Circular Spaces

I have read this article months ago. Somehow, it caught my attention again, giving me a little more space to raise a couple of questions:

Are circular/round spaces products of minds steeped in contemplative silence (risk-takers into the “deep mind” that Maggie Ross spends years writing and thinking about)?

Do circular/round spaces in turn respond best to our “spiritual hunger,” sacramental in the best sense of how they can make “pray-ers” less conscious of their linear and therefore hierarchical status in society, inviting them to be more kenotic rather than self-conscious?  

Here are some quotes from Peter Thonemann’s article at Times Literary Supplement “Seeing Straight”:

“What does a round building mean? Does it mean anything, or is the choice of one shape of house over another simply a matter of practicalities? It is, for instance, easy to build extensions on to a rectangular building, since extra rooms can simply be added onto the sides or end; if the owners of an Iron Age roundhouse want a bigger living room, they have little choice but to knock the whole thing down and start again. Roundhouses are more storm- and wind-resistant, while parts of a rectangular house can more easily be partitioned or closed off, to provide privacy or a secure storage place. But this is obviously not the whole story. None of these practical arguments applies to a burial mound, which might as well take the form of a rectangular barrow as a round tumulus. So when we find that prehistoric Europeans who lived in roundhouses also tended to build circular wall circuits around their towns, to erect round tombs to their dead, and to worship their gods in circular temples or enclosures, it becomes clear – as Richard Bradley argues in his absorbing new book – that we are dealing not solely, or even primarily, with a practical choice, but with a particular way of seeing the world: an “Idea of Order”, as his title suggests.

Circles, unlike rectangles, are common in the natural world (fungi, the moon, the pupil of the human eye), and it is probably no coincidence that, with a few exceptions, prehistoric Europeans seem to have started off as circle-people. Roundhouses have traditionally been favoured by hunter-gatherers and pastoralist societies, while farmers prefer rectilinear structures (round cattle-byres, but square barns). Conversion to the right angle came at different points in different regions. In Britain, a long local tradition of roundhouses went into a steep decline after the Roman conquest, although, as Bradley notes, the inhabitants of Roman Britain and northern Gaul retained a most un-Roman preference for circular temples right down through the Roman period. The last part of Europe to retain a strong tradition of round buildings was Ireland, where circular earthworks (“raths”) and roundhouses remained the norm well into the early medieval period. Royal centres like Tara and Uisneach continued to be dominated by great circular and figure-of-eight enclosures. It was only with the Christianization of Ireland that the right angle finally triumphed here too: the early medieval island hermitage of Illaunloughan contained four traditional roundhouses but, ominously, a square Christian church and shrine, reflecting the shape of things to come.

Might a preference for round buildings also reflect a fundamentally different, perhaps more egalitarian mindset? Although a circle has an obvious centre – the place usually occupied by the hearth in the prehistoric roundhouse – it has no front or back, and it is more difficult to express status distinctions through the organization of space in a round building. British megalithic stone circles usually lack a clear focal point, and, as Bradley tentatively suggests, “It may be that the circular plan was intended to play down the distinctions between different people, employing a similar principle to the seating plan at King Arthur’s round table”. The stone circles in Orkney are made up of rocks from several different quarries, suggesting that “different communities could have contributed their labour on equal terms with other groups”; furthermore, if the individual monoliths were regarded as symbols of human figures, they “could have stood for the community rather than particular individuals”.”


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