Circles and Rectangles: Does Your House Shape You?

My first year as an undergraduate, I lived a in four-person dormitory suit. One day I entered the (rectangular) room of my suite-mate Bill and found that he had placed his bed, desk, etc. at diagonal angles to the walls.

“I got tired of everything being so rectilinear,” he said. It was funny how Bill’s new arrangement felt oddly disquieting.

A circular room, however was not an option.

People in some times and places have favored circular shapes and in other times rectangular shapes. Do these preferences say something about the societies?

These kinds of idea have a long history. In the early 1930s, the Soviet city planner Mikhail Okhitovich claimed that the right angle in architecture originated in private land ownership: curvilinear structures, whether they be round buildings or chairs with curved backs, were therefore communist in principle.

This quotation comes from a review essay in the Times Literary Supplement: “Seeing Straight,” discussing three books that examine questions of shape, perception, and society:

Vision is a form of cognition: the kinds of things we see shape the ways we think. That is why it is so hard to imagine the visual experience of our prehistoric ancestors, or, for that matter, the girls of nineteenth-century Malawi, who lived in a world without right angles. Inhabitants of, say, late Neolithic Orkney would only have seen a handful of perpendicular lines a day: tools, shaped stones, perhaps some simple geometric decoration on a pot. For the most part, their world was curved: circular buildings, round tombs, stone circles, rounded clay vessels . . . . 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?

I think that I want to read at least one of the books reviewed, How Ancient Europeans Saw the World: Vision, Patterns, and the Shaping of the Mind in Prehistoric Times.

As for my roommate Bill, he eventually put his furniture back in line with the walls, as the non-rectilinear arrangement made it too hard to move around his dorm room.