Classicism and symmetry

Eugène Viollet-le-Duc:

‘Alas!’ said M. de Gandelau, ‘there are too many people in our country with whom considerations of vanity take precedence of everything else, and that is one of the causes of our misfortunes. Appearance is the great object. Every retired bourgeois who has a country house built wishes to have his turrets regularly disposed at the corners of a building, symmetrical, indeed, but in which he is very indifferently lodged—satisfied if this inconvenient erection is called the chateau, internal comfort being sacrificed to the gratification of exhibiting outside …’ (‘How to Build a House’)

Classical architecture—all of it, in all its revival forms; renaissance, baroque, Palladianism, nineteenth and twentieth century neo-classical, and the current American attempted revival—is symmetrical. Summerson says that classicism requires either the use or close emulation of canonically classical features; that is, sculpted elements such as capitals, or architraves; “arbitrary aggregate[s] of architectural detail” (‘Antitheses of the Quattrocento’). This may be right. What classicism absolutely requires is symmetry. Only minor departures are licensed: for example, Alexander Thomson’s St. Vincent Street Church has an asymmetrically placed spire, or campanile. Such asymmetry is always subordinate.

Symmetry points to a centre. It connotes status and hierarchy. At the same time, symmetry constrains the designer, and then the citizens or occupants. The ideal prisons of the nineteenth century are symmetric, sometimes around multiple axes. Symmetry—classical symmetry at least—is not plastic: it is rigid; it is totalising. I’ve sometimes asked myself which side of bed Louis XIV got out of: his bed was in the centre of his bedroom, which was at the exact centre of Versailles, which itself was (is) centred on an axis extending from the centre of Paris. When lying in bed he himself would be symmetric: as soon as he moved—you have to assume—he wasn’t. If your symmetrical building has a symmetrical staircase, when the return stair divides, as it has to, which side do you walk up? It’s a short step from absurdities like these to finding yourself rewriting a building’s use programme to satisfy a symmetry rule. I think that this, in part, is why classicism has been repeatedly balked at; modernists rejected classicism, but so did the gothic revivalists before them. Designers do not want to be so limited. John Ruskin:

It is one of the chief virtues of the Gothic builders, that they never suffered ideas of outside symmetries and consistencies to interfere with the real use and value of what they did. If they wanted a window, they opened one; a room, they added one; a buttress, they built one; utterly regardless of any established conventionalities of external appearance, knowing (as indeed it always happened) that such daring interruptions of the formal plan would rather give additional interest to its symmetry than injure it. (‘On Art and Life’)

Beauty is almost the first word on the lips of the current revivalists. The people active in this sphere are sincere, I think, in that they do believe that their output is beautiful. One of Speer’s employees as Generalbauinspektor for the Construction of Berlin, Annemarie Kempf—when interviewed by Gitta Sereny—talked of the beauty of their office’s designs for the new Berlin. For Kempf, the designs for Germania and the Reich Chancellery were made disreputable, and in retrospect, only by association with a specific political regime, and not through their aesthetic attributes. To decide that architecture is mainly concerned with beauty is to decide on the question of whether or not architecture is an art, and in the affirmative. But except for furniture, no other art form places a premium on mirror symmetry. No representational art does, even though its human subjects are (pretty much) symmetrical. Those paintings that approach symmetry are then called classical (and become laughable). I thought of Buddhist sand mandalas, but they show asymmetry. If architecture is an art that achieves beauty through mirror symmetry, it is an art that is sui generis. Little support for this approach to beauty—it seems—can be taken from other forms of art. So what is it in symmetry and axiality that makes some people say that when symmetry is applied to architecture, the result is beautiful?

Some revivalists—Leon Krier, for example—have promoted picturesque and (partly) asymmetric urban compositions. I think the intent here is to produce, for certain briefs, something Italian-looking, or maybe another Acropolis. Within a Krier urban scene—Poundbury, for instance—each landmark is symmetric. Here is a church: thump, symmetric. Here is a bank: thump, symmetric. Krier’s work is somewhat of an outlier within classical traditions: chronologically it follows the post-war ‘townscape’ accommodation of modernist planning and is possibly better understood as post-modern. Poundbury is an ersatz instant settlement; a simulation of a prosperous market town, with a medieval plan, that had at some point decided to spend its wealth on classical facades.

This is not to say that Krier avoids the axis. His Germania-level plans for the rebuilding of Washington DC are intensely axial. He proposes to flood the Mall, turning it into the grandest of reflecting pools: i.e. another mirror, another line of symmetry. Historically, classicist city designers converge relentlessly on the axis. They are happy to emplace axes on cities that already exist, and the axis always wins. If land must be acquired and inhabitants moved; too bad for the inhabitants. The disruption is not according to need (‘here is some poor quality housing, we must rebuild it’); the disruption is according to geometry (‘the line must be straight, and unfortunately you are in the way’). Sixtus V’s Rome is succeeded by St Petersburg, which is succeeded by Napoleon III and Hausmann’s Paris, which is succeeded by Mussolini’s Rome (again), which is succeeded by Speer’s Germania. At the intersection of each axis, a focus. On the focus, a symmetrical building of great importance; an institution, a church, a palace, a monument.

The grand axis is supposedly ‘continental’ rather than British. (It happens that Krier is a Luxembourger.) Nash’s Regent Street bends in deference to land owners (it still has a focus, at All Souls). Wren’s post-fire plan for London wasn’t implemented: its implications for property boundaries were recognised. These examples mislead. Wren’s axial composition at Greenwich is sometimes airily described as ‘enlightenment’ architecture; it is probably better thought of as a triumphal marker of the 1688 Revolution. At first a ‘hospital for seamen’ it became in the nineteenth century a training establishment for the Royal Navy. The grandest British axes are found outside Britain. Lutyens’s memorial arch at Thiepval is well-regarded for its subtle volumetric effects. But it is clearly a victor’s memorial: colossal, axial, pure. It has the arch of Titus as its precedent.

Also praised for its subtlety is Lutyens’s design for the Viceroy’s Palace in New Delhi. The subtlety, whatever it consists in, is not a matter of scale: it is obvious that the intent of this vast building is to dominate. The effort was futile. The palace opened in 1931; in 1947 India became independent.

I suspect that symmetry and axiality in buildings makes for beauty—for some—because built symmetry and axiality brings about a feeling of power. If implementing that symmetry and axiality involves a real exercise of power, perhaps, for some, so much the better? The history of classical planning can be read as a history of the application of force—to borrow a phrase from the British Army—to such an extent that you wonder, like a Jonathan Meades, if force isn’t exactly the point. Authoritarians—the ridiculous, regrettable and often very harmful narcissists that have sometimes come to power in our world—love symmetry: they love hierarchy, they love status, they love feelings of power. Therefore they love classicism. If the buildings and city plans that they so often cause to be made are beautiful, it is their sort of beauty. This needs acknowledgement. It’s not enough to say that some democracies—such as we have them—have built classical buildings. Those people who want to revive classicism—yet again—should consider their motives.

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