Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The ubiquitous rectangle

click photo to enlarge
The natural world never ceases to surprise us with the fertility of its designs. Mankind has used these at every opportunity in ways as disparate as adapting the idea of the teasel hook for use in velcro, or the wingtip feathers of condors in the raised wingtip "winglets" of large jets.

However, when we look at the constructions of the modern world we are bound to conclude that one of the commonest forms used - the rectangle - isn't very obvious in nature. We see it in some crystalline forms, and in cell structures, and I'm sure you can think of other examples. However, it cannot be said that its ubiquity in man's world is paralleled in the natural world.

Go through the centre of any city and of all the shapes available to man, the rectangle will be the one used most often. Much of the earliest architecture used the "trabeated" (or post and lintel) method of building, and this naturally produces rectangles. Most subsequent architecture has built (literally and figuratively) on this primitive beginning. This passion for the rectangle spread to many man-made, and particularly machine-made, objects. In the twentieth century some artists celebrated this shape above all others, Piet Mondrian being the best known.

And when we look around our homes and workplaces the rectangle is there at every turn. The photograph above shows CAT 2 office lighting. This is a rectangular array of fluorescent tubes recessed in a grid of polished aluminium cells, and is designed to give light, but not glare, particularly where computers are being used. The calmness, order and stability of this grid appeals to me. If, in architecture, you like the early work of Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, then you will like arrangements such as this. If, on the other hand, you like the work of Mackintosh, Gaudi and Horta, then it's unlikely you'll think it worth anything. I took this shot in my office, laying on my back, with the camera held firmly to my face. Thankfully no one came in at the time!
photograph & text (c) T. Boughen