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A sphere with a message: planets hold lessons architects can learn

Last week's news from outer space seems to suggest that architecture, which has enjoyed occasional flirtations with science ever since the astronomical experiments of the ancient world, might be heading the same way again.

Hitherto these relationships have been discontinuous, not enduring, like architecture's romance with art. Perhaps the climax of the age of enlightenment and the French Revolution saw their historic apex in such great manifestations as the project of +tienne-Louis BoullÚe for a monument to Sir Isaac Newton, or the 1802 design for an H¶tel aux Champs-+lysÚes by Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, or the even earlier project for a spherical house by Laurent Vaudoyer.

Comparing these majestic projects with the dismally ordinary house that Konrad Wachsmann designed for Albert Einstein not much more than a century later, the decline of clarity is palpable. More than another half century has to pass after Wachsmann's structure before the advent of the very largest geodesic domes - notably the nearly spherical but ill-fated Pavilion of the United States at the 1967 Montreal World's Fair - begins, once again, to suggest that plain science is beginning to elbow myth and magic out of the architectural limelight.

What these two ages of science in architecture have in common is their focus, in part or whole, on the sphere. To be sure, from the ancient world to the mid-19th century, the sphere remains an impractical form for architectural purposes, one condemned to the realm of the ideal rather than real because of the limitations imposed by the use of traditional materials. But when the sphere is released from the chains of solid geometry and turned into a hollow frame structure, as it was by late 19th and early 20th century discoveries in astronomy, optics, spherical geometry and the fabrication of light steel members, it becomes habitable. And once it has become habitable, it not only joins the family of forms endorsed by the pioneers of the Modern movement, from Le Corbusier to Leonidov, it challenges them.

The sphere is the shape of the planets, which gives it an authenticity no other geometrical form can equal. Even those architects who objected to Buckminster Fuller's geodesic and tensegrity domes of the 1950s and 1960s on the grounds that they were 'all the same', knew, uneasily, that their sameness was not a weakness but a strength. It was the sameness of all natural things - all lions, all tigers, all people, all planets are to this extent the same.

Something of the power of this universality lies behind the reception accorded the news that the Hubble Space Telescope has discovered a spherical planet 150 light years away in orbit around a star in the constellation Pegasus that has an atmosphere clinging to its surface in the same way as Earth has. The astronomers responsible for this discovery have been cautious in the media, trying hard to balance their own excitement at finding an earth-like atmosphere clinging to any planet anywhere, with the need to prevent ordinary people jumping to conclusions about what it might mean.

They are right to do so because this Jupiter-sized planet is, after all, a vast distance away, well outside our solar system - about four million miles from a star so distant that it remained undiscovered until 1999 - so it is out of range of an unmanned probe, let alone a manned mission (whose crew would be as old as the pyramids by the time they got there). Worse still, the 'atmosphere' appears to consist of a thin solution of sodium, useful for chemical warfare but not so good for breathing. There may be a long way to go but this sphere, like its predecessors, carries a message.

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