On Order, Beauty and Excess

Find what you need and some inner calm! shines friendly an IKEA ad in the morning sun, as if an unexpected pal clued in about my rushed raking through drawers in search for a comb and an unpaired earring.

Organize your life with our app! incites me a billboard while I struggle to cram within 2 hours 27 to-do-things, sighing that I can’t stuff more.

Prevent eating disorders with this healthy routine! promises me a title in the magazine I read over the shoulder of my fellow tram rider.

We’re surrounded by bits of advice on how to order our things and actions. Quite often: others’ things and actions. On top of that: even things and actions that have long disappeared, for what’s the use of self-reflection if not an attempt to order (under some logic) the individual or collective pasts.

When we say that something is out of order, we assume a certain order of things that has been broken or pulled away from the appropriate path. It seems that order steers our lives on the good track and keep us out of all sorts of disorders, be they mental, eating or of other kind. Now and then we rebel against the order of things and break it: street protests, furious job quitting, fugitive indulgences into buckets of ice creams, blatantly ragged jeans (Alas! This is not an option anymore since the fashion world hugged the idea so tightly that turned a sign of non-conformism into regularity).

Beauty is ordered

A beautiful carpet has something in common with a nicely set dinner table, an elegant dress and a trendy-furnished room. They all display patterns that we recognize: symmetries, contrasts, organized arrays of elements. If the dinner table looks like a pile of randomly thrown napkins, forks, tomatoes, and 40 other food items, we don’t like it. But the symmetrical arrangement of plates, the contrast of just a few colors, and line of several appetizers appeal to us. We grasp the arrangement of the table. And understanding this arrangement makes us content.

It may be written in our DNA or it may be a cultural trait. Debates are still open. But the fact is clear:

we are

               pattern seekers,

                              order addicted,

                                             structure lovers.


Beautiful orders of space

Symmetry, contrast, array are all ways of ordering the space.  Let’s take a look at symmetry: easy-to-grasp, elegant, at hand in all world cultures and times until…



Budapest. Perfect symmetry on a neoclassical façade. Yet, it doesn’t look monotonous or banal because it doesn’t extend over a large area.

Cappadocia. Vertical symmetry marks the entrance in the cave:  two openings framed by arches. Here the symmetry is neither boring nor monumental for it brings in the twisted  cave landscape a bit of spatial organization.  

…until modernity came in and challenged it with a more sophisticated order of space: balance.

The new space organization has been (and still is sometimes) more difficult to grasp, more intellectually demanding, at times more elitist. Symmetry, for instance, which had ordered the inside and outside of so many buildings before, was seen as a childish, too easy a path to organize a surface. Modernity removed it not only because of its banality but also because of its monumental and dogmatic spirit. The new lifestyle did not need majestic porticoes and representative dinner halls, but cozy entrances and rooms large enough to fit a large family dinner table. It did not accept any more majestic facades on which a toilet window becomes as richly decorated as a living-room window just for the sake of formal order.

Modernity’s balance means a pleasant proportion between void and solid; a true correspondence between the inside and outside of the building (that is a school should reflect its use in the outer appearance). However, balance is more challenging to reach than old-fashioned logic such as symmetry, contrast and simple arrays. And more personal, for what I consider a beautifully balanced composition may seem bizarre to you. We can argue in favor of each view. But we can’t argue about a building’s symmetry for symmetry is math: the same for all eyes. Modern architecture is therefore more prone to subjective meanings of beauty, which may be disputable. In the same time it allows free roaming of creativity. Advantage and disadvantage. Take what you need!

Excessive order

What if the order of space is so ordered that overwhelms our place, mind, and life?

Too organized a space yields fearful sensations, apprehensions, tensions. We’re on guard against breaking the rules of spatial order: no trespassing on grass, no touching the statues, no playing with water around the pond. Some playgrounds even delimit specific places to each playing activity as if the bucket-and-shovel can’t be used in any place other than the sandpool. Nevertheless, playgrounds’ rules, as excessive as can be, are minor worries compared to…

the grandiose display of symmetry 

which instantly connects to

the grandiose display of power.

casa poporului
Bucharest. Palace of Parliament. Built in 1980s under the communist regime. Source of inspiration:  North Korea’s capital.

Take a look above at the heaviest building in the world. The monotonous repetition of windows has something scary in itself. It recalls the tight order of an army. Perfect army means perfect obedience. Obedience to whose order? Deep within us lies the fear that large-scale repetition paves the way for authoritarian abuses.

Excessively ordered blocks of flats in Eastern Europe were meant to yield new people: perfectly ordered, entirely submissive masses. Excessively ordered uniforms, be they  Clone army’s or Red army’s uniforms aim the same: perfect obedience toward the Power.




Chaotic order

Yet, we crave for order. In small amounts. Even the most chaotic of us look for thin logical threads that connect seemingly meaningless events in our lives. The cause-effect logic is such an organizing thread. Religions, rituals, even daily routines are other threads on which we rely and which order our time and place. We uncoil these organizing threads somewhere between excessive order and chaos:

Excessive order is oppressive.

Chaos is frightening.

At times the idea of chaos inspires us to break a certain order of things (which we quickly change for some other order, not necessarily better). Yet, most times it frightens us. So much that the scientists look for hidden rules that organize it. It’s hard to imagine something in perfect disorder, although we are surrounded by the chaotic irregularities of the rugged mountainous surface, leaf edges, and traffic jams among others.  They don’t follow any pattern. But at particular thresholds of detail, researchers discovered patterns of self-similarity, repetition, feedback. For ordinary eyes, in our daily life, this order remains invisible, but hi-tech enhanced eyes discern an order within chaos. Does this make the chaos less frightening? Or, on the contrary, it makes it more threatening for we know it is structured but can’t grasp its structure?

In any case we are heavily biased toward order, for deep within us there seems to be a subconscious overlap between order and beauty. As long as we avoid the extremes — excessive order and chaos — there’s plenty of room to follow, adjust, contest and even create novel orders.