural history. And Friedrich Nietzsche’s reading of civilizations as being cyclical, which implies that the same things recur in perpetuity, presents the circular form as a spiral. In this model, it stands not only for constant change but also for continuity.
Nevertheless, for many people the circle also symbolizes the future, in the sense of a linear notion of cultural development: That might be motivated simply by analogy, since many vehicles are conical or cylindrical for reasons of aerodynamics, or because space stations (which create gravity through rotation) are shaped like wheels.
But is form still connected at all in the current architectural discourse to worldviews or content in general? Or is the circle’s revival merely the result of a desire to play with references and expressive forms, now that designers have become bored with minimalism?
Gilles Delalex disagrees: In his essay “The Ruins of Adolescence”, he highlights new interrelationships between form and political and ethical demands when he writes that we find ourselves in a time of retro-modernism, in which architects are paying increasing attention to humanist ideals, social equality, collective emancipation and morality. In his opinion, they attempt to do so by turning to pure and archaic forms. The invigorated heroic narrative searches with greater intensity for a future in the past. Not in the history of styles, however, but in archaic Greece and thus in the psychology of forms and the transcendence inscribed in them.
Motivated by the current heated debate about more sustainability, we take up this impulse and hope to give the wheel a little more momentum – knowing full well that this issue is also, or above all, about tranquility and deceleration and slowed growth that resists the capitalist-driven logic. In this regard, however, it is also justified to ask whether the circular form can at all suitably represent the complexity of our world.