Although round houses are nothing new — think of Native American teepees and African huts — their design is widely considered futuristic, and is characterized by a strong strain of utopianism. Innovative twentieth century architects such as Frank Lloyd-Wright, John Lautner, and Richard T. Foster were attracted to rounded and curved forms, often attributing transformative qualities to them. Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome and round Dymaxion House — “the house of the future” — are the most obvious examples of this tendency, but even some of the lowliest vernacular buildings are touched by it.
By their form, round houses reject the rectangular status quo and challenge default assumptions about structure. They open up new possibilities. They require thought.
It is not incidental that the man who commissioned the building of what may be the oldest existing round house in America — an 1854 structure in Somerville, Massachusetts — was an inventor who designed and built perpetual motion machines in his spare time. Or that the founders of a 1930s utopian community planned for Frinton-on-sea, in the UK, began their project by constructing a striking circular building as an information bureau. (In that case, as in so many, plans for utopia didn’t work out; the public scorned the project’s modern design.)
The true shape of utopia is famously hard to discern. Yet with round houses, at least, one can sense the effort to find it.
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We made these gray houses that you see, and they are square. It is a bad way to live, for there can be no power in a square.
Everything an Indian does is in a circle, and that is because the power of the world always works in circles. The earth is round like a ball, and so are all the stars. Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours. The sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle. The moon does the same, and both are round. Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing, and always come back again to where they were. The life of a person is a circle from childhood to childhood. Our teepees were round like the nests of birds and these were always set in a circle.
The White people have put us in these square boxes. Our power is gone and we are dying.
- Black Elk