The Rise and Fall of Symmetry in Organ Case Designs

Didier Grassin

Thursday, June 23, 10 AM

Although it is never truly achieved, nature favors symmetry as a sign of superior health and balance. It is therefore not surprising that mankind has applied symmetry to all its designs, including the pipe organ. The problem is that organs are by essence asymmetrical. The use of keyboard with bass placed at the left hand makes a definite asymmetrical arrangement as seen in early organs.

While later the search for balance and harmony for old organ cases was based on symmetry, a certain degree of asymmetry was left apparent. This exploited the subtle visual difference of C and C# side pipes and/or the statuary decorating the case. This was used to create a gentle movement and therefore a sense of life to a piece of machinery that could otherwise look rather unwieldy. As time moved on, the pursuit of ultimate symmetry led to surprising solutions like the parity of façade pipes to the detriment of the natural acoustical progression.

Symmetry incorporated into the strict geometry of 20th century minimalist design, however, started to produce unhappy results. The outcome was some European organs that were lifeless and even brutal. This movement may explain the recent upsurge of asymmetry in organ cases which has become “de rigueur” amongst architects, leading to some radically new solutions to organ case design (concert halls: Los Angeles, Montreal)

Didier Grassin is President of the Noack Organ Company. His interest in organ building began in the shadow of the famous Clicquot organ of Poitiers, France, his native town. His professional path took him through European workshops, ultimately leading him to head the drawing office at Mander Organs, UK. After several years as freelance designer, he joined in 2003 Casavant Frères as director of the Tracker Department. He was Vice President of the International Society of Organbuilders from 2010 to 2014. He holds a Master of Science in Acoustics from Southampton University, UK, and a Diplôme d’Ingénieur from UTC, France.