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Circletops Are Around, Again
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By John Thomas

Circletop windows have become so popular today that it’s easy to forget that they’ve been around for an awfully long time. It’s interesting to think about how and why they became a new idea again.

Way back when the Greeks built their temples (about 800 BC), they used a basic post and beam technology. That is, they used vertical columns and horizontal beams. No arches.

Although ancient hut makers had used arched roofs, it wasn’t until about 500 years after Greece that the Etruscans of Northern Italy invented the technology of large arches, vaults, and domes. This facility with arches, combined with the classical proportions of Greece resulted in the fabulous Renaissance architecture of Italy in the 16th century. Palladio was the great Renaissance architect whose signature device was a window with three openings, the central one arched and wider than the others. (The window we see everywhere today.) The Italian Renaissance ideas were adopted in England in the 1600’s and 1700’s and resulted in the Georgian architecture we might today think of as classical. And it was the further refinement or corruption of these classical principles that resulted in the extreme forms of the late Victorian era, when houses were designed with multiple gables and trim details going off in all directions.

Modernism was a reaction against all this classical "excess." The architects of Modernism, beginning in the 1920’s, felt that classical architecture had overextended, become a parody of itself, was obsessed with useless decoration. The Modernists called for a return to first principles. Clean lines, open space. The new technologies of glass and steel enabled the concrete and glass monuments we see today. But ironically, in rejecting "classicism", the modernists went right back to the post and beam technology of ancient Greece. Not just commercial buildings, but even residential houses were built with flat roofs and all-glass walls (never mind that they leaked and were inhuman fishbowls….).

By the 1960’s the once revolutionary ideas of modernism had become the new orthodoxy, and become sterile. Architects began, at first tentatively, to throw in classical elements and details to their severe, flat modernist designs. A piece of trim, a cornice…and then, horrors, circular windows. The Post-Modernist era had begun. The era we are in today. And before you knew it, circlehead windows and classical details were appearing, and do appear, everywhere.

Today’s architects, who have been accused of being "post-modernists", object to this trendy sounding description. They prefer to think of themselves as new classicists, which makes sense. They’re continuing an ancient classical tradition, which has been forever altered by the influence of modernism. In time, the "new" ideas of modern classicism will be absorbed and circlehead windows will become again simply a part of a balanced architecture.
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