Crystal and Arabesque

The visionary architect Claude Bragdon helped shape a thrilling moment in design history.

Bragdon, pastel drawing, ca. 1931, showing one still from an unrealized color-music film. [Image credit: Courtesy Peter Bragdon and the New York Public Library]

Does good design encourage good, even righteous behavior? Can manmade patterns of point, line, plane and solid — based upon nature’s own seed, stem, leaf and fruit — nourish an organic and just society? Do geometries of form condition the geometry of society?

Questions such as these troubled and inspired architects, artists and designers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Industrialization was then splintering the western world: urbanization jerked families apart as children followed employment to growing cities; increasing specialization separated workers from the products of their toil; inventions like the telephone connected people — but only by allowing greater and longer separations and accustoming us to a voice separated from a speaker. Even the understanding of time was rewritten, as nature and mankind were transformed from transcendent principles to the mere results of indeterminate consequences of historical happenstance and blind evolution. Selfhood itself, subject to invisible and inherited drives, was besieged by the abrupt and random encounters of everyday life in the big city. As that pioneer sociologist of metropolitan life, Georg Simmel, would observe in the late 19th century, people were unwittingly numbing themselves to protect a semblance of self amid the bombardment of so much frenetic stimulation upon such an unstable organism as the modern citizen.

Artists and architects struggled not only to find forms that would respond to their own volatile moment in history; they also sought ways to rejoin what had been torn asunder. The former track led to modernism, the latter to what has been called anti-modernism. Although opposite and seemingly incompatible, both modernism and anti-modernism alike aimed for new unities of self and society to accord with what appeared to be fundamental and inexorable social reconfigurations. Common to both responses was the desire to reconcile art — its forms, materials and practices — with science, whose burgeoning explanatory powers were doing so much to destabilize the abiding beliefs of centuries. Architects espoused evolution, for example, to think through vexing questions of stylistic change. Underpinned by readings of Darwin, theories of organicism proposed structural relationships among function, form and ornament, and in this way sought to link many historical styles over time. For even the most cerebral and ardent of modernists seeking a uniquely machine-age expression, such new congruities promised a spiritual rebuke to the materialist philosophies of the 19th century.

Bragdon, watercolor stage design drawings for The Merchant of Venice, 1925, and Macbeth, 1921. [Image credit: Courtesy Peter Bragdon and the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, University of Rochester Library]

Claude Bragdon qualifies as one of the most synthesizing of such thinkers. Active early in the 20th century, Bragdon was an architect, writer, publisher, illustrator, cartoonist and collector of new graphic design, public speaker and political reformist, stage set and lighting designer, founder of a Theosophical Society chapter and, for many, an inspiring visionary. Simply as an architect he ranged widely, designing private homes, public buildings and ephemeral settings, and, following the Renaissance Revival after the Columbian Exposition in 1893, exploring medieval simplifications of form, dabbling in the colonial revival, and experimenting with Art Nouveau. Growing dissatisfied with all of this, he eventually proposed his own system for generating form and ornament, abstracting harmonic principles (rather than stylized floral motifs) from nature, drawing from a global range of visual sources, and stopping not at the usual three dimensions but including also the fourth dimension.

Until the early 20th century, the fourth dimension was understood less as an element in a continuum of space-time than as a higher order of space that completed and made whole our three familiar dimensions. As such, it suggested the presence of another realm, invisible to the poor perceptual equipment humankind was initially issued, but that could help explain psychic experiences that violated laws of Euclidean space such as, say, astral projection. In a materialist age, the fourth dimension gave spiritual phenomena some purchase in the physical realm. The triumph of evolution, then, for Bragdon and others, was not the descriptive theories of Darwin, nor the evident technological progress spawned by science and distributed broadly by industrialization. Rather it was the prospect of entry, or at least insight, into a formerly unknowable sphere of existence. Just as the three-dimensional world can be imagined as a cross-section through a four-dimensional world, so might individual consciousness be simply a slice of a higher form of conscious existence. However fleeting, knowledge of a fourth dimension promised to release the individual from the prison of his own bounded terrestrial spirit.

From Bragdon, Projective Ornament, 70 (left); engraving of a palace in Agra, India, clipped from a magazine and pasted into Bragdon’s “Architecture, Art, and Decoration” scrapbook #9, (right). [Image credit: Courtesy Peter Bragdon and the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, University of Rochester Library]

But how could such knowledge be gained? For Bragdon, intuitions of an unseen fourth dimension could be precipitated through geometry, much as a flat circle might be considered as the two-dimensional trace of a spiral that had passed through a plane. Bragdon’s special talent was in visualizing the geometry of the fourth dimension. The best instance is his system of projective ornament, published in 1915 and reaching its widest audience soon after with his designs for choral singing festivals that aimed to unify sound and color with ornament to spark participants’ perceptions of a beatific world. The progressive part of Bragdon’s form-generating system was his belief that individual encounters with a common aesthetic language would reunite the shards of social life into a composition of community, such as the spiritual fellowship he hoped would result from the festivals he helped stage. For the individual, visual apprehension of rhythms precipitated from the fourth dimension would resonate with patterns otherwise concealed in the mysteries of the self. For society, citizens newly alert to communal bonds would work in concert to achieve the harmonies they intuited in the fourth dimension. Bragdon’s transcendent crystalline ornament, animated by vibrant arabesques, both reflected and sustained a vital contradiction at the heart of democracy: individuals with inalienable rights seeking their own satisfactions and creative expression might nevertheless recognize their collective responsibility to assure a just and stable society.

It takes a uniquely adept historian to keep up with such a subject. Bragdon is posthumously fortunate to have Jonathan Massey write his intellectual, architectural and aspirational biography. Crystal and Arabesque: Claude Bragdon, Ornament, and Architecture, [University of Pittsburgh, 2009], the first book-length treatment of Bragdon and his world, is as clear, complex and compelling as one of Bragdon’s own tesseracts, or four-dimensional cubes. It is historiographically sophisticated — explaining why so inventive and prominent an architect and thinker was abandoned by architectural history, and recovering an earlier idea of a socially directive and progressive ornament ripe with pedagogical value before it was deemed regressive and rejected outright by later modernists. It is contextually rich — reestablishing key contemporaries, such as Irving Pond, reconstructing Bragdon’s role as interpreter and late-career interlocutor of Louis Sullivan, and adding new perspectives on later designers, such as R. Buckminster Fuller. And through his recontextualization, Massey redeems Bragdon’s notion of organic functionalism, which was eclipsed by the axiom, “form follows function.” Bragdon’s version was less a development from within than a projection from above.

Rochester’s New York Central Railroad Terminal, photograph by Albert R. Stone. [Image credit: Courtesy Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, University or Rochester Library]

Moreover, Massey is visually astute, vividly making a case for the architectural stakes of Bragdon’s designs. In page after page of careful description that ranges from architectural drawings to finished details to spatial forms, Massey reclaims Bragdon’s New York Central Rail Road Terminal, completed in Rochester, New York, in 1913, as one of America’s most distinctive train stations, far more speculative and abstract than better-known contemporary terminals — such as New York’s Grand Central or the old Penn Station, or the Union Stations of Washington, D.C., or Kansas City — and, as Massey points out, remarkably experimental for a civic monument. Reading Massey on the Terminal is like inhabiting an exploded diagram as he guides the reader past familiar Beaux-Arts elements to reveal the “dynamic circularity” that reigns at every scale and excites intuitions of mechanical energy and constant motion.

While explicating Bragdon’s esoteric philosophies, unfolding the geometries Bragdon hoped to impart, and weaving the architect’s intellectual influences into the life story, Massey is careful to stand critically apart. He sees the ornamental system as a kind of sumptuary regulation, and characterizes Bragdon’s “gospel of higher space” [page 138] as operating in a tradition of “moralizing mathematics” [5, 121] anxious to contain the turbulent changes of the 19th century and employing scientific authority to substitute for devitalized spiritual conviction. He notes commonalities with other totalizing impulses, such as the Gesamtkunstwerk and City Beautiful movements, as well as parallels with Esperanto, and underscores the Victorian preoccupation with class just as the representational power of class was diminishing in the machine age. In short, Crystal and Arabesque places in historical perspective a thrilling moment in design history, a moment fertile with ideas of “pure design” [64-65] that aimed to unify sensual apprehension, a moment when a new aesthetic could be considered not simply as an adornment but an engine for progressive social change

If ultimately the question of whether good design can inspire good civic behavior must go unanswered, there should be no doubt that good design makes for good reading and, in this case, might subtly advance the author’s meaning. Binocular, the New York-based graphic firm that designed the book, was clearly inspired by Bragdon. Colors introduced on the cover and flyleaf are titrated throughout the book, like traces left after the pages had passed through a realm of pure color. Massed into discrete blocks that alternate up and down on verso and recto, the text appears to follow its own internal trajectory, as if asserting an independent graphic volition. In this way, each page becomes not only a transparent window onto the author’s meaning but also an opaque plane of graphic performance. With Binocular’s design oscillating between surface and depth, and Massey’s agile descriptions of Bragdon’s travels through hyperspace, the reader acquires not just a fresh perspective on competing 20th-century modernisms but also an unanticipated ability to add or shed imaginative dimensions at will.

Sandy Isenstadt, “Crystal and Arabesque,” Places Journal, September 2009. Accessed 09 Dec 2022.

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