Circular configurations occur more often in the natural world than do the rectangular impositions of human kind. To be “right with the world”; for a straight line to be “normal” to a flat surface; to have been our distant relative homo erectus is to be shaped by the ninety-degree angle. Indeed, though we have become sapient, we are no less erect.
The Old, New, newer and newest testaments—those of Judaism, Christianity, Islam and even the LDS—speak of a world bisected axially (usually by rivers) and of the four resulting quadrants and the corners of the Earth. As someone educated in architecture I’ve likewise been indoctrinated with the logic, the inevitability of ninety degrees. Which make circles all the more remarkable. Consider the Abbasid capital of the Islamic world, Baghdad.
From its founding in A.H. 150 by the caliph al-Mansur until about the Islamic year 300 (912 C.E., for the calendrically challenged) Baghdad was the center of science and learning and may have been the largest city in the world, achieving a population of at least a million. The caliph had envisioned his city as an ideal, a center for learning, a hub for commerce—the real and metaphorical center of the Islamic world. Shortly before his death in 1959, Frank Lloyd Wright was one of several Western architects commissioned to bring the city to “world class” status. Wright did his homework, planning an opera house, museums and a university in harmony with al-Mansur’s original vision.
Wright had discovered his compass late in life but made good use of it for several circular, radial and/or spiral designs: the Sugar Loaf observatory, a home for his son David in Scottsdale, the Guggenheim, among others. As I was nurtured on the earliest Prairie School work in greater Chicagoland, these point-generated buildings weren’t easy to accept. Age has given me perspective, if nothing else, and they seem to me now the product of just the most recent of Wright’s nine lives.
In a very different context, I became interested in American urban planning of the 19th century, remnants of the Enlightenment that spread westward with Manifest Destiny and left a legacy of circular town plans at such odds with the ubiquitous Jeffersonian grid that few of them have survived. Circleville, Ohio is a remarkable case in point: its circular plan has gradually disappeared after its founding in 1810.
The existential layering of X-Y axes and both circular and radial streets on a cartesian grid establish such a powerful sense of place that I was immediately drawn to its possibility when thinking of a smaller satellite community for Fennimore county. Grou would be its name, a nostalgic homeward glance by the Dutch (Frisian) settlers who came about 1890 to establish an agricultural community. Was theirs simply an idea brought with the rest of their cultural baggage? Or could it have been a literal plan in sepia ink on a sheet of durable laid paper? How would its subliminally communitarian form—obviously created in metric—have translated to the avoirdupois rectilinearity of Mr Jefferson? A little more time will tell.