Round Buildings

My mother thinks I’m posting too much about Calvinism, so here’s something completely different. A pet peeve of mine is the depiction of future cities as containing a bunch of round buildings, as in this screenshot from the game Empire Earth. This will never happen, and I’ll explain why.

Cylindrical buildings are strong. That I will grant, but I don’t think it offsets their many problems. There are also a few specific types of buildings, like theaters and arenas, that work well in the round shape, but I’m not talking about those.

In the first place, round buildings are difficult to construct. It’s much easier to make a straight steel girder than a curved one. The same straight girder, varying only in length, can also be used in any regular rectangular building, but each curved girder would have to be customized to the radius of the particular building it was being made for. Modern skyscrapers are characterized by floor-to-ceiling windows, but curved glass is expensive to make, and if you don’t curve the windows, it’s no longer really a round building, but a faceted one.

One of the main arguments in favor of round buildings is spatial efficiency. I don’t go for this. Yes, a circle captures the most space for the least surface area, but unless building materials are really at a premium, why is that important? Besides, even if there’s more space, that’s no benefit unless it’s space that human beings can usefully interact with, and round rooms don’t have that. You can’t put a piece of furniture against a round wall, nor is it practical to hang anything on it. It’s useful for a big window, but unless you have the aforementioned curved glass, you don’t actually have more space.

A round room might be practical in some circumstances, such as for a dining room with a round table, but a round building won’t contain round rooms. It will contain rooms the shape of pie slices, or else regular square rooms with some odd little nooks around the edges. Pie-shaped rooms are convenient for lecture halls, but aside from that, their non-right angles (preventing you from putting anything in that corner) and lack of parallel walls (preventing you from, say, putting a couch on one side and a TV on the other) make them highly impractical.

The interior spatial problems would be minimized if the building were bigger, but then the exterior spatial problems are exacerbated and we see that round buildings actually waste space because they can’t be tessellated. Between the round buildings, there will be spaces where you can’t put either a road or another building. If you put the buildings in a square grid, these spaces will be quite large; if you put them in a hex grid, the spaces will be smaller, but imagine what the roads would look like. True, you could fill the spaces with parks, but that’s hardly the goal if you’re trying to maximize spatial efficiency.

Of course, round buildings exist today. Some, like the Space Needle, were built specifically as depictions of what buildings in the future would look like. Many others are built for the simple purpose of being very tall or unusual buildings, where practicality is not a main consideration.

It seems likely that round buildings, being unusual, will continue to have a futuristic look, and that they will continue to be built occasionally for World’s Fairs and the like as depictions of the future and as hubristic celebrations of human achievement.  During movements like postmodern architecture, where practicality is not valued, they will be more common.  But they will always be rare.  There will never be whole cities of round buildings.


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