Circus

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Charles and Ray Eames loved the circus, studied and photographed circuses extensively, and often referenced them as a metaphor for the design process. Here is an extended excerpt from one of Charles Eames’s speeches, in which he articulates this idea:

“The circus is a nomadic society, which is very rich and colorful but which shows apparent license on the surface. Parents tend to take their children to the circus as a kind of ritual, a kind of initiation into a world which is just not allowed and which cannot be. Everything in the circus is pushing the possible beyond the limit–bears do not really ride on bicycles, people do not really execute three and a half turn somersaults in the air from a board to a ball, and until recently, no one dressed the way fliers do. Yet, within this apparent freewheeling license, we find a discipline, which is almost unbelievable. There is a strict hierarchy of events, and an elimination of choice under stress, so that one event can automatically follow another. The layout of the circus under canvas is more like the plan of the Acropolis than anything else; it is a beautiful organic arrangement established by the boss can-vas man and the lot boss. Upon arrival at a circus site, the lot boss used to drive a horse-drawn cart around the entire lot to make his preliminary investigation. Then he began again and, by counting the horse’s hoof beats, marked out the appropriate spots for the boss canvas man to place the quarter-poles. In this activity, and others of the circus people, one can see the precise arrangements of people in relation to one another. The lot boss knows exactly what his relationship is to the boss canvas man because the mutual objective and the method of accomplishing it are clear to both. In the actions of circus people waiting or rehearsing or preparing to perform, there is a quality of beauty, which comes from appropriateness to a given situation. There is a recognized mission for everyone involved. In a crisis there can be no question as to what needs to be done. The circus may look like the epitome of pleasure, but the person flying on a high wire, or executing a balancing act, or being shot from a cannon must take his pleasure very, very seriously. In the same vein, the scientist, in his laboratory, is pushing the possible beyond the current limit, and he too must take his pleasure very seriously. The concept of “appropriateness,” this “how-it-should-ness,” has equal value in the circus, in the making of a work of art, and in science.”

Language of Vision: The Nuts and Bolts by Charles Eames

Originally published in the Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Oct., 1974), pp. 13-25

This speech is reproduced in its entirety in An Eames Anthology.