Ancient Egypt's ruins in 1870

The earliest geometries

Architecture is order. Had the archaeologists not recognize a geometric pattern in the arrangement of stones, they would have discarded them as rubbish. It is the order of stones signaling them that certain arrangements are architecture, not haphazard.

Ancient Egypt's ruins in 1870
It’s hard to imagine the original order among these ruins at Karnak, Egypt. (source: Library of Congress Digital Collection)

The basic geometry makes the difference between man-made architecture and nature. The circle and the rectangle have been the essential tools for organizing space since the dawn of architecture.

It is a fascinating but disappointing that the same basic geometry we rely on today had been used thousands of years. The same circles and the same rectilinear shapes. We still live in rectangular-shaped places and enjoy from time to time the acoustic and visual benefits of circular places. Modern architecture broke this bias towards basic geometry and introduced asymmetrical patterns together with more sophisticated ways of organizing the space. Yet, after a century of modern trials, these sophisticated geometries couldn’t make way into the architecture of our everyday life. They remained in the realm of spectacle architecture: museums and concert halls. Our schools, apartments, offices and local shops did not give up the simple circle and rectangle employed 10.000 years ago. Are these geometric patterns enmeshed into our DNA?

Ancient Architecture in West Bank
Rectangular plans in the ancient city of Samaria (now in West Bank). Source: Library of Congress.
Industrial Architecture in Washington DC
Washington DC, 1863. (Source: Library of Congress).

What came first: the circle and its elliptical variants or the rectangle? Unlike the chicken-and-egg dilemma, the simple answer is that the circle pre-dates the rectangle with some thousands years. This answer opens up a bunch of anthropological speculations about the social organization of the first communities, as our modern imaginary connects the circle to equality (King Arthur’s Round Table) and the rectangle to hierarchy (Louis XIV’s  dinner table).

Let’s get a closer look to Jericho, the first urban settlement. Jericho lies in the Eastern Mediterranean, an area rich in the earliest evidences of architecture. With 20 successive settlement layers, though  not always continuous and overlapping, Jericho’s architecture can be traced back to around 9000 BC — the dawn of our entire civilization. But it’s enough to explore the first two layers to unearth the usage of circular and rectilinear patterns. Here you can compare Jericho’s various geometrical shapes. Source: Sapienza University, Rome.

The earliest of these layers shows traces of circular dwellings with a hearth inside or outside. The dwellings were made out of adobe, that is sun-dried clay and mud. Adobe has been continuously used in construction and revived today as an ecological and affordable way of building. (There are even  competitions and organizations specialized in earth architecture.) Those circular houses were randomly distributed. No street pattern is visible, except for remains of a stone wall and a stone tower, which point to some sort of hierarchical organization. How else could have they built a 8.5 m tall tower if not distributing the tasks, obeying to some rules? The myth of the circle as a sign of social egalitarianism collapses. 

The following layer, around 7000 – 6000 BC, shows traces of rectilinear dwellings built out of the same adobe, but in a more standardized shape: the mudbricks are rectangular. However, there is no smooth connection between the circular and rectilinear building patters, for there is no proven continuity between their corresponding settlement layers. It appears that first settlement was abandoned. After a few centuries, in a nearby location, the next settlement exhibiting rectilinear homes was built up. Archeologists assume that an invading group assimilated the early inhabitants into a different culture, that is the circular pattern into the rectilinear one.

After the second settlement, successive layers of buildings progressed towards a highly urbanized city, in which the rectilinear plan prevailed, until its collapse around 1500 BC.

No matter how daring the modern architecture is, it doesn’t break out these early rectilinear and curvilinear geometries. Some stunning twists have come more recently from the computer-aided architecture, which allows us to enjoy thrilling hyperbolic and elliptical surfaces. Yet, most architecture, today and 10.000 ago, remains confined by the simple, Euclidean geometry. There may be some hidden beauty in the order of circles and rectangles that resonates with human perception.