I overheard someone the other day getting upset about the overuse of symmetry. "Not everything needs to be symmetrical!" this person cried. This is certainly true. Not everything needs to be symmetrical. But it doesn't need to be asymmetrical either, does it? When faced with tough, potentially life-altering, theoretical questions such as these I usually turn to one source for answers.
What Would Nature Do?
Nature is really the only universal precedent we have as designers. We are nature. Despite our best efforts to the contrary, everything we design is inspired by nature. It's kind of an inescapable fact of design. Sorry to all the "machine for living" purists.
So in the case of symmetry vs asymmetry, what would nature do? The answer is of course both. Nature's generally symmetrical forms are in many ways a result of gravity pulling equally on objects as they develop. A mountain, a tree, the human face. All symmetrical when cut vertically (in the direction of gravity). But, when you cut those objects horizontally they aren't symmetrical at all. What gives nature?
The key lies in using both symmetry and asymmetry in the right way and at the right time and for the right reasons. Symmetry is generally understood to exert humanity's dominance over our surroundings. It can reflect order, hierachy, and strength. Asymmetry, therefore, reflects just the opposite; organic, vernacular, whimsy.
If the human face (a design capable of expressing limitless emotions) is both symmetrical and asymmetrical, shouldn't our buildings also utilize both features? This combination can create buildings and cities capable of accommodating different moods and uses. Understanding the basic natural uses of symmetry and asymmetry can help us use both in sophisticated ways to achieve different moods and emotions in our designs.
"Not everything needs to be symmetrical!" Nope. But it should probably be part of the thought process.