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Revolving Architecture by Chad Randl

Olly Zanetti

Certain ways of looking can be imbued with power and privilege. Regrettably, such ideas are given only cursory analysis.

Revolving Architecture

Publisher: Princeton Architectural Press
Subtitle: A History of Buildings that Rotate, Swivel, and Pivot
Author: Chad Randl
Price: $35.00
Length: 208
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 9781568986814
US publication date: 2008-05

A theatre, an avant garde prison building, and a restaurant atop skyscraping communications tower have little in common, right? Well, wrong, actually. According to Chad Randl’s account of one very particular section of architectural history, they are very much related. Randl’s interest lies not with architecture’s arguably more mundane arm, that of stationary buildings, instead, he is interested in ones which turn.

And there are a surprising number of them, in situations you might not expect. These days, no major city seems complete without its own revolving restaurant, usually installed, Randl informs us, as a generator of supplementary income for the communications towers that sprung up at the start of the information age. But revolving architecture is found in all sorts of other unexpected places, too. And it is on a tour of these places that this text takes us.

The opening chapter discusses the early history of rotating buildings. The first mention of a turning building that Randl finds are the dining halls of around 2000 years ago, belonging to the Roman Emperor Nero. This is an interesting, though frustrating, anecdote by which to open the text as, beyond an ambiguous mention of the commentator Suetonius, there is little solid evidence that the building ever actually existed. However, the point that Randl is leaning towards -- that of the symbolism engrained in the possibility that one man might have been able to order the construction of a such a technologically advanced building -- is pertinent, and one to which he returns throughout the text.

From here the chapter is compiled thematically, looking at everything from the effect of windmills to social and industrial development, to the leisure and consumer cultures that emerged from the invention of Ferris wheels and observation towers in seaside resorts. The description presented is comprehensive and full of novel asides -- where else could you learn, for example, of the 1890s Atlantic City fairground hit, The Haunted Swing? Seated in rows, riders would be given the illusion that they were being thrown around a scenario, when in fact, they remained stationary and the scenario was in fact revolving around them.

While the content itself is engaging, attempting to present a subsection of nearly 2,000 years of architectural history in 50-pages is problematic. Because the author is required to hop very suddenly from one theme to another, at times the chapter appears disjointed. I certainly had to go back and reread, as discussion of the evolution of gun turret architecture and its use in battle quickly became a history of revolving summer houses in the gardens of European nobility.

The following chapters have a clearer chronological agenda, and are, as such, far more coherent. The first two deal with pre- and post-war large scale revolving architecture, respectively. This is followed by an examination of revolving architecture in the domestic setting, and then by a conclusion.

In the early 1900s, revolving features were largely small scale and functional. Rather than rotating whole buildings, turntables, which echoed the developing production line approach elsewhere in industry, would be installed to provide order and mechanisation to repetitive processes such as milking a cow, or filling up your car. As the century progressed, the architecture’s use in softer, human-focussed, applications became increasingly prevalent.

The sun was thought to be essential to convalescence, and as such hospital buildings were constructed to allow patients direct sunlight for the full day. By the 1930s, revolving bars were a novelty being installed in some of America’s most upmarket speakeasies.

World War II put a stop to this conspicuous consumption. However, by the 1960s it was getting back on track. Leisure, particularly revolving bars and restaurants overlooking cities or spectacular mountain views, became the focus of attention. Adventurous types developed housing which would rotate to take in landscapes, or to benefit from the efficiency gains in heating or cooling garnered from changing their home’s orientation.

Broadly interesting as all this is, why does it matter? As Randl states in his introduction, the importance lies in the fact that "...rotating buildings are cultural artefacts. As such, they provide insights into the people that constructed them." This observation is central. Revolving buildings are signifiers of huge changes as technological developments and human value systems interact.

While the buildings themselves are often spectacular, the central feature behind much of contemporary revolving architecture is its ability to frame and present the world around it in certain ways. Revolving is about looking outward, as well as inward. This represents a significant shift in architectural practice, which carries with it important social consequences. Randl seems aware of this, and observes that revolving buildings can commodify views and make them accessible only to the privileged.

However there is far more to this discussion, yet Randl gives it scant attention. To offer just one example, for a while now the landscape and its viewing has been of interest to many cultural theorists, and particularly geographers. From analyses of artefacts from Gainsborough’s painting Mr and Mrs Andrews, to the layout of gardens and their vistas in English manor houses, seeing has been conflated with owning -- both in terms of possession and intellectual dominance. The result, it has been suggested, is that certain ways of looking, can be imbued with power and privilege. Regrettably, such ideas are given only cursory analysis, and the text’s focus is solely inward on descriptions of the buildings themselves.

In spite of this shortcoming, Revolving Architecture remains an interesting and worthy text. It is fascinating to peer behind the scenes of such a large number of diverse buildings. Further, a huge amount of effort has clearly been expended in sourcing the wonderful images which illustrate the work, and the writing itself, while at times simplistic, is clear and very readable. However, on reaching the end it begins to feel like this is more of a coffee table book than a serious piece of work.


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