Professor Michael Leyton.
Dept. of Psychology,
This is the second in a sequence of tutorials on the mathematical
structure of architecture. The first was Group Theory
and Architecture, 1. The purpose of these tutorials
is to present, in an easy form, the technical theory developed
in my forthcoming book on the mathematical structure of design.
In this second tutorial we are
going to look at the functional role of symmetry and asymmetry
in architecture. We are all aware that classical architecture
was dominated by symmetry. In contrast, we have seen, in the
20th century, a shift from the dominating role of symmetry to
the gradual raising of asymmetry as the major principle. Famous
examples of the latter include Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling
Water, with its asymmetrically arranged blocks, or Eero Saarinen's
TWA Building with its free form structure, or in the contemporary
world, the Deconstructivist Architects are now the dominant force.
The latter movement came into significant public recognition
with the exhibition of their work in the Museum of Modern Art,
New York, in1988, and these architects are now the most famous
archictects in the world - usually winning the major architecture
competitions. They include Peter Eisenman, Zaha Hadid, Frank
Gehry, Coop Himmelblau, Rem Koolhaas, Daniel Libeskind, and Bernard
Tschumi. In all their buildings, asymmetry is the major
What we wish to consider, in
this paper, is the following issue: Why was classical architecture
dominated by symmetry; i.e., what purpose did symmetry serve
in classical architecture? Correspondingly, why is modern architecture
dominated by asymmetry; i.e., what purpose does asymmetry serve
in modern architecture?
The answer to this question comes
from my previous book Symmetry,
Causality, Mind (MIT Press, 630pages), in which I
argue that symmetry is always used to erase memory from an organization,
and asymmetry is always used to introduce memory into an organization.
I show that these memory principles are deeply embedding in the
human mind: indeed they are what allows the mind to work. It
is these memory principles, I argue, that are at the basis of
classical architecture's use of symmetry and the modern architecture's
use of asymmetry. That is, classical architecture is aimed at
removing memory, and contemporary architecture aims at creating
Inferring History from Shape
The book Symmetry, Causality, Mind (MIT Press)
presents a 630 page rule-system by which the mind extracts the
past history that produced a shape, i.e., the sequence of causal
forces that produced the shape. Despite the enormous number of
rules they all are different forms of only two basic rules: one
that exploits the asymmetries in a shape, and one that exploits
the symmetries in the shape. The theory ultimately explains how
any organization can hold "memory" of past actions.
Memory is always in the form of asymmetry.
Symmetry is always the absence of memory.
If we define "memory" to be information about the past,
we observe that there are many forms that memory can take. For
example, a scar is memory of past events because, when
we look at it, we are able to extract information about past
actions, i.e., the fact that there had previously been a
past cutting action across the skin. Again, a crack in
a vase is memory of past events because, when we look at it,
we are able to extract information about past actions,
i.e., the fact that there had previously been a blow applied
to the vase. There are in fact an almost infinite number of forms
that memory can take: scars, cracks, dents, twists, growths,
and so on. However arguments presented in my book (Leyton, 1992),
lead to the conclusion that, on an abstract level, there is only
one form that memory takes:
I can give you a simple illustration of this as follows: Imagine
a tank of gas on the table. Imagine that the gas is at equilibrium,
at TIME 1. The gas is therefore uniform throughout the tank,
in particular, symmetric - left to right in the tank. Now use
some means to attract the gas into the left half of the tank
at TIME 2. The gas is now asymmetric.
Someone, who has not previously been in the room now enters and
sees the gas. The person will immediately conclude that the gas
underwent a movement to the left. This means that the asymmetric
state is memory of the movement.
Now let the gas settle back to equilibrium, that is symmetry
at TIME 3, that is, uniformity throughout the tank.
Suppose another person enters now, someone who has not been
in the room before. This new person would not be able to deduce
that the gas had previously moved to the left and returned. The
reason is that the symmetry has wiped out the memory of the previous
events. The conclusion is that from symmetry, you can conclude
only that the past was the same. We can summarize the rules used
here, in two principles:
ASYMMETRY PRINCIPLE: An asymmetry in the present is assumed
to have been a symmetry in the past.
SYMMETRY PRINCIPLE: A symmetry in the present is assumed to
have always existed.
In mathematics, symmetry means indistinguishability under transformations.
Thus, for example, a face is reflectionally symmetric because
it is indistinguishable from its reflected version, and a circle
is rotationally symmetric because it is indistinguishable from
any of its rotated versions.
Now, what we will see, over and over again, in this paper, is
that the way to used the above two rules is as follows: You first
partition the present situation into its asymmetries and symmetries.
You then use the first rule on the asymmetries and the second
rule on the symmetries. That is, the first rule says that the
asymmetries go to symmetries, backward in time; and the second
rule says that the symmetries are preserved, backward in time.
Let us now illustrate this: In a converging series of psychological
experiments, I showed that, if subjects are presented with the
first stimulus shown in the figure below, a rotated parallelogram,
they reference it, in their minds, to a non-rotated parallelogram,
which they then reference to a rectangle, which they then reference
to a square. The important thing to understand is that they are
presented with only the first figure; and, from this, their minds
generate the sequence shown.
One can interpret this data by saying that, given the initial
object, subjects are inferring the process-history that produced
it. That is, the presented object was produced by starting with
a square, stretching it, then shearing it, and then rotating
We shall now see that what the subjects are doing is using the
Asymmetry Principle and Symmetry Principle. To see this, we must,
as I said, first partition the presented shape - the rotated
parallelogram - into its asymmetries and its symmetries. Consider
first the asymmetries. There are in fact three of them: (1) the
distinguishability between the orientation of the shape and the
orientation of the environment; (2) the distinguishability between
adjacent angles; (3) the distinguishability between adjacent
As we can see from the above figure, what subjects are doing
is removing these three distinguishabilities, backwards in time
as prescribed by the Asymmetry Principle. That is, successively,
the orientation of the shape becomes the same as that of the
environment, the sizes of the adjacent angles becomes the same,
and the sizes of the adjacent sides become the same. To repeat:
Asymmetries become symmetries backward in time - as predicted
by the Asymmetry Principle.
Now let us use the Symmetry Principle. It says that the symmetries
must be preserved, backward in time. Well, the rotated parallelogram
has two symmetries: (1) opposite angles are indistinguishable
in size; and (2) opposite sides are indistinguishable in length.
Observe that both of these symmetries are preserved backward
in time - thus corroborating the Symmetry Principle.
Now, those of you who have seen my book, might say to me: "There
seem to be 100's of rules in your book. How can you say that
there are actually only two rules?" Well, the reason is
that, as I said earlier, the term symmetry means indistinguishability
under transformations: Reflectional symmetry is indistinguishability
under reflectional transformations; rotational symmetry is indistinguishability
under rotational transformations, and so on. Thus you obtain
the different kinds of symmetry by instantiating the different
kinds of transformations in the definition of symmetry. The different
rules of the book are obtained by instantiating different transformations
within the Asymmetry Principle and Symmetry Principle. Notice
that it is by doing this instantiation process that you obtain
the different sources of memory that can exist in an organization.
In the paper so far, I have given you only an intuitive sense
of the instantiation process. What I want to do now is show you
how it works, in depth. We are going to examine the extraction
of memory from a particular asymmetry called curvature extrema.
We will see later that curvature extrema are violations of rotational
symmetry in the outline of a shape.
So lets look at curvature extrema. What is a curvature extremum?
Well, first we note that curvature, for curves in the 2D plane,
is simply the amount of bend. The straight line has no bend,
and therefore has no curvature. As you successively increase
bend, you are increasing curvature. Finally, observe that on
a shape such as a finger, there is a point that has more bend
than the other points on the line (the finger tip). This is a
We will start be elaborating two successive rules by which the
curvature extrema can be used to infer processes that have acted
upon a shape. The input to the rules will be smooth outlines
of shapes such as embryos, tumors, clouds, etc. So the rules
will infer the history of such objects - that is, convert them
The inference, from curvature extrema to historical processes
will be seen as requiring two stages: (1) Curvature extrema Symmetry
axes, and (2) Symmetry axes Processes. We first consider stage