On Sight & Symmetry
Posted on September 1, 2017
I find myself endlessly fascinated by the mechanics of vision. I still have a hard time wrapping my head around the complexities of how our eyes processes information. Images that reach our retina are flipped, babys report-ably see things upside-down, but our brains learn to flip the images to facilitate getting around. I read that if you wear glasses that flip your vision, within three days your mind will flip it again. Thinking about how we see, I think about the insights from the book “The Old Way of Seeing” by Jonathan Hale.
The book appeals to me in much the same way that looking at things that are symmetrical do. It’s easy theory makes tidy sense, and I have read some complaints that it meanders all over the place–which it certainly does–but I enjoy the meandering. One of the early points that Hale makes is that design should be led by a sense of intuition. Just as nature is fond of symmetry, so should architecture have pattern and scale–like a well crafted piece of music.
I begin to wonder if just looking for patterns makes you see them everywhere. Hale talks about architecture but also manages to tie in Audrey Hepburn’s face & Marlene Dietrich’s outfit from 1943. He proposes the theory that we like to see ourselves reflected in buildings, that it is what makes buildings feel alive and appealing. I think of how our eyes, tree, and faces, all have similarities that make them feel harmonious. When I look at the close up of the human eye I think how it mimics so many other things, from Ernst Haeckel drawings of sea creatures to ancient maps of the solar system.
Hale also devotes a good deal of the book discussing the golden section or divine proportion. You can hardly avoid seeing it–it is everywhere in everything all around us–often illustrated by the image of the Nautilus shell. Genius in it’s simplicity I never tire of looking at examples the divine proportion in nature.
I recently discovered the work of John Edmark who mimics and explores natural forms through sculpture and video. As a mathematician, teacher and an artist his work clearly meditate on the intersection of art & math. When watching the video as the sculptures spin in perpetual expansion and contraction I am memorized.
Hale talks about successful buildings having a wildness to them, but at the same time “inherent discipline”. One of the houses Hale uses as an example of seemingly wild design is the Bavinger House from 1950 by Bruce Goff. As abstract as it appears, it strictly adheres to the golden section.
I love the romanticism of the Goff house, with it’s turquoise rocks seeming like crystals dotted throughout the house, and the way the whole structure seems to have exploded from the the earth. Thinking of shells, I have a faint memory of the colorful 1967 movie Dr. Dolittle where the characters live in a cartoon-ish giant snail.
The movie shell house reminds me of a more recent real shell house, the Nautilus House (2007) located near Mexico city and designed by the architect Javier Senosiain of Arquitectura Organica. Senosiain says the whimsical house was inspired by the work of Gaudi and Frank Lloyd Wright, and calls the style of the house “bio-architecture”.
I enjoy reading Hale, but even more I like to think about the miracle of seeing–the patterns of light and shadow that create images in our minds and help us define our environment. Hale believes what we like in architecture is modeled after the patterns we see in ourselves. “Trees and people contain the same kind of patterns. Harmonious buildings that embody life forms refer to us, they are about us. That is why we are so attracted to them.” Even if harmonious design is just the comfort of seeing familiar patterns, I continue to find expressions of those patterns endlessly fascinating.