- Beverly de Silva
- BBC culture
They are found everywhere – in the structure of snail shells, in pine cones, in our fingerprints; On the spiral staircase of the famous St. Paul’s Cathedral, in London, or in and out of the Guggenheim Museum, in New York, in the United States; in a rhino’s tusk or even in a rhino’s horn; Go around the center of our galaxy and the double helix of our DNA.
The spiral is one of the oldest geometric shapes found in human history – there are rock carvings of these symbols dating back to the Neolithic period – it is also one of the most common patterns in nature, seen in the flow of water running into the eye of a hurricane.
There are several types of spirals, such as the logarithmic, discovered by Albrecht Dürer in 1525; Archimedes’ snail, named after the Greek mathematician of the 3rd century BC; fermat spiral as well as helix and vortex, to name a few.
Spirals are omnipresent in human structures in the fields of art, design and architecture, both secular and religious – like the Great Mosque of Samarra, Iraq, dating back to the 9th century, or the spiral staircase in the Vatican Museum.
And that stunning shape is in vogue now, with the imminent launch of what promises to be an iconic new skyscraper in New York. The Spiral is a 66-story building jutting into the sky at 66 Hudson Boulevard in Manhattan.
Its construction cost, including the purchase price of the land, was US$3.2 billion (16 billion R$), and at just over 300m in height, it is one of the tallest buildings in the city. Outdoor green terraces flow around the building – lobbies twice the height on each floor, according to ad information, form a “unique hybrid that weaves together in a continuous green path” in an upward spiral.
Dominica Voelkel, of architecture firm BYG NYC and responsible for Spiral, told the BBC that the building has a “very striking appearance – modern and exclusive, but still has a lot of ‘old New York’, reminiscent of skyscrapers with setbacks, overlapping, like Rockefeller Center.
Spiral’s biophilic design – which provides access to outdoor spaces and improves indoor air quality – provides its support. According to Voelkle, “The design will help occupants find calm in a crowded environment – and the green is there to calm or provide a refreshing break.”
Trees and other plants were “acclimatized” to the field before being transplanted into the harsher Manhattan climate for final planting. If they do well and thrive, says Voelkle, Spiral will be “the first of its kind and the longest vertical garden in the world.”
The symbol of “control and freedom”
Artists of all ages have been inspired by spirals. Leonardo da Vinci used spirals in many of his drawings, such as those of slugs, not to mention his double helix spiral staircase at Chambord Castle in France.
Contemporary artist Chan Hoi Chong, from Singapore, illustrates famous paintings, including Mona Lisa Da Vinci and The girl with the pearl earringby Johannes Vermeer, using a continuous helical line.
For French-American artist Louise Bourgeois, spirals were more than just a symbol to play with. They fused into herself, representing the cycle of birth, life, and rebirth—and sometimes motherhood in her work.
Bourgeois, now deceased, remembered how the coil (as a powerful and sometimes violent symbol) had impressed her from a young age and influenced her work for her family’s carpet restoration company in Paris.
She said in 1994: “The coil is important to me. It is a development. As a child, after washing carpets in the river, I would turn and twist and twist… Later, I would dream about my father, in my dreams I would rub her neck.”
Bourgeois said he liked the vortex, which “represents control and freedom.”
The spider was another item often used by the artist. Her massive steel sculpture of a spider named Maman dominated the Turbine Room at the newly opened Tate Modern Gallery in London in May 2000. Other metal spiders by Louise Bourgeois have been on display for more than 20 years in the marquee of Ibirapuera Garden. , in Sao Paulo.
Spirals and spiders are widely shown in an exhibition at Hayward Gallery, London, which displays Bourgeois art on canvas. The exhibition includes a statue, woman in a spiral (The reason to visit again and again), the woman’s upper body is caught in a spiral, as if it were the prey of a giant spider. Bourgeois described the design as “a secretion, like a thread in a spider’s web.”
Katie Guggenheim, curator of the exhibition, comments that the artist has studied psychoanalysis for almost 30 years, which has influenced her throughout the eight decades of her career. She notes that “in fact, some of his work seems to be spinning out of control and going crazy.”
The work that takes the swirl symbol to nature is spiral platform, by Robert Smithson, giant spiral-shaped environmental artwork, measuring 4.5 x 4500 metres. Constructed of 6,000 tons of basalt at the exit of a pier on the Great Salt Lake in Utah, USA (where it would almost certainly be destroyed by erosion), it reflects Smithson’s fascination with entropy.
“One might perhaps note it as a collective cultural symbol of female appearance,” according to the artist’s website, which highlights that “the spiral moves counterclockwise, toward the subconscious.”
Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung, known for his work on symbols, archetypes, and the collective unconscious wrote: “Whirlpool in psychology means that when you make a vortex, you always go through the same point you were before, but never quite the same; always; Down or up, in or out, that means growth.” Jung depicted the unconscious process as moving “in a whirlpool around the center, which gradually becomes tighter and tighter, while the characteristics of the center grow more and more distinctly.”
The fascination with consciousness and psyche in the West undoubtedly contributed to the growing interest in meditation and yoga from the 1960s onwards, such as the practice of Kundalini Yoga, in which the spiral plays a major role.
The word “Kundal” in Sanskrit means spiral or coiled. It indicates a snake of energy flowing through the chakras.
In alternative medicine, an IUD represents connection to a deity. In whirlpool therapy, or whirlpool therapy, it is believed that a vortex of divine energy is brought through the heart to manifest in the form of healing and transformation.
In the late 1960s, psychedelic art used snail and kaleidoscope patterns to denote the effect of hallucinogenic drugs and altered consciousness.
Allied to the influence of psychoanalysis, this is evident in films such as body falling (vertigoin the original title in English), from 1958. Its director, Alfred Hitchcock, uses spirals to suggest a “downward spiral” of protagonist Scotty’s madness.
Already in the opening credits, it spirals into a stylized eye, while in the movie poster, the silhouette of a man falls into a well of psychosis. A revolving spiral staircase awakens Scottie, and the score, written by Bernard Hermann, is “built around circles and spirals—of fullness and desperation,” according to film director Martin Scorsese.
Spiral or concentric eyes are also the painters’ signal of madness or hypnosis, as in the sinister scene in which the Serpent Ka appears in the cartoon. Mowgli – The Wolf Boy Hypnotizes the title character to eat it.
captivating and mysterious
The spiral served a noble purpose in 1963, giving its name to a group of African-American artists from New York, Spiral. It was created as a direct result of the Washington March for Action and Freedom, led by Martin Luther King, Jr. that same year.
Led by artists Romare Bearden, Norman Lewis, Charles Alston, and Hill Woodruff, the group’s fifteen members aimed to discuss how African American artists should react to changes in the cultural and political landscape of the United States. They chose the Archimedes screw because “from its starting point, it moves outward, encompassing all directions, but constantly points upward.”
Illustrator Emma Amos, the only (and youngest) member of Spiral, passed away in 2020. But the group is still celebrating: Fashion designer Duro Olowu described in Vogue how he was “fascinated” by Amos’ bold and vibrant colors. Art and for her “ability to vigorously challenge sexism and racism… in addressing sexism, racism, and stereotypes about black feminism, her paintings offer the kind of resistance and optimism for change that is very important.”
The new creative director of French luxury fashion house Chloe, Uruguayan designer Gabriela Hirst, recently chose a helical logo to define her most exclusive pieces. “Spirals are the rage,” Vogue declared in response. “A nod to the roundness, perhaps? Nothing is coincidental in Hearst’s world; fans are the most coveted item of next season.”
Astronomer Edward Hubble classified galaxies into four shapes: elliptical, lenticular, irregular, and spiral. Of all the galaxies discovered by scientists so far, most are spiral-like, defined as “twisted groups of stars and gas, often of pretty shape” by space.com.
The Milky Way itself — where our solar system is located — is an “elegant spiral structure, dominated by only two arms comprising the ends of a central strip of stars,” according to NASA Science.
Spirals are omnipresent, permanent and infinitely wonderful, but also mysterious. Perhaps that is why they are used in interpretations that, in Jung’s words, are “universal.”
Like black holes, it remains one of the mysteries of life.
Have you seen our new videos on Youtube? Subscribe to our channel!