Why is architectural symmetry so satisfying?

What we build.
May 21 2008 11:45 AM

Mirror Images

Why is symmetry so satisfying?

In an early chapter of his interesting new book, Symmetry: A Journey Into the Patterns of Nature, Marcus du Sautoy describes a visit to the Alhambra, the great Moorish palace in Granada, Spain. He and his young son spend an afternoon identifying 14 different types of symmetry represented in paving patterns, ornamentation, and tile work. To the layman, the patterns may look simply like pretty forms, but to du Sautoy, who teaches mathematics at Oxford University, they are expressions of deep geometries that have their own names: gyrations, *333s, miracles, double miracles.

Du Sautoy's book is about mathematics, but his excursion to the Alhambra is a reminder that symmetry has always been an important part of architecture. Symmetry appears in small things and large: Floor tiles may be laid in symmetrical patterns; the design of door paneling can be symmetrical, and so can window panes. In frontal symmetry, the left side of a building's facade mirrors the right (the entrance usually being in the middle); in axial-plan symmetry, the rooms on one side of the axis are a mirror image of those on the other. If the women's restroom is on one side, chances are the men's is on the other. Sometimes not being symmetrical is important; the fronts and backs of buildings, for example, are intentionally different.

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Symmetros is a Greek word, and ancient Greek architecture used symmetry as a basic organizing principle. As did Roman, Roman-esque, and Renaissance. Indeed, it is hard to think of any architectural tradition, Western or non-Western, that does not include symmetry. Symmetry is something that Islamic mosques, Chinese pagodas, Hindu temples, Shinto shrines, and Gothic cathedrals have in common.

Architectural Modernism thumbed its nose at tradition and firmly avoided symmetry. Being symmetrical was considered as retrograde as being, well, decorated. All exemplary Modernist buildings celebrated asymmetry: The wings of Walter Gropius' Bauhaus shoot off in different directions; the columns of Mies van der Rohe's Barcelona Pavilion are symmetrical, but you can hardly tell, thanks to the randomly spaced walls; nothing in Frank Lloyd Wright's pinwheeling Fallingwater mirrors anything else; and Le Corbusier's Ronchamps dispenses with traditional church geometry altogether. The facades of Philip Johnson's Glass House are rare instances of Modernist symmetry, although all the elements of the interior—kitchen counter, storage wall, and brick cylinder containing the bathroom—are carefully located off-center.

Yet some Modernist pioneers did eventually recognize the evocative power of symmetry. After 1950, for example, Mies's designs are increasingly symmetrical, both in plan and elevation. The Seagram Building is rigidly axial in plan—and has a front and a back—just like McKim, Mead, and White's Racquet and Tennis Club across the street. Louis Kahn is a late Modernist who eschewed all architectural traditions except one; he returned to the symmetry of his Beaux-Arts education in the planning of his buildings. Eero Saarinen's Ingalls Rink at Yale is axially symmetrical, but then hockey, like basketball or football, is played within symmetrical bounds.

Yet today's expressionist fashion demands architectural asymmetry at any cost. That's a shame, since architects sacrifice one of their art's most powerful tools (not all architects—Norman Foster and Renzo Piano often use symmetry to great effect). Without occasional symmetry, all those angles and squiggles start to look the same. The hyperactive geometry of Daniel Libeskind's addition to the Denver Art Museum, for example, can quickly become tiresome. The fey asymmetry of SANAA's much-heralded New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York loses its impact after several viewings. A welcome exception is Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. While the exterior and the lobby are whimsically composed in standard Gehry fashion, the hall itself, like most concert halls, is perfectly symmetrical about its longitudinal axis. I don't know if this was done for acoustical reasons or because the architect recognized the inherent calmness that axial symmetry affords.

Why is architectural symmetry so satisfying? As Leonardo da Vinci's famous drawing demonstrated, it reflects the human body, which has a right side and a left, a back and a front, the navel in the very center. Du Sautoy writes that the human mind seems constantly drawn to anything that embodies some aspect of symmetry. He observes that "[a]rtwork, architecture and music from ancient times to the present day play on the idea of things which mirror each other in interesting ways." When we walk around a Baroque church, we experience many changing views, but when we walk down the main aisle—the line along which the mirror images of the left and right sides meet—we know that we are in a special relationship to our surroundings. And when we stand below the dome of the crossing, at the confluence of four symmetries, we know we have arrived.

Witold Rybczynski is Slate's architecture critic His latest book is The Biography of a Building: How Robert Sainsbury and Norman Foster Built a Great Museum. Visit his Web site. Follow him on Twitter.

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