Symmetry surrounds us. It’s present in ancient Greek mosaics, medieval churches, the human body, the arrangement of atoms in a crystal, flowers, arguments, and the laws of quantum mechanics. Linking together the seemingly disparate disciplines of art, architecture, biology, crystallography, physics, and philosophy, symmetry is a fundamentally interdisciplinary concept that reveals common underlying patterns, suggests opportunities for disciplinary exchange, and because of its broad relevance, demands continued interrogation.
Although symmetry has been a central concern of architectural discourse throughout history, it largely went out of fashion with the rise of modernism, as the discipline turned to forms evoking dynamism and incompleteness rather than stability and order. Paradoxically, whereas the 20th century saw the disciplines of mathematics, physics, and philosophy expanding their engagement with symmetry, architecture turned away from it.
This misalignment can partially be attributed to architecture’s narrow definition of symmetry – limited to formal bi-lateral equivalence. Overlooking the many other instances of symmetry (including helical, self-similar, fractal, etc.), architecture has gone mute on a subject at the center of many of the most vital conversations of the day.
Of course, even though architects have fallen out of the larger conversation, considered in its broadest sense, symmetry continues to be at play in nearly every decision architects make – including materiality, space, scale, part-to-whole relations, legibility, organizational systems, mechanical flows, efficiency, and beauty. Although the power of symmetry has not changed, its perception within the discipline has.
After a century of asymmetry, what might symmetry offer us now that we’ve missed along the way? Clearly it at least offers an expanded toolkit of formal and organizational strategies. But might it also satisfy a uniquely contemporary need (or subconscious desire?) for the inherent power of bilateral equivalencies so long out of favor, and so absent from our current visual landscape?
This issue claims symmetry as an urgently relevant topic, precisely because it’s so glaringly not a topic in contemporary discourse.