Short writings and drawings about the constructional, psychological, historical and sociological reasons in round and spherical architecture. From a Seminar by Sandra Kassenaar.
Round houses are often found in rural traditional African architecture. There are almost as many different types of dwellings as there are ethnic groups living in the wide plains of South West Africa. As in the evolution of the species, their form and construction is precisely adopted to their environmental conditions. These different constructions are representing many different solution to the similar problem, i.e., the harsh and dry lands and the nomadic lifestyle of their inhabitants. To derive a lack of skill or technology from their apparent simplicity would not be a fair conclusion at all.
In a time, where many African tribes lived semi nomadic, one of the most important features of the construction was a short build time. In the tribe of Zulu, one of the biggest African ethical groups, the construction of dwellings was a highly cooperative venture where man and women worked together, building the shelter in one or two days. It was even considered as bad luck when a house was not finished within one day, and it was believed, that bad spirits would seek an unroofed house during the night time.
Man usually build the round ground plan and frame, while woman thatched the roof. The frame is made of flexible wooden poles, a materiel that is relatively easy to find, placed in a circle and bend inwards in a parallel pattern. To improve stability of the construction, more poles are bent between perpendicular, and then laced together. A major benefit of the round bended shape is, that the bending of one single element provides a significant internal stability to the hut. After this frame is completed, bundles of dried grass, skins, leaves or mud are used to build the roof of the hut, covering the the hut from the intense sun and heavy rainstormsThese dwellings can give shelter for one or two persons, so consequently several huts were constructed side by side, for each family member as well as for granaries and stables .
Another advantage of the round construction principles becomes evident, when compared to the similar simple, but triangular shaped Tipis, build by some nomadic native American tribes. By using the same amount of material, the walls of the Tipi are tapping inwards straightly in a much shallower angle, providing therefore less space, in which a person can stand up right. This means to waste significant space in the very lower part and very upper part. The bend walls of the Zulu huts instead are much steeper in the lower parts and make a better use of the covered space with a given amount of material. Another disadvantage of the Tipi lies in the mathematics of its triangular shape, where an expansion of the ground area of the Tipi means also a linear increase in height and unusable space and especially in surface area that had to be covered with precious animal skins.
Aldo van Eyck carefully arranged the various sandpits, jumping stones and climbing domes, he had designed for over 700 unique playgrounds in Amsterdam. In a harmoniously balanced, almost zen garden like composition, where the space in between the objects gets the same attention and importance as the object itself, this space in between becomes an important part of the world, the mind of playing children can make up. It is this seemingly empty space that stimulated the children creativity to fill it up with their imagination
The climbing domes are made out of vertically and horizontally connected aluminium bars, forming a net like frame onto a half sphere, that is high enough for most children to stand inside. Some bars are arranged closer, to make it possible for smaller children to climb onto the dome and some bars are placed wider, to make it possible to climb from the inside out and vice versa. The pattern is as narrow to allow to imagine being inside of something without feeling locked-up, as in the same time being able to observe the outside.
Besides the meticulous adaption to the physics and psychology of children and their way of playing, one of the most important aspect of the climbing dome, that transforms it from a bare climbing tool into a framework that can be filled by children to become anything, is truly its most simple" and generic shape; the sphere. It is, in the true meaning of the word, a wireframe template that challenges children to use their imagination to transform the bland dome into what ever is needed for their various role plays. Rather than confronting children, in mistrust of their creative powers, with predetermination themes of modern plastic playground, the reduced form of Aldo van Eycks playing equipment, challenges children to imagine their own world.
A Model of the Model
When hunting and gathering societies gave up to agricultural and trading, the knowledge about heaven and the stars provided important information about seasons and navigation. It is no wonder that the moon, sun and stars were also given divine characteristics in most human cultures. The sun and moon control the floods, the seasons and the harvest. Therefore astronomy was in service of Religion and while all cultures recognized the heaven to be round, only some have speculated about the roundness of the universe as sphere. The Babylonians concentrated their efforts in understanding the movement of the stars rather than inquiring about its form. Only a few cultures as the Greeks or Romans used geometrical models to express their vision of the sky and the universe. Furthermore it appears that in these cultures where geometric models of the universe involved spheres, we find round shaped sacred buildings.
It is important to say that these buildings, inspired by cosmic models, aren't a direct translation of the universe but rather models of the model of the universe. Cosmic symbols in architecture are the result of a double translation, where ideas about the nature of the universe are first translated into geometry and then retranslated into architecture.
No document of its construction, porous or architect survived the 2000 years of the existence of the Pantheon in Rome. A close look at it's architectural features allow an interpretation as architectural model of the Roman world view: The large rotunda of the Pantheon is composed by a cylinder covered by a gigantic 43 meter wide half sphere, that, if continued to a full sphere, would be exactly tangential to its floor. The Romans believed that the stars were fixed on a spherical heaven and some scholars of the Pantheon claim that each of the 140 sunken panels at the ceiling of the dome, called coffers, where decorated with a bronze star. We therefore can conclude that the first characteristics of the cosmos modelled by the Pantheon is the perfect roundness. The only light source of the building is it 9 meter wider central opening on top of the dome that symbolizes the sun and its movement over the convex floor, that is 28cm higher in the centre. These formal architectural characteristics represent the model of a Spherical earth inside a spherical universe.
In secular buildings we generally interpret the shapes as deriving from the buildings function and not as symbolically meaningful in themselves. Sacred buildings functions instead is to be symbolically meaningful. They are an expression of religious belief, proving to all men what is divine and Superior. Building spherical buildings as the Pantheon require not only the understanding of complex mathematics, as the calculation of pi but also high material recurses, so there has to be a strong motivation to build these complex spheres. This, probably strongest of all human motivations, was faith.
In his Book “Panopticon”, British philosopher Jeremy Bertham describe his ideas of the perfect prison. His Panopticon, from the Greek pan, for ‘all’ , and optik, for ,visual’, is based on the concept of a perfect round view, allowing the observation of every prisoner from a single, central, point. The radially arranged cells of the prison enclose to a full circle and have each two openings: A window to the out-side and metal bars towards the inside through which the inmate can be observed by a watchman sitting in a tower at the exact centre of the building. The incoming light makes it easy to see inside the cells but impossible for the prisoner to recognize when being observed. It is also impossible to communicate from cell to cell or to conceal from the permanent and simultaneous surveillance of the totalitarian observer. According to Bertham, this is what would make the delinquents behave conformable and eventually forces him to internalize this relation of power that forms his behaviour.
Michel Foucault saw in his work “Watching and Punishing” (1975) Bentham's prison building as a prototype for the perversion of bourgeois enlightenment and as a symbol for totalitarian dictatorship. However Bertham wasn't, as often misunderstood, a proponent of surveillance. As a modernist and follower of the Enlightenment movement, he rather wanted to revolutionize the incarceration and dispense with corporal punishment. His utilitarianism belief, that simplified states that an action is morally justified when it maximizes the well-being of all persons involved contains a cold rationalism and the general schizophrenia of liberalism that always wants the good but always creates the evil.