Symmetry and balance in architecture

As you would expect, planning departments will pass judgement on a planning application and will often refuse a planning application if the main elevation is symmetrical. This comes as a bit of a shock to some of our clients to whom a perfectly symmetrical facade is the epitome of beauty.

How do I reconcile this difference of opinions?

It seems to me that the appeal of symmetry is based upon our general preference for order. Squirt some ink on a piece of paper and you have instant disorder. Fold the paper in two and you have a symmetrical pattern usually known as an Ink Devil. To most this is a more satisfying pattern than the squirt of ink. I think this is because a singular entity is just that and has no twin, its shape is just an accident.

As you would expect, planning departments will pass judgement on a planning application and will often refuse a planning application if the main elevation is symmetrical. This comes as a bit of a shock to some of our clients to whom a perfectly symmetrical facade is the epitome of beauty.

How do I reconcile this difference of opinions?

It seems to me that the appeal of symmetry is based upon our general preference for order. Squirt some ink on a piece of paper and you have instant disorder. Fold the paper in two and you have a symmetrical pattern usually known as an Ink Devil. To most this is a more satisfying pattern than the squirt of ink. I think this is because a singular entity is just that and has no twin, its shape is just an accident.

On the other hand a pattern that has a twin is now a part of a system and becomes more complete in some way. Perhaps a psychologist would be best placed to explain this human reaction but it is my task to try to explain to the general public and my clients, why symmetry is now out of favour. To be blunt, symmetry is too simplistic and in some cases just crass. So what we have to do is to create a different type of order that is less obvious. The nail in the coffin for symmetry was probably the awful mock Georgian style houses of the seventies. It is true that symmetry can cause another problem called duality, which I mention later, but it does not always, and therefore should not always be disallowed.

I am now going to use the word balance. The word balance of often given as a synonym for symmetry but I wish to use it to describe a slightly different approach to design and a way of achieving a satisfying pattern but without relying on a mirror image.

Consider how most children draw a house, two windows upstairs and two down and a door in the middle; that’s symmetry. Now shade in the window openings. Now redraw the house facade but on one side only create two windows each with a combined area equal the larger it replaces. Now shade all the windows in. To be truly satisfying you have to move them around so they are not too close to each other. This is a good starting point to achieving balance but it is usually a case of adjusting the shapes until they look right. This approach will often result in an elevation more acceptable to a planning department in my experience.

You find the same approach in art. Most paintings will have a focus point but the objects placed around it achieve some sort of balance. They will often achieve this with colour and or surface area mind you. This approach can also work with architecture too but is more difficult to sell to Planning Departments as textures etc. do not show well on a drawing.

So, for an easy passage through planning definitely go for balance and not symmetry in your design but be warned there is another aspect to consider and that is the sin of duality. In our child like symmetrical facade that we considered earlier, the door acted as a focal point and so the eye has an obvious point to settle on. If you take the central door out, the windows each side will vie for dominance and the eye will dance from side to side for a fraction of a second and this is unsettling. This Perhaps is because you cease to see the two clusters of windows as a system, they are too far apart to be read as a singular system; they become two items of equal dominance; a duality.

Okay, so that is my theory and I base my aesthetic judgement on it which generally seems to work for our Planning Applications, and Building Tectonics is pretty successful in this regard I am pleased to say.

I would like to add a footnote to this if I may. Artists have pure symmetry, balance and then deliberate imbalance, the latter to create an artistic “tension” in their compositions. I do not think most Planning Departments are ready for the latter yet.

Written by Tony Keller – Building Tectonics.

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