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Dangerous Asymmetry

November 2, 2013

In aesthetics, the most basic way to order anything is symmetry – mirroring to make a larger whole. Humans are bilaterally symmetric, the US Capitol, or the White House are symmetrically organized.

Symmetry is at the essence of Classical Architecture and many other Traditional aesthetic regimes. Hence it has a stank of illegitimacy for today’s standards of Aesthetic Correctness. Truth be told, the baseline symmetry that once dominated so much of architecture has been Auto-Corrected out of almost all new published or award-winning work in the non-traditional education/journalistic realms of Design Judgment.

To me the ebbing of symmetry is not just about aesthetics, it’s about the triumph of Relativism in all things.

Not surprisingly, friends of mine are going through marital “issues”. Not always ending in divorce, but “issues” nonetheless. Whether infidelity, “growing apart”, or just aging out of compatibility, the early indicator of destabilization is asymmetry.

The simply resolved forces present in traditional parent-child relationships may not be symmetrical, but they should be balanced on honesty, trust and transparency. But power-playing parents and self-expressing offspring often have a balanced relationship devolve into unstable, even out of control deception and denial.

When the same words mean different things to people that rely on common meanings, like love, honesty, commitment, their relationship becomes asymmetric. In buildings, three dimensionally asymmetric structures need added structure from their symmetric counterparts to be stable, or they fall down.

In the cascadingly asymmetric relationships in my peer group layers of  effort go into rationalizing how unbalanced realities and expectations have become. Whole new systems of communications, often through 3rd parties who are paid to listen, try to clarify where those meanings have become skewed. The legal system steps in during divorce or separation between married couples, or to control bad behavior gone illegal with children.

Aestheticians rationalize the corollary design inequities with compensatory redefinition of terms: “Dynamic Symmetry”, “Balanced Composition”, or “Hierarchical Organization” recognize that the perfection of symmetry cannot be sustained when forces of reality are just too strong to be bridled by an abstract overlay.

The natural truth of symmetry present in so many things we see about us – leaves and faces – is mirrored in the built world – gable roofs and suspension bridges. But trees have branches, colonial homes have additions and approaches are needed to get onto bridges. In every case, natural, built and human, the perfect is bent to deal with reality.

One professor in architecture school cited “The Fried Egg Scheme” where the perfect yoke, is complemented by the wavering edge of egg white. Every perfectly symmetrical building exist at its inevitable edges by imperfectly organized nature.

The bass clef and treble clef define unlistenable realities unless they literally act in concert.

Order and expression only exist when the other is present.

Our relationships have idealized paradigms – “like father like son”, “Till death do us part”, “in God We Trust” that have often proven in the Modern world to be unsustainable.

Design in First World Comfort has allowed intentional asymmetry where once economy forced simple symmetry in construction. Marriage that sustained survival in mutual dependence now occurs only at will, not necessity. Children are treated as precious humanity from birth, rather than useful family partners bound by blood to family needs.

We have progressed beyond symmetry – but at what cost?

If organization is only the result of adaptation to opportunity, greater values and larger perspectives are lost. If “having it all” means more than “the greater good” then every building, every act happens in competition with each other, rather than in thoughtful interaction.

Imposing symmetry as a traditional straightjacket, balancing “wife’ and “husband”, “child” and “parent”, “male” and “female”, even “old” and “young”  in roles that prescribe behavior and values distorts as much as organizes. The static symmetrical facades and plans of Beaux Arts buildings can end up completely distorting use and structure – and voila – The Modern Movement is born to reflect undeniable reality.

But the outraged asymmetry of Modernism can become so much affect – where even a hint of precedent or even logic is viewed as intellectual retardation. The easy relativism that allows my free-flowing self-expression can bankrupt the emotional investments of others.

A century of ever more effective technology, medicine and liberation of human rights have tended to create the methods and time humans need to revel in themselves. Art can flourish, hopes can be realized and minds are freed to write things like this.

Unfortunately 7 billion points of light tend to be unfocused, and without the sacrifice necessary to create the local symmetries of mutual support things tend to fall apart. We need small symmetries to be the base clef to the melodies a First World Life allows us to perform.

Now if only I could carry a tune…

4 Comments leave one →
  1. November 2, 2013 8:04 am

    Sent from my iPhone

  2. Janice Gruendel permalink
    November 2, 2013 8:30 am

    These are always thought-provoking. This one is especially on the money. JMG

  3. Allan permalink
    November 4, 2013 5:21 pm


    The article of asymmetry is the best you have done yet!!!!! Keep up the good work. It reminded me of working for years with Warren Platner on the Windows on the World restaurant on the 106 fl. of the World Trade Center. Often we would review a solution for something or other and his favorite expression was: “Well, Allan of course the solution is symmetrical, you have a right hand and a left hand don’t you know.” I wager he learned that from Sarrinen.

    Ah Duo……….those were the good ol days. Take care.



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