Balance and Harmony Without Symmetry

Those of you who have visited the Art Institute of Chicago may still have missed two of my most favorite experiences there. They are not easy to find. One is a gallery designed by the master architect Tadao Ando; the other is the model of the Japanese home in the Thorne Rooms (a stunning collection of scale models of interiors and rooms through history that are a must-see).

Japanese Enso

Japanese Enso

There is something about Japanese art that has always fascinated me; arrested me, in fact. There was a balance, a rightness about the structure that I could never put my finger on. This hearkens back to my earlier post about not understanding what makes good design but responding to it nonetheless; Japanese art and design has always provoked a response in me, but I was unable to say what element, or combination of elements, it was that drew it out of me.
I think I stumbled on it. Much of the idea has to do with the Japanese view of symmetry. You won’t find a lot of it in any aspect of Japanese design or art – at least, not in the sense that we know it. The quote below is the most succinct explanation of part of this phenomenon that I can find.

The dynamic nature of their philosophy laid more stress upon the process through which perfection was sought than upon perfection itself. True beauty could be discovered only by one who mentally completed the incomplete. The virility of life and art lay in its possibilities for growth. In the tea-room it is left for each guest in imagination to complete the total effect in relation to himself. Since Zen has become the prevailing mode of thought, the art of the extreme Orient has purposefully avoided the symmetrical as expressing not only completion, but repetition. Uniformity of design was considered fatal to the freshness of imagination.

– from The Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuzo, a reflection and presentation of Japanese culture to Western readers published in 1906. (emphasis mine)

Nature seems to abhor true symmetry. Very few things in nature can be folded upon themselves upon any axis and be said to be exactly the same – perhaps some snowflakes and other crystalline structures. But in general, left and right sides, up and down, back and front are not mirrors of one another at all. And, if they are, they do not look right. Consider the art of Mark Mothersbaugh – most famous as the founder and frontman of Devo.

Blox Bambina Daddys Rug, Mark Mothersbaugh 2007

Blox Bambina Daddy’s Rug, Mark Mothersbaugh 2007

I’ve read an article in the past where he talks about making these images. They are just photographs, split as evenly down the middle as possible and mirrored. These images completely skewer the idea that the human face is symmetrical – something the casual observer might assume to be true. One look is enough to relieve anyone of that notion.

Achieving true symmetry can be a great struggle. It is an easy way to achieve balance – but is it a cop-out? And can you ever really get there? There can, of course, be a Herculean effort to control all the variables in any design. But not everyone has the luxury of being able to create the Taj Mahal; and even then, do we really want to? Not to be reductive about it, but the bushes and trees that surround any structure, the page of a magazine, the existing room that an event is in … all sorts of things in the environment are going to foil true symmetry. Is it not then better to attain balance and harmony in some other way?

When tackling issues of balance, frequently I look to Japanese artists, architects, and designers for inspiration and solutions.

Taiso Yoshitoshi (1839-1892), iKintaro Riding the Giant Carp/i, color woodcut, 1882

Taiso Yoshitoshi (1839-1892), <i>Kintaro Riding the Giant Carp</i>, color woodcut, 1882

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcomed.

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