I just started reading a book about the origins of music and at the first mention of amphitheater I thought about the logo for this blog about the arts and media. The rings represent how, as a kid, I visualized the radio and television waves pulsing out from New York City to my suburban New Jersey town, and they also speak to the cultural periphery around the creative nucleus of Manhattan. So when the author mentions that amphitheaters of the ancient Greeks and Romans were semi-circular, circular and oval, I wondered how the original design came about.
Were the shapes and ringed seating inspired by watching how water ripples expand and understanding the relationship of air to water, or was it more conceptually and mathematically worked out as a matter of equidistant practicality? Perhaps it was just a progression from the natural world to the built environment by experiencing and then mimicking the vantages of bowled landscape and hillsides overlooking the sea as one witnessed either a battle or a sunset.
I would like to believe that it was a more personal and intimate evolution, and that it has something to do with how crowds form around the action, and that the tiered seating copies how the observers naturally jockey for position with the shortest people and kids shouldering their way into the front ring so as to be able to see, while the tallest of the tall can stand at the perimeter and still get a full view from where they are.
The semi-circle formation would favor a performer who could act out into a fan of people and even hide elements of surprise behind him or her. The full circle or oval shaped theater would give the upper hand to the audience with the advantage to see the performers from all angles as those performers would need to rotate to address everyone, or would naturally be in motion during a display of athleticism or a small combat. One would naturally favor theater and the other would be better for sport. You could imagine how the simple difference in design might even influence the future of a culture.
So what would be the reason for building an oval arena when a circle seems to be a more obvious shape? The problem with a circle is that the bigger you get the farther the very center is from everyone. With an oval you can expand sideways to give more seating and greater field/performance space but then certain “midfield” seats would still be close to the action. In practical terms the available footprint of a city might have influenced the design but the other thing is that with running events, and horse and chariot races you would want to create a space that allows for long straightaways and then a great enough of a curve to not slow down the competitor because of angled running, centripetal force, and a greater discrepancy of lengths between inner and outer lanes.
If you look at the 6th century BC marble wonder of Kallimarmaro (the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens) there is much more straightway than turns as we have on today’s tracks, which have a 1:1 straight to turn ratio. Even in the most distorted versions of theaters, arenas, and stadiums it is hard to not see the a manifestation of sound in the shape of the venues, the rippled arrangement of seating, and how they either favor the outward audio projection of the performer verses the inward cheers of the crowd.