10.06.14
Erik Spiekermann | Essays

A Fine Balance

On balance, symmetry may be a bad thing. Loved by dictators, shunned by libertarians, the perfectly symmetrical simply doesn’t feel right. Ask anyone at a cafe on a piazza.

Symmetry is easy. Putting a picture or a line of type smack in the center of a page is an easy default, aided and abetted by software that provides guidelines to snap the element into position. Centered arrangements in typography are predictable and static. If they are done well, 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 such movements as Dada and Futurism made it sound as if asymmetric layouts were the solution to overcoming 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. Centered 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 airplanes or Google Earth) at Versailles or St. Peter’s Square shows how tidy these plans are. From the ground, however, the impression ordinary people—that is, 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, was not an option with this architecture. Hitler’s Nazi party rallies in Nuremberg also celebrated absolute symmetry, as did his and Albert Speer’s plans for postwar Berlin. Cities that needed 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 cafes lining them. Now take a look at the spaces that make us feel at home and 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 it just by standing 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 of 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 bathtub. If you set out to walk toward the tower of the Palazzo Pubblico which dominates the space, you soon realize two things: it is nowhere near the center 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 you first think, because of the way the floor is shaped and the distance visually foreshortened by lines of stone that fan out from the tower side of the square. If you travel to 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 center, and always have a circumference that defies easy definition from a pedestrian standpoint. (Why is it that the English language has only 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 predictable 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. 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.


This article originally appeared in the August 2009 issue of
Blueprint.




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