The square, circle, and triangle are the most basic shapes on Earth, supporting structures both synthetic and natural. In the 1960s, Italian artist Bruno Munari explored the visual history of these shapes in three books, which Princeton Architectural Press recently compiled into Bruno Munari: Square Circle Triangle.
“A circle drawn by hand showed the skill of Giotto,” Munari writes in the 1964 La Scoperta del Cerchio (The Discovery of the Circle). “The first thing a child draws looks like a circle. People spontaneously arrange themselves in a circle when they need to observe something close up, and this led to the origin of the arena, the circus, and the stock exchange trading posts.”
Munari had published La Scoperta del Quadrato (The Discovery of the Square) a few years earlier in 1960, and then La Scoperta del Triangolo (The Discovery of the Triangle) — specifically the equilateral triangle — in 1976. The books are fascinating to explore together in this new reissue, which guards Munari’s original black-and-white design in a square-shaped book. Munari created over 60 books for various audiences during his lifetime (they were chronicled in last year’s Munari’s Books by art historian Giorgio Maffei), and he mainly intended the shape books for fellow designers. “Knowing everything about this simple, basic shape, in all its aspects and formal and structural possibilities, is a great help to designers,” he writes in Triangle. However, there’s a broad appreciation possible for this eccentric exploration of the three shapes through Munari’s omnivorous approach. He never nails down what any of the shapes are, yet looks at every aspect of what they mean, where they appear, and even their significance in language. In Square, he writes:
As tall and as broad as a man with his arms outstretched, the square has always been used, from the oldest writings and rock engravings made by early man, to signify the idea of an enclosure, a house, a village. Enigmatic in its simplicity, in the monotonous repetition of its four sides, its four identical corners, it can generate a whole series of interesting figures.
The subjects are all arranged alphabetically (according to their Italian names), adding a level of objectivity; Square, for instance, begins with the Hellenistic plan of the Agora of Ephesus and a 1951 Josef Albers painting, and concludes with a sculptural model by Mary Vieira and blocky Chinese calligraphy by Wang Hsi-Chih. Much of the information can feel random, with just two pages in Square including the Chinese character for mouth, the Sumerian word for house, the square Tokyo home of architect Makoto Masuzawa, the proportions of a French cathedral, and a photograph of the early computer “electric brain.”
Still there are symbolic patterns that emerge, such as the circle that often “deals with the divine.” Munari includes the sun disk of the Egyptian god Ra, the ouroboros biting its tale symbolizing eternity, a Raphael painting of the Madonna, magic circles, a Gothic rose window, and the crown of thorns. He also can never resist a bit of whimsical wit, and at the end of Circle throws in a monowheel — a circular bicycle.
Even if you’re not a designer, the trilogy on shapes encourages a closer look at the repeating structures around us and their deep human and natural histories, in which the simple square can simultaneously be an ancient symbol with “the power to drive out the plague,” and the boundaries for a game of chess.