Buildings and Balance

Acrobatics in the Architecture

At a recent performance by the graduating class at the San Francisco Circus Center I watched an acrobat lift himself above a stack of chairs to defy gravity by remaining suspended in mid-air. It made me think about the role of balance in architecture.

Buildings are usually stacks of something piled high. Sometimes they illustrate a kind of balance that is symmetrical, as illustrated by a Renaissance icon like Brunellesci’s Pazzi Chapel in Florence, shown below

(photos from Wikipedia). See how the facade is divided into equal halves along the central axis: three columns on the right, three on the left; arch in the middle. Above the columns the symmetrical geometry continues with four squares, each divided into four smaller squares. At the top is the round roof or dome, which centers the entire composition. But look again and you see variations within the symmetry: arches over the windows in the porch behind the flat lintels between the columns and a triangular pediment over the doorway behind the tall central arch. In other words there is movement within the seemingly static and balanced facade.

Inside, the exploration of symmetry continues. Pilasters (flat columns seemingly embedded in the wall), round medallions, cornices, coffers, and arches divide each wall into geometric patterns that echo the organization of the front facade. Brunelleschi has designed a building that is a diagram of itself: each part carefully delineated and then calibrated to be in proportion to each other part. This is what gives the building balance, richness, and a sense of completeness — such that adding or subtracting any element would destroy it.

In some buildings the notion of balance is purposefully contradicted as a way to make you reconsider the very notion of perception itself, as at the new Nanjing-Sifang Art Museum by Steven Holl Architects in Nanjing, China (photos courtesy

Here the building is both pedestal and tray; the cantilevered rooms are as acrobatic as the man balanced on his hand above the stack of chairs. They lead you on a choreographed journey to a carefully framed view of the landscape; a suspension —  not just in space — but of belief in gravity.

The vertiginous stairway functions visually as both an anchor and an exaggeration of the sheer drop to the ground. The building appears to be about changing points of view — literally — which seems appropriate for a museum of paintings that do not incorporate western notions of perspective. In architecture there are many ways to achieve equilibrium.

Summer Sipping

Warmer days (and perhaps all this talk of acrobatics and perspective) make me thirst for something frosty to enjoy on lazy weekend evenings in the backyard — or is this just another sort of equilibrium-enhancer… I also just saw Woody Allen’s delightful new film Midnight in Paris, where the hero, Owen Wilson, time travels back to the 1930s and meets Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway, among others. So I looked for a recipe for one of Hemingway’s favorite drinks – the mojito, which he is said to have quaffed at La Bodeguita del Midi in Havana.  I found a version of it on a website called Caribbean Pot. The trick is to muddle a sprig of mint in a tall glass, add ice, the juice of a lime, sugar to taste, 1 /2 ounce light rum, and club soda. Cheers! Now just don’t try to navigate that museum stairway…

One response to “Buildings and Balance

  1. paolo polledri

    Yup, it’s a circus.

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