Round or Square

Square rooms.
They don’t listen.
They don’t care.
If a man is in despair.
— Lyrics of “Square Rooms,” 
by Al Corey


The Round Square in the U.K. is one of a number of buildings said to have been built to a circular plan so that there would be no corners for the Devil to hide in. It is now part of Gordonstoun School.

Is it possible that the shape of a room affects our thinking? The editor Julie Beck writes in the Atlantic that, among Western cultures, people are apt to see the individual as separate from the environment. Move to a different house, yet you are still the same person. But in South Asian cultures, she writes, “home isn’t just where you are, it’s who you are.” There is little doubt that people impact their physical environment, living spaces included. But what of the reverse?

Many people tend to want scientific evidence of any assertions (though it is seen as quite acceptable to ignore scientific evidence). But while there is no definitive answer to these questions, there is evidence of the ways that the physical dimensions of a space affects occupants.

Ancient peoples, and some of their modern day descendants, built round structures; the yurt, for example. This shape can be advantageous in highly windy places, as the air flows around the structure. There can be other advantages as well in terms of thermodynamics, efficiency, and acoustics.

Yet a discussion on the website Quora affirmed what anyone might guess, that square rooms and structures are preferred. This is especially true, said one thread, when there are several people, partly because of the round room’s magnification of acoustics! Other threads focused on the idea that square rooms are quick and easy to construct because of the linear nature of prevalent materials. They are also seen as accommodating furniture better than a round room would.

Round or square, other aspects of dwelling space affect the intellect: The psychologist Joan Meyers-Levy found that people in low-ceilinged rooms do better at solving anagrams with words like “restricted,” while those in high-ceilinged rooms do better with words like “freedom.” Ceiling height influenced thinking, she found.

Likewise, the author James Clear writes that, while researching the polio vaccine, an exhausted Jonas Salk retreated from his University of Pittsburgh lab to the Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi in Italy. “White-washed brick covered the expansive exterior,” Clear writes, “and dozens of semi-circular arches surrounded the plazas between buildings. Inside the church, the walls were covered with stunning fresco paintings from the 14th and 15th centuries and natural light poured in from tall windows.”

Clear quotes Salk as saying, “The spirituality of the architecture there was so inspiring that I was able to do intuitive thinking far beyond any I had done in the past. Under the influence of that historic place I intuitively designed the research that I felt would result in a vaccine for polio. I returned to my laboratory in Pittsburgh to validate my concepts and found that they were correct.”

In conclusion, there is what has been proven and then, far more extensive, there is what we know.