Round instead of square

This post is also available in: Nederlands (Dutch)

This is a typical artefact from an architect:

It consists of the typical modelling constructs found in those work products from architects: squares, blocks, rectangular things stacked on each other. For many people, even architects I fear, architecture is more or less synonymous with stacking blocks in layers. The work products in TOGAF are also named as such: building blocks. Blocks.

It reveals a mind set, a paradigm if you will, with which problems of an architectural nature are approached: decompose the world into understandable units, that are of an industrial, artificial, mechanical nature.

It reminds me of an accident in a supermarket my wife went to last week. An assistant was filling crates with white cabbages, and when she walked away after the job, the cabbages started rolling and several rolled on the floor. Sure enough soon after that another crate, this time with mandarins, exhibited the same annoying behaviour. The assistant exclaimed: “why does everything need to be round?”

Indeed, several attempts have been made to create “square” food products, tomatoes, melons, etc. Soo much easier to handle, in transport and storage. Soo much easier to optimise the supply chain. If only nature produced square results…!

However, we all know (I hope…) that nature doesn’t work that way. The reason nature’s produce is usually some form of round is not to annoy us or to clog the supply chains. It has to do with other constraints that are perfectly logical in the context of another paradigm: that of immensely complex ecological systems operating under evolutionary constraints.

Enterprise architecture has to deal with complexity. The complexity of the enterprise, operating within an expanding economical and industrial world of competing entities. A complexity which has much more in common with ecological systems than with steam engines or clockworks, not to mention Lego.


It may produce nice art. But it is not alive. It is not evolving, changing, adapting, morphing.

Living nature is all that, and most of all: it is not square.

In my country we had a writer/illustrator who, in my view, was an absolute genius: Marten Toonder. His books were a combination of cartoon-like illustrations and text, almost untranslatable because of his very Dutch idiom. He created an unforgettable character, called Kwetal (“KnowAll”), who was a kind of nature spirit:


Kwetal was quite impressed with the mental faculties of the main character called Ollie B. Bommel (Oliver B. Bumble), which he referred to as “denkraam” (“mental case”), because he could think of things Kwetal could never do. Kwetal referred to the “denkraam” of normal humans as “square”, which meant somehow not able to grasp the totality of things. That is exactly what we need to do as architect, grasp the totality, create a holistic view of the enterprise (or the problem domain). And using all those squares matches nicely with the square “denkraam” of many architects. But it totally mismatches with the reality of the world, that chaotic, constantly changing, round reality! We want to force the reality in square pictures, and are annoyed it doesn’t fit.

Many of the example models I propose in my articles use round representations. The Business-Centric Architecture (sorry, currently in Dutch only) is exactly that. No layers, no rectangles, but round elements, arranged in circles. The difference may be trivial or even topologically no different from representations using rectangles. But it reveals a different mindset, and also functions (for me at least) as a reminder of that natural quality of chaos and roundness. And to work and think from that mental realm, and not the realm of mechanics and machines.

As Alan Kay remarked often, the computer revolution cannot really take place if we keep thinking of computers as steam engines or clockworks.

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