Everybody likes symmetry. It provides order, doesn’t need expert knowledge to recognize and promises easy access. While my German self loves this look of order, I get bored very quickly when things are so predictably arranged.
On balance, so I have concluded, symmetry may be a bad thing.
Loved by dictators, shunned by libertarians,
the perfectly symmetrical place simply doesn’t feel right.
Symmetry is easy.
Putting a picture or a line of type smack in the centre of a page
is an easy default, aided and abetted by software
that provides guidelines to snap the element into position.
Centred arrangements in typography are predictable and static.
If they are well-done, they look decorative;
if not, they come across as authoritarian.
Symmetry is boring.
After the First World War, artists and designers felt the need for more dynamic expression, symbolizing progress, the future. They turned to asymmetry. Some of the statements from movements such as Dada or the Futurists sounded as if asymmetric layouts were the solution to end strife and struggle. Printing pamphlets, books and posters designed according to the new rules of typography would, somehow, make the reading public ready for a new society. Centred arrangements were seen to represent the old order, a kind of typographic monarchy, with things becoming less important from the top down.
Designing plans for a city is like arranging toys, with architects playing God. The easiest thing is to place everything symmetrically, following a grid, be that made of squares or concentric circles or both. One look from above (which wasn’t so easy before aeroplanes or Google Earth) at Versailles or St Peter’s Square shows how tidy these plans are. From the ground, however, the impression ordinary people – everybody except architects – get is one of feeling small and insignificant. Which was exactly the effect both the absolute King of France and the “infallible” Popes wanted to achieve. Disagreement, let alone contradiction were not options with this architecture. Hitler’s Nazi party rallies in Nuremberg also celebrated absolute symmetry, as did his and Albert Speer’s plans for post-war Berlin. Cities that need centuries to grow, ending up full and messy, did not suit the plans of the dictators who wanted to exercise and express absolute power in their lifetime. No wonder, then, that the public spaces planned and built by the likes of Louis XIV, Hitler, Stalin and Kim-Il Sung never have cafés lining them.
Now take a look at the spaces that do make us feel at home, make us want to spend time sitting in cafes and watching children play. They are all asymmetric. The Grand Place in Brussels, although rebuilt at the height of absolutist rule, is slightly curved on all sides of its rectangle. You would never know that if you stood in the middle of the large square, looking at all the grand buildings with their impressive facades. The syntax of its construction is not evident, but somehow the scale feels just right.
The best example for a large public space with human proportions is probably the Piazza del Campo in Siena, the city’s beautiful scallop-shaped market square. Not only do the buildings follow a very weird curve around its perimeter, but the square’s floor is shaped like a shallow bath-tub. If you set out to walk towards the tower of the Palazzo Pubblico which dominates the space, you soon realise two things: it is nowhere near the centre and its entrance is a whole floor lower than the street surrounding the square. It takes a lot longer to get there from one of the cafes around the side than one first thinks, because of the way the floor is shaped and the distance is visually foreshortened by lines of stone that fan out from the tower side of the square. If you travel to all the other famous cities in Italy, you’ll soon notice that all their central squares feel comfortable because they follow the same pattern: they always dip at some point, never have a geometrically measured centre and always have a circumference that defies easy definition from a pedestrian standpoint. Why is it that the English language only has the word “square” to describe these places that aren’t?
A page can also be seen as a square in the architectural sense. Its elements are letters and words, line spaces and margins instead of buildings and blocks, streets and “squares”, and it is always easy to arrange them all in a predictably symmetric manner. To make a page feel approachable and eventually easy to read, these tectonic elements need to find their natural position. Language has its own rhythm, and as typography is visual language, a designer has to understand that rhythm in order to express it with black and white marks, with words and the spaces in between. Pure symmetry will hardly ever do.