Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Repetition and symmetry

click photo to enlarge
Repetition and symmetry are key characteristics of classical achitecture. The Greeks and Romans who were responsible for this style created an architecture that emphasised man's intellect, and his dominance and control of nature. It was these two devices that allowed their buildings to stand apart from the "messy" natural world. The idea of taking the same form and repeating it across a facade, as here on the ground floor and first floor of the north front of Grimsthorpe Castle, Lincolnshire, began with the repeated columns of Hellenic temple porticos and spread into the serried arches of Roman architecture, most notably in the Colosseum. Renaissance architects both copied the ideas of the ancients and elaborated upon them.

Gothic architecture, however, especially in its Victorian incarnations, had more time for asymmetry. In the position of entrances and towers, for example, and also in the arrangement of floor plans, they frequently proclaimed the virtue of a more practical and studied irregularity. When they sought "balance" in a building it would sometimes be achieved by the careful disposition of different forms, rather than by multiples of the same form on either side of a line of symmetry. However, Gothic and other "Romantic" styles of architecture continued to value the virtues of repetition and even symmetry, as the Perpendicular Style of the fifteenth century, and nineteenth century industrial architecture in England frequently testifies.

It's interesting to speculate whether the repetition of forms in building came about for aesthetic reasons or for convenience of manufacture and construction. We are, of course, unlikely to know the answer to that question, but the designers and workmen of ancient civilizations must have found it easier to replicate and erect several columns that were identical, or move supporting wooden formwork between arches that were all the same size and circumference. Those advantages were certainly not lost on the Victorians who often made and assembled windows and ornament off-site. This is an aspect of classical architecture that I've never seen discussed anywhere, but which occurred to me as I was photographing this facade. The drawings for the design shown here date from 1722, making it one of the last works by Sir John Vanbrugh who died in 1726. Nicholas Hawksmoor may have completed his structure. It's inconceivable that the main entrance of this elevation would be placed anywhere but the centre, and the fountain could only ever be placed in line with it. Even the gardeners, when positioning their planters of topiarised box obeyed its imposing symmetry and repetition, so I decided that I must do that too, in my photograph.

photograph & text (c) T. Boughen

Camera: Olympus E510
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 86mm (172mm/35mm equiv.)
F No: f4.8
Shutter Speed: 1/640
ISO: 200
Exposure Compensation: -0.3 EV
Image Stabilisation: On