The spandrel – some ideas

Man’s superior part

Uncheck’d may rise, and climb from art to art;
But when his built spandril is but begun,
What reason weaves; by passion is undone.

Alexander Pope

The triangular space between the outer curve of an arch and the rectangle formed by the mouldings enclosing it, frequently filled in with ornamental work; any similar space between an arch and a straight-sided figure bounding it; also, the space included between the shoulders of two contiguous arches and the moulding or string-course above them. (OED)

Or, in Gould and Lewontin’s succinct definition: ‘Spandrels – the tapering triangular spaces formed by the intersection of two rounded arches at right angles – are necessary architectural by-products of mounting a dome on rounded arches.’

The spandrel, long since dredged from the architectural dictionary of terms, has been disparately appropriated by artists and scientists to subtly describe the folly of human myth-making. For Gould, reading the spandrel as an originary design and not, as one should, as a necessary structural by-product of building an arch, is an inversion of the proper path of analysis, and a logical error that is frequently made, not only by evolutionary scientists but by endless professionals who mistakenly understand the developments of the natural and civilized worlds. Complaining in this way is a happily productive mode for discussing the correct way of things, the way in which they originate and the weight of interest we should attribute to various factors and features. Outside the specifics of arch-building, spandrel spotting becomes noticeably more difficult. Looming outside the church the spandrel is perhaps more potent, but it is elusive. This volume asks: is the spandrel a necessary move in undermining backwards logic? Is spandrel hunting always appropriate? Can a spandrel self-containedly transcend the category of spandrel?

Ask not where the spandrel appears, but whether you can identify it. Ask not if it is a spandrel, but why it is spandrelised.

For more information on this section, contact Christine Arnold ( or Laurence Piercy (

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