Crystal and Arabesque: Claude Bragdon, Ornament, and Modern Architecture

Crystal and Arabesque: Claude Bragdon, Ornament, and Modern Architecture

Jonathan Massey
Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009. xi + 336 pages, hardcover, $59.95.

Claude Bragdon (1866—1946) was an architect, graphic artist, theatrical designer, and Theosophist. He is considered to be a member of the Prairie School of architecture, which arose in Chicago from the ideas of Louis Sullivan and is best known through the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Burley Griffin, and Dwight H. Perkins. During the first three decades of the twentieth century, Bragdon was among the leaders of the modernist movement in architecture, but since then his work has largely been neglected by critics, who have preferred a stark, industrial functionality.

Syracuse University professor Jonathan Massey has written a new biography, Crystal and Arabesque: Claude Bragdon, Ornament, and Modern Architecture. With scrupulous scholarship and gorgeous color illustrations, he places the life and significance of Bragdon squarely into perspective. The author provides considerable detail about some of the architect's largest projects, such as the Otis Arch, the Rochester (New York) Chamber of Commerce, and the New York Central Railroad Terminal, and goes on to tell of Bragdon's innovations in graphic design and in multimedia theatrical production, all set in the context of progressive political philosophy, modern mathematics, and Theosophy.

The crystal and arabesque of the biography's title refer to the artist's effort to combine sinuous arabesques with geometric crystalline forms, merging the sensibilities of East and West. Bragdon conceived of architecture as rhythm in space and attempted to bridge societal divisions through a universal language of geometric design. The system of "projective ornament" derived two-dimensional designs from regular geometric solids and n-dimensional hypersolids, making them into flat graphics that seem to occupy space. Crystalline forms were curved and colored to add depth and naturalism to flat designs that could then be applied to surfaces such as brick, textiles, glass, grilles, lampshades, book covers, and tiles. Bragdon explained his Theosophical perspective on architecture in many books, including The Beautiful Necessity, A Primer of Higher Space, and Four-Dimensional Vistas. With a true Progressive Era sensibility, Bragdon was concerned with how individualism fits within a social order, and how to apply his art to promote brotherhood. His buildings emphasized open planning, glass, color, rooftop living, and ornamentation based on Pythagorean principles of harmony.

Bragdon was also a pioneer in multimedia theatrical production. He staged eight Festivals of Song and Light, each of which featured a large orchestra and chorus leading the audience in song while incandescent lights shone through colored geometric filters, creating a stained glass effect. These outdoor community events typified progressive attempts to reform the social order by integrating a fragmented urban culture into a democratic society based on brotherhood. In 1923, he closed his Rochester architectural practice to embrace a second career as a theatrical designer in New York City. He developed a "mobile-color" machine, the Luxorgan, to control lighting with a musical keyboard. He also created abstract film animations set to music in an exploration of "the play of imagery upon the veil of maya."

Within the Theosophical Society, Bragdon was respected and influential. L. W. Rogers, president of the American Theosophical Society (as it was known at the time), approached Bragdon in 1925 to design a new national headquarters building in Wheaton. Bragdon declined the commission because he had moved away from architecture as a profession and instead recommended his friend, Chicago architect Irving Kane Pond. When Rogers and the board of directors deadlocked over the final design, they asked Bragdon to cast a deciding vote, which favored the asymmetrical rendition that ultimately became the L. W. Rogers building. (Pond wrote about Bragdon in his fascinating book The Autobiography of Irving K. Pond: The Sons of Mary and Elihu, edited by David Swan and Terry Tatum [Oak Park, Ill.: Hyoogen Press, 2009].) In 1940, he further put his personal imprint on the headquarters by designing the distinctive entrance arch. The piers that support the wrought-iron arch are topped with Platonic solids, a tetrahedron and a dodecahedron.

Bragdon was an excellent speaker and writer, and his books are well worth reading. He and his sister May founded the Manas Press to publish Theosophical books and pamphlets. With Nicholas Bessaraboff, he did a hugely successful translation of P. D. Ouspensky's Tertium Organum. He also influenced Alfred Stieglitz, Ana's Nin, Henry Miller, Lewis Mumford, Norman Bel Geddes, and particularly R. Buckminster Fuller.

In addition to his portrait of Bragdon, Massey provides a lucid history of n-dimensional mathematics and hyperspace philosophy, including the contributions of G. F. B. Riemann, Charles Howard Hinton, Henri Poincar, Annie Besant, C. W. Leadbeater, and others. He gives equal attention to the communitarian movement, stagecraft, city planning, Theosophy, and ornamentation. For readers interested in subjects ranging from architecture, graphic arts, and mysticism to community singing and tesseracts, this exploration of Bragdon's life and art offers riches.

Janet Kerschner

The reviewer is archivist for the TS national headquarters at Olcott. She is preparing documentation to nominate the Rogers building for the National Register of Historic Places.