Lecture 5. The Wheel

The role of the wheel in architecture stretches from 3500 BCE when it was first invented, to the present. In fact, many of the future lectures such as the printing press, railways, elevator, automobile, subways, roads II, tourism, airplane, even the computer and the internet are not possible without the invention of the wheel. This lecture however focuses on the impact of the early wheel on architectural expression. Advances in wheel technology were slow; the first wheels were heavy and clunky and yielded little in terms of technological progress. Nevertheless, they captured the cultural and symbolic imagination of many societies. In other words, rather than being used as an instrumental technology the early wheel first appeared as icon, in rituals, or in sculptural aspects of temples, tombs, and graves. More specifically we trace how the chariot as a form of technology influenced architectural form and spatial practice from ancient China to Iron Age Europe, and from the early Roman empire to medieval India. The lecture ends on a polemic note with the Ferris Wheel, asking if the recent possibility of viewing cities from an elevated vantage may be seen as the contemporary form of the chariot. Our first set of case studies look at the geographical expanse of chariot burials from ancient China (Shang, Zhou, and Qin dynasties) to Western Europe. Wheeled vehicles symbolized military power and political rank and we see how graves and tomb architecture accommodated chariots in various cultural contexts. Contemporary to Chinese chariot burials are the chariot burials of the Hallstatt and Arras cultures of Iron Age Europe. In medieval India, wheels are manifested in cultural imagination as religious icons in the Hindu temples, specifically the Jagannatha temple and the Sun temple at Konarak. Here the chariot (a symbol of Hindu deities such as the Sun God (Surya) or Krishna) becomes a formal typology of architecture. In Roman Empire, in turn, wheeled vehicle afforded the spatialization of speed e. Hippodromes and circa became key spaces through which the culture of the Roman Empire spread from the center to the periphery through mass entertainment and spectacle related to the wheel. The final case-study of this lecture looks at the recent proliferation of urban Ferris Wheels such as the London Eye and the Singapore Kris Flyer which offer bird’s eye views of their cities. In sum, this lecture looks at the profound impact that the wheel has had on the architectural imagination from ancient to contemporary times.

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