21 May 2008

I Believe In Symmetry

What is so seductive about symmetry? Why is it so damn hypnotising?

Just looking at the word symmetry is sorta beautiful. It looks symmetrical even though it isn't the perfect palindrome. I wanna split it right down the middle between it's two wonderful m's.

Latin symmetria, from Greek, from symmetros. Ancient Greek architecture used symmetry as a basic organising 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.

I always thought the word symmetry should really be Yrtemmetry or Symmys. Wouldn't that make more sense? A word like symmetry, a thing like symmetry, needs a autological word to describe itself. For chrissake, shouldn't the word symmetry be symmetrical?!

I recently read Marcus du Sautoy's Symmetry: A Journey Into the Patterns of Nature. Its really a book about math, which is fucking gross, but he often points out how symmetry has always been an imperative part of architecture and beauty. Both in ancient times, the ability of a large structure to impress or even intimidate its viewers has often been a major part of its purpose, and the use of symmetry is an inescapable aspect of how to accomplish this. Symmetry finds its ways into architecture at every scale, from the overall external views, through the layout of the individual floor plans, and down to the design of individual building elements such as intricately caved doors, stained glass windows, tile mosaics, friezes, stairwells, stair rails, and balustradess.

But why is architectural symmetry so goddamn satisfying? As your boy 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.

Another more subtle appeal of symmetry is that of simplicity, which in turn has an implication of safety, security, and familiarity. And we all like that shit as humans ever searching for the safety and warmth of the womb from which we came. Symmetry thus can be a source of comfort not only as an indicator of biological health, but also of a safe and well-understood living environment.

The relationship of symmetry to aesthetics is quite complex. Certain simple symmetries, and in particular bilateral symmetry, seem to be deeply ingrained in the inherent perception by humans of the likely health of other living creatures, as can be seen by the simple experiment of distorting one side of the image of an attractive face and asking viewers to rate the attractiveness of the resulting image.

Consequently, such symmetries that mimic biology tend to have an innate appeal that in turn drives a powerful tendency to create artifacts with similar symmetry. One only needs to imagine the difficulty in trying to market a highly asymmetrical car to general automotive buyers to understand the power of biologically inspired symmetries such as bilateral symmetry.

In any human endeavor for which an impressive visual result is part of the desired objective, symmetries play a profound role. The innate appeal of symmetry can be found in our reactions to happening across highly symmetrical natural objects, such as precisely formed crystals or beautifully spiraled seashells. Our first reaction in finding such an object often is to wonder whether we have found an object created by a fellow human, followed quickly by surprise that the symmetries that caught out attention are derived from nature itself. In both reactions we give away our inclination to view symmetries both as beautiful and, in some fashion, informative of the world around us.

The tendency of people to see purpose in symmetry suggests at least one reason why symmetries are often an integral part of the symbols of world religions. Just a few of many examples include the sixfold rotational symmetry of the Star of David and the bilateral symmetry of Christianity's cross or the fourfold point symmetry of Jain's ancient and peacefully intended version of the swastika.

People observe the symmetrical nature, often including asymmetrical balance, of social interactions in a variety of contexts. These include assessments of reciprocity, empathy, apology, dialog, respect, justice, and revenge.

Du Sautoy writes that the human mind seems constantly drawn to anything that embodies some aspect of symmetry. Symmetry is, quite literally, everywhere and while we may not realise it, we are subconsciously drawn to it; its closure is comfort.

Next time we'll delve into symmetry's cousin, repetition, and why it is so damn hypnotising?


Unknown said...

For me, it is not so much that I "believe" in symmetry, as I am fascinated by symmetry. From matter so small that it cannot be seen with the naked eye to matter that is so large, it cannot be contained within the limits of the naked eye...symmetry is present and (it seems)..predictable. I have been intending to write about symmetry for many years! I am getting closer..

@BollywoodBlonde said...

I totally agree that there is comfort in symmetry... when I am feeling strong I love quirky "Asymmetrical Wednesday" but at my weakest I seek the comfort of predictable symmetry. I was gonna' blog something but you covered the whole spiel quite nicely. XX :-)