During the 20th century, for about twenty years there was a strange fashion for circular buildings. There weren’t that many of them built, but in quite a few cities you will come across a skyscraper that is circular and white and made of concrete. And the look of the thing will suggest the era it was built in. Think of the Capitol Records building in LA (1956), the Australia Square building in Sydney (1961), Marina City in Chicago (1968), One Kemble Street in London (also 1968), or Ponte City in Johannesburg (1975). Architects get ideas from other architects and I suspect that the Capitol Records building and Australia Square inspired the others.
Fashions change, and one reason why more skyscrapers aren’t built in a circle shape is simply that the rectangle is far more convenient. Much of modern life, and especially furniture, fits more neatly around perpendicular angles. Circular buildings always end up with awkward angles and possible wasted spaces.
Circular buildings are still constructed occasionally, especially when building owners are striving for an iconic design. The building at 30 St Mary Axe in London, formerly the Swiss Re tower, has long been nicknamed “The Gherkin”. It is one of the most famous buildings in London simply because of its shape.
All of this gets me to a recent experience. I went on a road trip, and booked into a motel that turned out to be a circular building. This made it easy to spot and I’ll say from the outset that I had no issues with my room. It had large, panoramic windows and I found the odd angles to be no inconvenience at all.
Indeed, it would not be worth mentioning except that I shave, brush my teeth and comb my hair while standing at a wash basin. In this case there were mirrors mounted on the walls above the basin.
Because the building was circular these walls did not form a normal 90° angle. Instead the angle was about 80°. And thanks to that, I had the unusual experience of seeing myself how other people see me.
Look in a normal mirror and the image you see is the perfect reversal of what you might call reality. Position two mirrors at an exactly perpendicular angle and your reflection is more or less swapped; but the reflective parts of the mirrors never seem to quite line up so there’s always a gap.
But in this motel room, in this circular building, there was no gap to worry about. The mirrors on the adjacent walls were at 80° and so in each mirror I could see the reflection of my face in the other mirror. The reversal was reversed and I could actually see myself how other people see me.
Of course the title of this post is an exaggeration. My face was not so different that the face in the mirror was that of a stranger. But like most people my features are not perfectly symmetrical and so it was different from what I was used to. I found it to be a novel experience.