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On Circular Windows, and their sudden appearance on Instagram


Hamish Lonergan

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March 1, 2020

Fig. 1: The plan of Asplund’s Stockholm Public Library (1928), posted to @circularspaces on Instagram.

All at once, as 2019 came to a close, Instagram seemed saturated with circles. They flew into my feed—like so many round UFOs—on dedicated accounts like @circularspaces, as simple line-drawn floorplans, stripped of their context [Fig. 1]. But many more appeared as round windows: from the monumental, multi-storey openings of 6a’s MK Gallery in Milton Keynes and Kerstin Thompson Architect’s Broadmeadows Central in Melbourne; to the human-sized circles of Dhooge & Meganck Architecture’s pickle factory in Oudenaarde and Cun Design’s Utter Space photography studio in Beijing. Across the globe, it was an alien invasion I only noticed too late [Fig. 2].

Fig. 2: A collection of recent circular windows posted to Instagram.

Alien because, before then, circles seemed an unusual sight in architecture. Certainly, one of the first round windows I noticed—the ‘Boxen’ (2019) at ArkDes in Stockholm, designed by Dehlin Brattgård Arkitekten [Fig. 3]—was striking enough to add to my ‘saved’ folder on Instagram. As Maarten Delbeke writes, architects have viewed circles with suspicion, even disgust, since at least the Nineteenth Century. Where that Italian trinity of Vitruvius, Alberti and Palladio regarded circles as natural perfection—the symmetrical roundness of a temple reflecting divine order—this same powerful symbolism has since been their undoing. The circle demands too much of us, its conspicuousness announcing a grand intention seldom met by the architect employing it.

Fig. 3: The ‘Boxen’ (2019) at Arkdesc in Stockholm designed by Dehlin Brattgård Arkitekten, photographed by Johan Dehlin, posted to @arkdesc on Instagram.

Too late because Delbeke was not alone in observing the rise of the circle: his essay appeared in a special edition of Archithese (Dec. 2019) devoted to this ‘strong geometry’. Pages of essays alternated with pages of the same disembodied circles found floating in @circularspaces on Instagram. Soon after, architecture news website Architizer published a listicle of round windows, marking the circle’s definitive entry into the mainstream.

Yet, I feel compelled to return to the unsettling mystery of these alien circles and their sudden ubiquity to fill certain gaps. Why did circles appear in such striking numbers on one platform—Instagram—and why did they appear as round windows specifically? I have four hunches. To explore them, I return to the point of first contact: to the ‘Boxen’, photographed by its own architect, Johan Dehlin. What unfurls here is partly the story of round windows in Sweden, but the mystery of these circles is that—like crop circles, those other, alien geometries—this story could be told for many other countries and contexts.

My first hunch is that round windows are like other social media trends, and circles have trickled down from photos of the work of earlier ‘architectural influencers’. Even if architects have remained sceptical of circles on the whole, there have been enough startling appearances over the 20th Century to know that they are not new at ‘Boxen’. Putting aside the Beaux-Arts oeil-de-boeuf (bull’s eye) or the Gothic Cathedral Rose, we find enormous circles in Kahn’s National Assembly Building of Bangladesh (1982) and Scarpa’s Gavina showroom in Bologna (1963), to say nothing of the conjoined windows and circular doorway—resembling a Chinese moongate, another circular lineage—at the Brion Tomb (1978).

Indeed, scroll back through the ArkDes’s Instagram feed to 2017, and you find another circular window in Josef Frank’s Villa Wehtje in Falsterbo (1936), photographed by Åke Lindman [image 4]. True, there are columns and a walkway running across the ‘Boxen’s circular window, but the resemblance is striking. Lindman’s photograph is carefully framed such that, even though Frank’s window sits off-centre on its wall, the circle is placed in the centre of the image. Dehlin’s photograph centres the circle too, drawing our eye in the same way, but only because the symmetrical volume has already eliminated Frank’s asymmetrical idiosyncrasies. Two images on an Instagram account might be coincidental, hardly proving a connection, but it shows that these circles did not materialise out of nowhere.

Fig. 4: Josef Frank’s Villa Wehtje in Falsterbo (1936), photographed by Åke Lindman, posted to @arkdesc on Instagram

While circles might not be new, this still does not answer why they appeared now. My second hunch links this host of circles to another Instagram trend: the revival of Postmodernism. The same powerful symbolism that might have deterred architects in another era proved attractive to figures like Botta and Venturi. Today, popular accounts like @adamnathanialfurman and @newagecocaine—with tens of thousands of followers—are only the most public expression of a broader reappraisal of the style in architectural culture. We could speculate that round windows online are the geometric expression of this reassessment in practice.  Yet this explanation again proves insufficient when we consider that Graves’ circles appear alongside images of the round windows in Kurokawa’s Nakagin Capsule Tower (1972) and Kahn’s Exeter Library (1972). These might not representant Modernist orthodoxy, but they could not be called Postmodern either, suggesting there is something beyond fashion at play here.

Instead, my third hunch is that there is a quality in the photographs themselves that is appealing, turning these corporeal architectural elements into graphical symbols. Circular windows, like in ‘Boxen’ and Villa Wehtje, tend to be photographed perpendicular to the wall, meaning that any thickness in the frame is subsumed in the simple, two-dimensional figure of the opening itself. In this way, the complexity of circular windows—with all their depth, materiality and technicality—become simple shapes in a photo.

Geometric shapes have been ‘in’, you could say, since the fall of theory in the in the mid-2000s. Following Somol and Whiting’s seminal essay, ‘Notes around the Doppler Effect and Other Moods of Modernism’ (2002)—calling for a ‘cool’ and ‘relaxed’ architecture—Somol penned ‘12 Reasons to Get Back into Shape’ (2004). ‘Shape is easy’, he wrote: in its quick crudity, shape could tackle problems that critical architecture was too slow and heavy to handle. On one hand, a young generation of architects coming of age and designing round windows today—like Dehlin and Brattgård—were still studying when the grand project of criticality was being dismantled in academia, partly through shape. On the other hand, circles—with all their self-sufficiency and easy symbolism—might be perfectly suited to the quick and dirty world of social media: where so much must be communicated so quickly, before we lose interest and keep scrolling.

Indeed, here we begin to reach the heart of the matter: my final hunch is that there is something in round windows that looks good on the platform of Instagram itself. As any user knows, a nine-square grid appears over the top of an image as a visual aid before you post it to your Instagram account. These vertical and horizontal lines—superimposed over the incidental lines of your own image—help you adjust a wonky photo, but they also create a visual hierarchy, from centre to periphery. It is not so surprising, then, that images like those by Dehlin and Lindman place the circle in the middle of Instagram’s famously square frame. The result of this posting mechanism is not a neutral visual arrangement: circles in squares have occupied a special place in the geometry of architecture throughout its history. Da Vinci’s Vitruvian man inscribes a circle over a square, bringing the two into relation through the human body. It appears in plan, from Palladio’s Villa Capra (1571), to Schinkel’s Altes Museum (1830), to Asplund’s Stockholm Public Library (1928) [image 1].  It is a common enough exercise for first year students to redraw these famous floor plans as part of their acculturation in the discipline.

My argument here is not that circles in squares have any inherent aesthetic quality. I do not claim any timeless geometric truth, resurfacing again on social media. Instead, it seems to me that architects are so used to connecting the circle in the square to canonical buildings that, by now, the two are inextricably linked. The ensemble has come to seem natural, even beautiful.

For those of us who consume the image on our phone, we associate the circular window in Instagram’s square with those famous antecedents. For those photographing and posting round windows, placing the circle in the centre of the nine-square grid might recall those first-year exercises, drawing Asplund’s circle in the centre of the library square; framed on three sides and implied on a fourth. It is telling that seminal examples—like Kahn or Scarpa’s windows—have also appeared more regularly on Instagram, re-photographed and reposted with the circle, again, in the centre. And for those drawing architecture, seeing how well a circular window looks on social media may seem a good enough reason to include one in their own work. Even if Dehlin and Brattgård did not consciously connect their window to the plan of a library in the same city, it is not so surprising that a firm co-directed by a photographer/architect might design with a consideration of how a building would photograph on completion. In the end, the circle might be less alien than it seemed to me at first; part of a repository of tacit knowledge of architectural form that designers draw upon while designing, even without thinking, from myriad sources.