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« Duke / Imus | Main | The Hunting and Gathering Instinct, New-Media Edition »

April 15, 2007

Symmetry Preferences

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Hey gang! It's personality-testing time here at 2Blowhards!!

I have no idea whether psychologists, pop or otherwise, have done such a thing as I'm proposing below. Moreover, I don't care.

Since this is an arts (among other things) blog, I've concocted a visual test. All I ask is that you introspect briefly and decide if you prefer symmetrical architecture to asymmetrical or vice-versa.

Here are examples:

Vanderbilt Mansion, Hyde Park.

Hill House, Scotland by Mackintosh.

Okay? Figured it out?

Because we live in an esteem-building, non-threatening age while at the same time favor free expression and candor, I offer the following:

If you lean towards Symmetry, you are either...

  • solidly-grounded and organized
  • rigidly compulsive

If you prefer Asymmetry, you are either...

  • flexible and open-minded
  • a disorganized mess

So there you are! Happy to be of service.

Enough fun. I imagine most readers really do have a general preference, though I have no idea if the root is personality or something else -- it's difficult to tease out and probably not very important.

I happen to prefer asymmetrical architecture. Symmetry and classical, axis-based planning schemes strike me as being slightly cold. Or perhaps unnatural. I think that, in general, asymmetric shapes better reflect the functions of interior rooms better than symmetrical buildings where interiors are more likely to be contrived to conform to the exterior.

And from an evolutionary standpoint, aside from living things that move about, the appearance of symmetry is essentially absent. Therefore I suspect that, down deep, we feel something is "wrong" when confronted by symmetrical, non-movable objects such as buildings.



posted by Donald at April 15, 2007


I, too, prefer asymmetrical. I would imagine that this is by far the majority opinion. Virtually every American home I have ever been in is asymmetrical, except for a few that were built during the Georgian period. On the other hand, I don't think symmetry is unnatural: after all, virtually all the animals on this planet (not counting unicellular organisms) are bilaterally symmetrical. The reason for the relative unpopularity of symmetry must be found elsewhere, I think.

Posted by: Lester Hunt on April 15, 2007 2:25 PM

I think the surrounding landscape and environment dictates whether symmetrical or asymmetrical design works better. For me, symmetrical structures look best on a flat, open landscape. College campus structures, state capitol buildings, sprawling suburban corporate centers, and sprawling European palaces are examples where symmetry works well. Symmetry radiates order, which is an important function of some buildings.

With diverse topography and surroundings, an asymmetrical design can best maximize the space. By following the surroundings, the building looks more organic and can be more functional as well.

Overall, I prefer asymmetrical design with a purpose. However, if the choice is between the asymmetrical projectile vomiting of Frank Gehry and company vs. symmetrical design, then give me symmetrical please.

Posted by: AP on April 15, 2007 2:51 PM

Interesting point about evolution. While we prefer symmetrical faces & bodies, there is something about symmetrical buildings that is (slightly) soul destroying. We evolved in the diverse & asymmetrical rainforests after all, with neither rhyme nor reason to the color patterns, avg tree height or anything else. That said - why is every garden so aggressively pruned and orderly in appearance? Is it how we actually want our greenery deep down, or is it just keeping up with the Jones', ie status anxiety?

Young children seem to prefer chaos to orderliness. When I was a tot there was nothing I hated more than lego instruction manuals - I preferred to design my own higgildy-piggildy constructions without order or reason, different color blocks in the same wall etc, much more fun. I'm certain, deep down, that I found them more aesthetically pleasing as well.

Posted by: adrian on April 15, 2007 3:02 PM

Your asymmetrical picture isn't shot from the front (i.e. perpendicular to the front door), so I don't think it's an even comparison. Shot from the same angle, the Vanderbilt mansion wouldn't appear symmetrical either.

Posted by: claire on April 15, 2007 3:10 PM

Call me rigidly compulsive, but on balance I think symmetrical is my preference, not that I have anything against disorganized messes.

Posted by: pat on April 15, 2007 4:11 PM

Bah: the symmetry is spoiled by a tree. Anyway, Hillhouse is lovely; if you don't know Rennie Mac's work, it's worth visiting Glasgow to see it. Then you can pop through to Edinburgh and gorge yourself on all its beautiful, symmetrical Georgian architecture.

Posted by: dearieme on April 15, 2007 6:15 PM

Symmetry is my choice. Those who do not appreciate Andrea Palladio are barabarians. Enter paradise here...

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on April 15, 2007 8:14 PM

"Symmetry and classical, axis-based planning schemes strike me as being slightly cold. Or perhaps unnatural."

Buildings themselves are unnatural. Put me in the symmetry camp.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on April 15, 2007 11:01 PM

I agree with Lester Hunt. Bilateral symmetry is the determinant factor in our sense that a human, an animal, even a plant, is beautiful. That which is asymmetrical may have character; not beauty. I think this inborne preference for symmetry carries into architecture. Whereas we will tolerate a modest asymmetry in a building in the interest of...well, interest (character); we are put off by marked asymmetry. Example: in domestic architecture how many would want a house whose front door was placed way off center? Not many. At the 60/40 mark? okay. But I'll bet most would go with the door dead center.

Posted by: ricpic on April 16, 2007 11:38 AM

Wrong about suspicions "living things" own of symmetry which not coincidentally becomes my choice. Cold and frigid choice.

Posted by: Brian Hadd on April 16, 2007 12:01 PM

I'll take symmetry or logical asymmetry, but none of this random asymmetry with a bizarre window here and another weird shaped window randomly placed here with no relation to the other window.

Posted by: John on April 16, 2007 3:12 PM

Give me symmetry or give me death.

Posted by: thaprof on April 16, 2007 5:54 PM

I like symmetry aesthetically , but for things like buildings people actually have to live in it makes more sense to pay attention to things like ergonomics. It's better to have an ugly building people like living in. Of course, the people who choose the designs for the buildings frequently have more cash than common sense...

Posted by: SFG on April 16, 2007 9:21 PM

I go for symmetry in structures, but I like the landscape to slowly break down into wilderness as it extends from the building.

Posted by: Virgil K. Saari on April 16, 2007 11:35 PM

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