Asymmetry

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Chartres Cathedral

Asymmetry is literally a lack of symmetry. It is usually defined in negative terms such as “objects that are not identical on both sides of a central line,” or those having a “failure of parts to correspond to one another in shape, size, or arrangement.“  It has been described as distorted, disquieting, out of place, hyperactive, tiresome, and threatening.

This blog post is a consideration of asymmetry in positive terms.

1.  Asymmetrical objects cause our eyes to actively scan, and our minds to actively evaluate the unequal parts of the form, seeking balance.  I feel this active engagement as stimulation, engagement, and fascination. Sometimes, a dynamic balance is achieved in an object; sometimes it is not.

2.  In addition to being a source of formal interest, asymmetry can deliver vital information. There are examples of extreme asymmetry in living things, such as this type of flounder, which has both eyes on the right side of its body. Other species of flounder are known to have both eyes on the left side of their bodies.  This is functional for them because they live at the bottom of the sea with enormous pressures causing them to lie flat.
Kuvalähde: Wilhelm vonWright: Pohjolan kalat.
CrabGross asymmetry such as that of the fiddler crab above can tell a story about a creature’s role, functioning, or habitat.  It raises the question, “What are the functional reasons for this particular form?”

3. There are degrees of symmetry. The human face is generally symmetrical, with 2 eyes, 2 nostrils, 2 cheeks, and 2 eyebrows. Yet on closer inspection of almost every face, inequality of the parts is obvious. Asymmetry is the source of interest, beauty, ugliness, and expression.

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Marilyn Monroe’s iconic and memorable face (top center) is admired. By mirroring just the left side (lower left), and comparing that to a mirroring of only the right side (lower right), we can see that it is far from symmetrical in structure and detail. Her facial imbalance gives her vulnerability and compelling beauty. She even darkened her beauty mark to enhance the irregular composition.

4. For human-made things, composition is a result of choices. What is the meaning or message in the choice to “go crooked?” In the early 1900s, Kazimir Malevich, a Russian Suprematist artist, created elemental, abstract art, which was shocking and radical in its time.

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Here are some famous examples of architecture in which, as described in the four points above, asymmetry :
1. stimulates active engagement opening the possibility of stimulation and fascination.
2. raises questions about the functional reasons for its particular form.
3. is the source of interest, beauty, ugliness, and expression.

4. raises questions about the meaning or message in the choice to “go crooked”

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Thomas Crane Public Library by H.H. Richardson, 1882.

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Auditorio de Tenerife by Santiago Calatrava, 2003

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Fallingwater by Frank Lloyd Wright, 1939

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Coetzee House by Emilio Eftychis, 2005(?)

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Niteroi Contemporary Art Museum by Oscar Niemeyer, 1996.

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Miyakonojo Civic Center in Miyakonojo, by Kiyonori Kikutake, 1966, Metabolist Architecture

Chartres Cathedral image courtesy of Wikipedia.

First photo of a flounder courtesy of TBD; second image of a fiddler crab courtesy of Google Images; third image of Marilyn Monroe courtesy of upscale; images of Malevich paintings courtesy of Web Museum.

First architectural example courtesy of Wikipedia, second courtesy of  Wikipedia; third courtesy of fallingwater.org; fourth courtesy of designboom; fifth courtesy of Wikepedia; sixth courtesy of Panaramio.

Feel free to share any of these images, but please provide a link back to 2H Pencil.

I invite your comments.

The Camera as an Artist’s Tool

I am taking a drawing class in which we sometimes work from photos, which by their nature, capture 2-dimensional records of 3-dimensional things, fixing a composition, and in so doing, eliminate several fundamental challenges of drawing.  I have long believed that it is preferable to draw directly from life, and to wrestle with the illusive third dimension, than to draw from photos.

But I am learning that there are opportunities in letting a camera do some of the work.  Compositions can be tested, cropped and re-cropped with ease, enabling quick explorations and unexpected discoveries.  A universe of subject matter can be accessed from the comfort of the studio.

Here is a painting by Charles Sheeler that I love for its stillness, sense of space, composition, color and subject matter.

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 American Interior, 1934

From the website of the Yale Art Gallery where this painting resides, “American Interior is the last and most complex of Sheeler’s paintings of interiors. A master photographer, Sheeler used his own photographs as the basis for many of his paintings. He modeled this composition on one of a group of photographs he had made in 1929 documenting the living room of his former home in South Salem, New York. He photographed the space from above to create a steeply rising floor. In the painting, the cropped composition, oblique view, tilted perspective, and distilled contrasts of light and dark that flatten the forms and emphasize their geometry reveal the artist’s eye as a photographer. His modernist vision responded to the purity of forms and patterns found in American crafts, shown here in the Shaker box, textiles, and chair. In American Interior, Sheeler celebrates both the clarity and precision of the camera and his love for simple, handmade American objects.”

The camera can be an artist’s best friend.

In researching this blog post, I found that Yale Art Gallery’s website, in addition to access to its collection, includes an intriguing online magazine called “What is Art and Why Does it Matter?  I am reminded that computer is a great tool for virtually visiting museums and galleries around the world.

Architecture Whisperer, No. 4

Behold, the building speaks!  This one says, “The Law of the State is ironclad. Judgment is exacting. Crime does not pay.”

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The Law Court Offices in Venice, Italy consist of a tall, dark and narrow, nearly windowless monolith that connects, at the ground level, to buildings of a re-purposed 19th century factory complex. The varied components of the court system all exist or can be accessed from somewhere within this “black box.”

Law COurt Offices 6The dark form is clad in oxidized copper panels punctuated by narrow windows. The entry is recessed under a 15 foot overhang. The Law Court Offices’ light-absorbing, geometrically simplified presence would be remarkable in any setting.  It stands apart, attracts attention for being different, and strikes a degree of trepidation into the viewer.

In the context of Venice, the City of Water and Light, it is the antithesis of most Venetian buildings, especially those along the Grand Canal, that fairly glitter with surface pattern and ornament.

Ca'd'OroTypically, they meet the ground or water with colonnades, behind which are layered the cool recesses of shadowed loggias. Above is the Ca’ D’Oro.

The historical center of state justice in Venice was the Doge’s Palace, on St. Marks Square. It has fabric-inspired brickwork, pedestrian-friendly Venetian Gothic colonnades, and lacy terra-cotta ornament. This lovely exterior’s grandeur does not, however, correlate with the harsh judgments and punishments that were imposed from within.

Doge's PalaceContrast the Doge’s Palace wall with the Law Court Offices’ wall:

Law Court WallThe architect C+S contends that this simple, archetypical, compact shape and the choice of materials constitute a metaphor representing “institution,” in all of its connotations of tradition, organization, and ritual. In addition to this, I think it symbolizes power, severity, and a general unsympathetic authority.  The State will not be moved. No one can escape justice. This is the message about the Law revealed by Venice in its choice of this design.

As an interesting contrast, the new Law Courts of Bordeaux, France, deliver an entirely different message about the Law.

richard-rogers-law-courts-bordeauxIn the words of its architect Richard Rogers, “This form with its enclosing roof creates a legible container of parts.” The cone-shaped masses are courtrooms. Circulation paths and connections can be seen.

Rogers says that the building intentionally “emphasizes, through a feeling of transparency and openness, a positive perception of the accessibility of the French justice system.“

Whether or not French and Italian legal systems are exceptionally different from one another, these two municipalities have built architecture that speaks of two very different things.

Photo No. 1 courtesy of Pietro Savorelli; Photo No. 2 courtesy of  Alessandra Bello; Photo No. 3 courtesy of Pietro Savorelli; Photo No. 4 courtesy of Wikipedia; Photo No. 5 courtesy of John Hopewell’s blog Italy 2010; Photo No. 6 courtesy of Pietro Savorelli; Photo No. 7 courtesy of Peter Augustin.

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I invite your comments.

Symmetry

Like butterflies, most other animals, and some plants,

we humans possess bilateral symmetry. We have a center line, with basically the same stuff on the right and the left.

Researchers of social psychology essentially agree that the faces we find most alluring are also the most symmetrical ones. To be physically balanced on either side of a center line is considered a primal hallmark of health and, therefore, beauty.

Just as we viscerally relate to symmetrical living beings, we relate to symmetrical objects.  We can discern a center line, and in general, we expect to see the same stuff on the right as on the left. There is a “rightness” to well-designed symmetrical architecture.

Symmetry is apt for expressing structural forces.

It imparts gravitas and elegance when used to mark transitions.

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 It can give objects a human aspect.

 Sometimes, for better or worse, the quest for symmetry can cause a building’s exterior appearance to take precedence over what the interior spaces need or want to be.

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A design needn’t be an exact mirror image to be symmetrical.

Symmetry can be as simple and serene as a blanket folded in two over a pole.

First photo of a Monarch butterfly courtesy of Karenswhimsy.com ; second image of Cattleya walkeriana orchid courtesy of Greg Allikas; third image of Vitruvian Man courtesy of Leonardo DaVinci; fourth image of the Eiffel Tower courtesy of Wikepedia; fifth image of a Torii Gate courtesy of Kate Comings; sixth image of The Dime Savings Bank of Brooklyn courtesy of My Bank Tracker; seventh image of 1940 Packard 160 courtesy of Hyman Ltd.; eighth image of Parisian Art Nouveau entrance courtesy of Traveling Squire; ninth image of pup tent courtesy of Imgfave.

Feel free to share any of these images, but please provide a link back to 2H Pencil.

I invite your comments.

Accentuate the Negative

I recently had a chance to teach a few classes about architecture and design to some bright 5th graders.  They were  excited by the following demonstration.  First, we looked at these yellow columns:

Then we looked again, with a hint:  LOOK AT THE SHAPES OF THE SPACES BETWEEN THE COLUMNS.  This brought on gasps of recognition and laughter. The negative space popped into the foreground and became the forms of people.

The moment when perception changes is jarring and provocative. The two different sets of information, once discerned, compete for foreground status.

Positive and negative space can provide an interesting lens with which to look at plans of buildings and towns. The gray shapes are the buildings in Martina Franca, an Italian town founded around 1300. Those with crosses drawn on them are churches. Interesting that there is barely a rectangular shape to be found.

To get a different perspective, reverse the positive and negative, and focus on the branching circulation paths. The wider parts are the gathering places. This image (below) showing  the twisting streets, the dead ends, and the irregularly shaped plazas, gives an insight into what it was like to get around this town.

When designing a building or group of them, it is useful and informative to “pop” the shape of the circulation space into the foreground and look at it as a thing in its own right.  It’s not just leftover square footage—it’s the connective tissue of the experience of the place.

First image courtesy of coolopticalillusions.com. Town plans adapted from “Streets for People,” by Bernard Rudofsky.

Feel free to share any of these images, but please provide a link back to 2H Pencil.  Thanks.