Monday, March 12, 2012

0085 - Why are they circular?

"It is not the right angle that attracts me neither the strait line, hard, inflexible, created by man. What attracts me is the free and sensual curved line, the curve that I found in the mountains of my country, in the sinuous path of its rivers, in the waves of the sea, in a woman’s body. From curves is made the Universe – the infinite curved universe of Einstein."(Oscar Niemeyer – my translation)

"Não é o ângulo recto que me atrai nem a linha recta, dura, inflexível, criada pelo homem. O que me atrai é a curva livre e sensual, a curva que encontro nas montanhas do meu país, no curso sinuoso dos seus rios, nas ondas do mar, no corpo da mulher amada. De curvas é feito todo o universo – o universo curvo de Einstein."
(Oscar Niemeyer)

That is why I think we cannot understand these sites without an approach from the history of mentalities and cosmogonies. Because architecture materializes mind and world views.


  1. Why not? Enclosures, rondels, henges... are round everywhere (exception anyone?). But also are huts. The novelty is the development of rectangular structures, which may be more functional, in a modular sense, but that would seem to be precisely what is worth asking about. Yet as we have internalized that functionalism, we may be asking the wrong question.

    IMO the right question is why rectangular? What changed in peoples minds and societies to eventually begin to favor more and more the rectangular versus the round, except maybe in central parts of some monuments, typically religious.

    What made us to like straight lines and abrupt corners? Maybe that's the right question, as these shapes only seem to appear in relation with civilization development: rare in the Chalcolithic, common in the Iron Age, almost universal today...

  2. I agree with Maju, angles in architectural solutions and rectangular/quadrangular shaped divisons of space are a quite recent trend in the history of "civilization". Based on both the archaeological and ethnological record, it seems roundness is the norm and that must be obviously connected to a very different way of conceiving the world, life and our place in it. Non-roundness, angles and modular arrangements of space are common to us and we perceive this "modular" world as "normal" because those aspects are some of the main features of a societal fabric that has arisen when kinship ceased to be the fundament for social cohesion. Off course, this is not an explanation, but I'm tempted to see the development of modular arrangements of space as a strategy for exclusion and, being so, to force the destruction of kinship ties.

  3. Both questions are justifiable. In fact we tend to assume that orthogonal architectures are related to human rationalization of space, which seems to be a fair argument, and that they appeared somehow late in European history. The problem is that it isn’t so.

    Rectangular houses were the common forms for early Neolithic LBK in Central Eastern Europe. And as evidences are suggesting, this kind of rectangular constructions are starting to appear in Western Iberia, in Spain and in Portugal, also in early Neolithic times.

    We must also remember that the so called “Proto-Megalithic” graves were, in many cases (in Estremoz / Arraiolos area or in Algarve) rectangular cists. And, to give credit to the interpretation done by Varela Gomes of the reconstruction of Xerez cromlech, the original plan would be a square.

    So if the circular shape seems to be dominant in the Western Europe Neolithic and even Chalcolithic, as I have argued several times elsewhere, we have to ask why some of the first houses and tombs were not. It is an important question, because, as someone have already notice, it seems to exist relevant differences between the first European enclosures of Early Neolithic and the ones from the 4th and 3rd millennium (what Márquez Romero and Jiménez Jaiméz designated by second and third generation). Significant changes can be also seen between those proto megalithic funerary practices to the following Megalithism, namely a movement from individual and primary depositions, to collective and more diversified manipulations of the bodies.

    So “ why circular?” is, in fact, an important question to explain the disappearance in the 4th and 3rd millennium of early rectangular constructions. And, of course, is also important to understand why in the Bronze Age agles take the lead in the architectonic designs.

  4. Of course all I said and will say is tentative, Valera, I cannot fathom a "certain" answer without a time machine (at the very least). Said that...

    True that some cultures, like the Balcano-Danubian Neolithic complex favored rectangular structures but, even among them, the ritual enclosures ('rondels' or 'camps' in the literature) are round. So should you displace the question to Central Europe maybe?

    In any case in West Asian earliest Neolithic the first structures (at least the ones I know of) are round and then gradually "functional" rectangular blocs appear, like the habitation modules of Çatalhöyuk.

    True also that some spaces are rectangular in Iberia as well since early on, but they seem the exception.

    Of course ultimately maybe it's just a matter of fashion, tradition and innovation: a merely aesthetic conflict without further ado.

    Another reason for roundness, specifically in ritual enclosures, may be astronomical: always in tentative discourse, the architects may have sought to follow the movements of the sun, moon and stars through such round shape.

    "And, to give credit to the interpretation done by Varela Gomes of the reconstruction of Xerez cromlech, the original plan would be a square".

    That (photo) would be the only such shape for a cromlech (stone ring). However, if correct, it reminds me somewhat of the alignments of Carnac. How credible is it? (I'm unfamiliar).

  5. As you very well say, it would be unique. And just that fact is enough to suggest caution. But if we think that the stones were found by a local doctor in middle XX century all accumulated in a trench and that it was him who rebuilt the cromlech, then we must really be careful.
    But in the beginning of the XXI century, with the construction of the Alqueva dam, the site was archaeologically excavated by Varela Gomes, as means for moving the monument for a place not submerged by the dam (where it stands now). It was then that the square plan was reaffirmed. I find it fragile evidence. But I can send you the publication of this later intervention if you are interested.
    But, in fact, in the last few years unsuspected architectures have been appearing in Portuguese prehistory. So scepticism itself should be also a matter of caution.

  6. I'm indeed interested, however with all the warnings you have issued in a single paragraph, I guess that reading the paper will not solve my doubts (nor it will make a big difference in my, limited, understanding of the matter).

    In any case, if you want to send me a copy, the email is in my profile but remove first the DELETETHIS anti-spam insert, please. Thanks in advance.