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It is hard to imagine a more elusive mental exersise than attempting to understand the wind. I was walking by a co-workers desk who was building windroses for a site plan and I was intrigued graphically by the patterns they were creating.

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Some examples of wind roses used in our office to study the physical conditions of a place

It suddenly occured to me how connected our sense of direction, our compass, as well as our sense of time is connected to wind. I wondered if wind was the beginning of our curiosity about directions–and as it turns out, it was.

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Early windroses

The different winds had distinct personalities–warm, wet or dry or cold–and these winds came and went with the seasons–much like the sun moves around a sundial. All of these factors–light, temperature and wind are crucial to architecture and when ignored can change the successful outcome of a space or structure. Buildings interact with the world around them and how comfortable they allow us to be depends, not only on an understanding of mass & space, but also on understanding the invisible things–time, light and air.

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Sundial’s have always fascinated me with their complex simplicity. You can imagine a happy accident that led to the observation that the shadow cast by the sun moved around–and to our fascination and the larger questions they must have raised to their meaning. Suddenly, we had a simple reliable tool to examine time.

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One of the earliest known clock towers was the Horologion of Andronikos Kyrrhestes, or the Tower of the Winds in the Roman Agora in Athens, Greece. Thought to be built in 50 BC, it the structure featured sundials, a watercock and a wind vane.

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18th-century reconstruction of the Tower of the Winds from The Antiquities of Athens

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Roof detail of Tower of the Winds

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Layout of the interior of the tower, from Stuart & Revett’s The Antiquities of Athens

People built structures such as the Tower of the Winds to use earth’s physical forces track and to understand more completely the questions our universe, and as human beings allowed us for the first time accurately to plan for the cycles of nature.

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The gods of the winds–here the North and Northwest wind gods

In the 13th C. sailors  from Europe and Persia using this knowledge of the winds greatly expanded their trade routes and exploration with the use of another simple tool invented by the Han Dynasty in China around 206 BC- the magnetic compass. By striking a metal pin with a lode stone they were able to magnetize a piece metal. Miraculously, it would then swing in one direction- always north. This “magnetic north” was not exactly “true north”, or the north pole, but it allowed for much greater accuracy while navigating great distances by sea, and thus, greatly expanded our knowledge of our world. Soon, all maps bore a rose compass for orientation.

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Jorge Aguiar rose compass

Visually, the compass is also similar to Mandalas from many countries. Mandalas are revered and are widely considered representational of the cycle of life. A graphic very similar to a compass used on every map, it helps to keep us connected to where we are in time and space.

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Kalachakra mandala

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As we consider how these graphic designs help us to make sense of our world and our digital life is changing the way we live–including the way we think about time and communication–it is interesting to think about how symbols from the past shape our perception of the world. And yet, as far as we think we have come, our symbols seem to stay with us–maybe because they are fundamental to the way we understand the unknown around us. Also, perhaps giving us some comfort in knowing our place in this vast universe.