Architectural Uses of Symmetry


Symmetry in architecture implies axiality, or centrality in the form of the building. Bilateral symmetry creates a balance in an architectural element or structure, whereas radial symmetry creates a locus set off by repetitive surrounding elements. Monumental architecture often uses symmetry; the mirrored, symmetrical form can show sober stability and control. However, symmetrical architectural elements can also evoke harmony and order in a space. On the other hand, the use of asymmetry creates dynamic spaces with surprise.

Radial Symmetry

  • Radial symmetry implies a center and a repetitive or continuous surrounding context. Many functional structures use radial symmetry, such as fortifications and stadiums. In addition, radial structures place emphasis on the central area of a structure or place. For example, the Pantheon in Rome is circular in plan and the Roman emperor would sit on his throne below the structure's oculus, the circular opening in the top of the dome. Similarly, the baldacchino below St. Peter's radially symmetrical dome in Vatican City, Italy, is the center of worship in the grand cathedral.

Bilateral Symmetry in Structural Organization

  • Bilateral symmetry creates an axial spatial organization. The Mall in Washington, D.C., is bilaterally symmetrical, pulling visitors from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial. Furthermore, most churches and banks have interior and exterior bilateral symmetry emphasizing power and grandiosity. In addition, traditional Roman and Chinese houses are bilaterally symmetrical, emphasizing the central courtyards and evoking a sense of connectedness.

Bilateral Symmetry in Details and Surfaces

  • Architectural details and elements typically have bilateral symmetry to create harmony and order in a space. Interior elevations, doors and corridors, as well as spatial volumes, are often symmetrical, even in asymmetrical structures. Sir John Soane's house in London is asymmetrical, but all the interior spaces are bilaterally symmetrical. In the same way, most of Le Corbusier's and Frank Lloyd Wright's houses are locally symmetrical, yet asymmetrical overall. In addition, furniture and ornamentation have bilaterally symmetrical elements, if they are not perfectly symmetrical.


  • The use of asymmetry can be jarring to the inhabitant, yet it can also enliven a space. Queen Anne homes have asymmetrical windows and features, while much of Modern architecture uses asymmetry to enunciate separate spatial functions. Asymmetry can also provoke a feeling of disorder --- asymmetrical spaces can feel unkempt and wild.

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  • "Form, Space and Order"; Francis Ching; 2007
  • "Architectural Graphic Standards"; American Institute of Architects; 2007
  • Photo Credit Brand X Pictures/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images
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