August 31, 2018

left: Salk Institute for Biological Studies, La Jolla, California (photo from The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania/John Nicolais); right: Taj Mahal, Agra, India (photo by Getty Images

These images are what we commonly think of as symmetry. What you see on one side is mirrored on the other side. Classical architecture relied on symmetry for powerfully balanced compositions. But for a setting as peacefully symmetrical as the Taj Mahal, I find the architecture more interesting when accompanied by the asymmetry of life.

The symmetry of Taj Mahal is made more interesting with visitors and the asymmetry of life of Agra, India (photo by Getty Images)

The 1929 Barcelona Pavilion, by Mies Van Der Rohe  is hailed as one of the most significant contributions to the Modern architecture movement, with the pavilion’s Minimal walls and lines, blurring inside and outside. This structure is rarely mentioned in the conversations about symmetry. But that is only because we think that symmetry is when the right side is the same as the left side.

From what I learned in graduate school, I argue that symmetry can be such that the top half is the same as the bottom half. Top-and-bottom, not right-and-left.

left: Unexpected symmetry at the Barcelona Pavilion, Spain (photo from behance.net); middle: Axonometric drawing of the Barcelona Pavilion, Spain (drawing from handesi.wordpress.com); right: Unexpected symmetry at the Barcelona Pavilion, Spain (photo by Lindsay Koffler)

In challenging traditional symmetry, implied symmetry offers complexity. Here, the balance of symmetry is only suggested, not at all exact. As the eye moves from the vertical axis of symmetry to the right and to the left, the design is forgiving, no longer relentlessly mirrored halves. An architectural feature on one side is not replicated on the other.

left: Vanna Venturi House, Philadelphia, United States (photo by Maria Buszek); right: St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, West Frankfort, Illinois (photo from stjohnchurch-wf.org)

Beyond architecture, film director Peter Greenaway enjoyed applying symmetry as a cinematic device. As a young student of classical paintings, Greenaway employed symmetry not just in the set design, but with how the actors moved into the scene and located themselves. Akin to architecture, the result creates classical balance. But in movies, the experience is progressing over time and not as a static building. Greenaway delivers an experience that is harmonious but also disturbingly artificial. Could such compositions of people and objects exist in real life?

Symmetry in Peter Greenaway films. Upper left, lower right and lower left: A Zed & Two Noughts (1985); upper right: The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989)

Symmetry in a person’s face is considered to be an underlying trait of beauty and attractiveness. A balanced composition of facial features supposedly delivers a fetching handsome appeal. But exact symmetry in one’s face is impossible. Consider one of Hollywood’s leading actors, often complimented as being good looking. Digitally creating a face using the left side and mirroring it, then as another composition, using the right side and mirroring it, you will see how even the handsome Brad Pitt is not symmetrical. As above, his face only implies symmetry.

Brad Pitt montage (photo from memoliion.com)
Property Brothers from HGTV

These popular TV twins from HGTV exploit their identical look. But the outcome is like a Greenway scene— a contrived and awkward symmetry. Quite creepy actually, if you binge watch the show.

Lastly, this piano is symmetrical in exterior appearance. But inside, it is not. As with life, even things that strive for symmetry, harmony and balance, such things are often asymmetrical and lop-sided—and enjoyably so.

Schimmel Konzert K132 piano (photo from schimmelpianos.com)


April 1, 2016

Yes, all my construction workers look this good in a tank top.

I don’t usually make time to watch those TV reality shows on design. The unrealistic scenarios and oddball decorators/designers drive me nuts. Also, it all complicates my work life.

I find suspicious that some of these shows carry a disclaimer, something like, “Consult your professional architect, engineer, general contractor, and building official.” This sounds a lot like, “Don’t try this at home, kids.”

But here is the irony. These DIY channels inspire the audience to try this literally at home.

Is this a TV series or a comedy skit / parody?
Is this a TV series or a comedy skit / parody?

The shows promote a misleading premise that almost anyone can design, anyone can build. You don’t need a state registered architect or a structural and electrical engineer, you don’t need inspections, and you certainly don’t need much time or money.

Episodes defy the space-time continuum. These TV makeovers, renovations, and construction projects suggest that it’s all just a matter of days, or even hours. Through television magic, a home can be completely reconstructed in twenty-four hours. How is this possible, when paint needs to dry between coats, when tile grout needs to set before sealing, or when cabinets might need a few months to be fabricated in an off-site woodshop?

On one of these shows—and I have to remind myself they are shows for entertainment—I saw the foundation for a two-story addition completed in a few hours. Industry standard note: Concrete requires a drying and curing time of 28 days.

I don't know what it is, but something about these two creep me out.
I don’t know what it is, but something about these two creep me out.

I know: No one believes such reality shows to be actual reality. But the exaggerated degree to which “reality” is distorted disappoints. In one book on the background of such programming, the producer related a story about a couple provided with the tools and materials to paint their new bedroom in one evening. The producer confessed that after the cameras stopped rolling, the couple decamped to a hotel. A professional construction crew came on the set to do the actual job: taping, mudding, caulking, spackling, sanding, priming, and ultimately, the application of several coats of paint.

The cameras started rolling again on the couple faking exhaustion from an “all-nighter, all-alone” paint job.

Actress Jennie Garth from the TV series Beverly Hills, 90210. Credentials as a contractor and architect?
Actress Jennie Garth from the TV series Beverly Hills, 90210. Credentials as a contractor and architect?

Who are these charismatic so-called celebrity designers? Where did they receive their education and to what licensing board are they responsible? Do they know the life safety risks when removing those load bearing walls to open up a kitchen to the dining room?

When I recently tried this for my own home, that one wall happened to hold up the roof. And a commercial steel frame needed to be custom fabricated and installed to keep the house from falling down. And my existing concrete foundation was saw cut for deeper steel reinforced concrete footings. And a structural engineer calculated all the details. And the city had to approve the technical drawings for the permit. And the field inspectors came out several times to approve the welds, rebar, epoxy, etc.; and, and, and . . . You get the idea. It took four months, not four hours.

I do enjoy the entertainment value of these reality shows; I just don’t like how they muddy the waters of the architecture industry. Theses TV reality shows provide a false impression of the rigor and liability inherent in producing a valuable design, whether a renovated kitchen, a new backyard, or a house addition.

Nicole Curtis in action for the cameras, on Rehab Addict
Nicole Curtis in action for the cameras, on Rehab Addict
© Poon Design Inc.