Architect’s Perspective: Arizona’s Round Architecture
By Doug Sydnor, FAIA
The circle has been informing global architecture for centuries. Examples of round structures include the ancient Etruscans in 8th-4th century B.C., Stonehenge in 3rd-2nd century B.C., circa 126 A.D. Pantheon Temple in Rome, stone granaries, medieval fortresses, and defensive castle towers.
In the Southwest during 650-1300 A.D., the Ancestral Puebloans constructed the sacred ceremonial round Kivas at Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde near Four Corners. Much later, in 1932, Mary Colter designed the cylindrical-shaped Desert Watch Tower at the Grand Canyon’s south rim.
The 1952 David and Gladys Wright House at 5212 East Exeter Boulevard in Phoenix.
The underlying reason for this consistent and prolific use of the circle is to generate an architecture rooted in a circular floor plan. Humans have come to believe that the circle symbolizes Mother Earth, represents the spirit of feminine energy, and is a universal, sacred, complete, and divine space. Our ancient ancestors viewed a circular aspect to the cycles of time and, specifically, in the season's movements.
When the circle plan is translated into building form, it can create basic shapes such as domes, cylinders, spheres, and cones. Beyond the symbolic content, the circle has evolved to a design that can be spatially efficient when minimizing the viewing and walking distances in correctional facility cell blocks, health care nursing units, theater seating, religious sanctuaries, and sports venues.
Here are a few excellent Arizona examples:
Frank Lloyd Wright-designed the 1952 David and Gladys Wright House at 5212 East Exeter Boulevard in Phoenix for his son, David, and his wife, Gladys. The floor plan is based upon a circle with a raised semi-circular wing and a carport below. The open east half has a curving pedestrian ramp from the natural grade to the upper-level entry, creating a spiraling movement around a courtyard. The home was located within a citrus orchard and was elevated to capture the dramatic sunsets and Camelback Mountain views. This circular plan with an integrated spiraling ramp is a crucial precedent that informs Wright’s own Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum completed later in 1959. Wright is also known for his “organic” approach to architecture, which metaphorically references nature, including its circles.
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This article originally appeared in the bimonthly Arizona Contractor & Community magazine, Jan/Feb 2021 issue, Vol. 10, No. 1.