Symmetry in Architecture

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  • 0:03 Ordering Principles: Symmetry
  • 0:57 Symmetry in Architecture
  • 2:37 Rotational Symmetry
  • 3:46 Chiral Symmetry
  • 4:32 One Last Example
  • 5:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Symmetry is one of the most common ways to understand the relationship between parts of a building. In this lesson, we'll explore this concept and look at some real-world examples.

Ordering Principles: Symmetry

Imagine that you're trying to order a bowl of pasta, but the menu just says pasta: noodles, tomatoes, garlic, onion, beef, basil. You know what's in this bowl of pasta, but you really don't know what you're about to eat. Are all these ingredients just tossed together in a bowl? Are the tomatoes mashed into a marinara sauce, or whole? Is the beef a meatball, a steak, or what? Even if you know the components, you can't understand the entire dish without knowing how those components interact. This pasta dish: it's a metaphor. For architecture. Boom.

In architecture, we can't really understand a structure just by knowing what its components are. We need to know how they interact. There are many criteria we can use to compare the components of a structure, and they are collectively are called ordering principles. One of the most commonly used ordering principles throughout history is symmetry.

Symmetry in Architecture

In architecture, symmetry is the reflection of shared forms, shapes, or angles across a central line or point called the axis. Basically, components that mirror each other across an axis are symmetrical. This is one of the oldest and most continuously used ordering principles in architecture.

Symmetry helps bind various elements of a structure together into a single, unified whole. It is also commonly used to create a sense of rational order and calm logic, a favored aesthetic of the ancient Greeks and Romans. We can look at symmetry on many scales, from the relationship between single details, to the layout of the complete structure, and even to entire urban centers built on a symmetrical grid pattern.

Christiansborg

So, how about some real-world examples of symmetry in architecture? Look at the image of the Christiansborg Palace in Copenhagen. This is a highly symmetrical building, so it shouldn't take you too long to find the axis, the line separating mirroring components. Just imagine a vertical line straight down the middle of that central tower, from tip to base. That's our axis. The structure on the left of that axis perfectly mirrors the structure on the right of it. The colors are the same, the buildings are shaped in the same way, and they have the same number of windows of the same sizes. Each side is a prefect reflection of the other.

A building like this has a vertical axis, but a structure can also have a horizontal axis. Any structure with a single axis and two sides that mirror each other has lateral symmetry. It doesn't matter which way the axis is oriented, as long as both sides are mirror images.

Rotational Symmetry

Pentagon

Lateral symmetry is very common, but what if a building is laid out on a different system? Check out the aerial view of the Pentagon building in Washington D.C. It's called the Pentagon because, surprise, it's got five equal sides. So, how do you find the axis on this structure? Try this: pick one of the Pentagon's five points. From that point, draw a straight line through the center of the complex and to the flat wall on the opposite side. You may notice that the structure is symmetrically divided on this axis. But, now rotate that axis 72 degrees, to the next of the five points. The building is still symmetrical.

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