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Traffic and Symmetry

Updated: Feb 10, 2020

(Originally published in the Napa Valley Register)

I’ve developed a new routine lately. I’ve been writing my weekly column for the Napa Valley Register in my head - while driving in my car. I have a lot on my plate these days and sitting in Napa’s ever-growing traffic is causing me even more anxiety. I wasn’t blessed with the patience gene, and all I can think about is getting to my destination so I can do what I need to do. So, in the spirit of multi-tasking, I’ve been mentally writing and talking to myself as I maneuver my way about town.

Today’s topic came to mind after passing a new building on California Boulevard. It had a series of large, arched entrances and doors. There was also an empty space on a wall where the builder had set a trellis in the same size and shape as the arches. Why did he or she do this? It was a matter of symmetry. To leave the wall empty would have been visually unsettling. But, the heart of the question remains. Why? Why would this void be unsettling and why would symmetry fix the matter?

As I reached the stoplight at Highway 29 and Wine Country Avenue, a light that is seemingly the single most excruciatingly long light in the entire county, I tried to answer this question. It’s not easy to ponder esoteric subjects when annoyed, but this is what I came up with. Human beings are accustomed to symmetry. It’s in our DNA. Symmetry is associated with pairs — our eyes, arms, legs, etc. If we lose one part of a pair, it is uncomfortable. Life becomes more difficult. We are unsettled.

Symmetry is also associated with balance. When we feel balanced, life is easier. It is more soothing and harmonious. To most architects and designers, symmetry and balance are fundamental elements of good design. What they do beyond this foundation then develops the design, adds character, purpose, style, and prevents monotony. This is not to say that there aren’t stunning, asymmetrical buildings. The Opera House in Sydney, Australia comes to mind. But others are statements that say, “Look at me. I’m a rebel.” It’s up to the viewer to interpret the intention and pose the ultimate critique.

What does symmetry have to do with designing or decorating your own home? It’s just something to keep in mind. If your space is off, does not feel right, check the symmetry. If you don’t have matching pairs of objects, you can make substitutions in order to create balance. A chair on one side of a window can be paired with a console table, lamp, and painting on the other side of the window, for instance.

In general, pairs, or even numbers make good, classic, long-lasting design. So why is there a true, but unwritten, rule that suggests accessories should come in odd numbers? One or three pillows on a sofa, candles on a mantel, or tchotchkies on a table. Odd numbers feel better in these cases. Why are my favorite numbers 3 and 9? More esoteric questions. I’ll think about it at the next traffic light and get back to you.

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