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Radial (Radical!) Precedent

May 13, 2018

There are a wide variety of radial structures similar in form to the original Akron Plan Sunday school built in Akron, Ohio—the collaboration among Lewis Miller (retired industrialist and Sunday school leader), Rev John Heyl Vincent (Methodist minister and eventual bishop) and their architects, Jacob Snyder and his successor G. W. Kramer. Radiating forms were quite common during the 19th century, for industrial, agricultural, and cultural purposes, and would have been familiar “background noise” as the Akron idea was conceived.

At the vernacular end of the spectrum (building generally without known designers and widely dispersed throughout the cultural landscape) would have been the dairy barn. Dairying operations evolved a radial form for efficiency in both feeding and milking, and took both round and polygonal forms. Perhaps the most famous round barn was erected by the Shakers of Hancock, Massachusetts.

Round Barn, Hancock, MA (built 1826)

The haymow was located above the cattle; silage at the center doubled as the principal roof structure.

Similar for its radial distribution system, the 19th century railroad roundhouse focussed on the turntable, in this case distributing the locomotives to their respective stalls. Whether “O” or “C”-shaped and open at the center or completely enclosed, this and the dairy barn were models of structural and operational efficiency.

This British railway roundhouse is totally enclosed. Built for the London & Birmingham Railway, this was built in 1847.

A 1913 Canadian National roundhouse at Hanna, AB.

Said to be (or have been) in Chicago, I have no idea where it was located.

Other institutional applications for found for radial configurations, most of them based on surveillance: the hospital and its cousin the mental hospital, as well as the prison.

Panopticon, design for a prison by Jeremy Bentham (1791).

And then there is the library, whose development is nearly parallel and contemporary with the Akron idea. The British Museum Reading Room (opened 1847) and the public library at Vyborg/Viipuri (1927-1935) each employ radial sightlines from a central librarian’s station as the organizing principle.

Former British Museum Reading Room (opened 1847), Sidney Smirke, architect

Library, Mount Angel Abbey, St Benedict, OR (corrected); Alvar Aalto, architect

I suspect similar polygonal or radial structure from the mid-19th century will suggest other potential sources of influence for what the Miller-Vincent-Snyder-Kramer team conceived.

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One Comment
  1. Wonderful post – I love circular buildings. I especially love it when they’re run right up against rectangular ones for stark contrast of form.

    For the sake of correction, the last image is of one of Aalto’s other libraries, at Mount Angel Abbey in Oregon.


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