Architecture and Democracy
by Claude Fayette Bragdon
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This life consists in the habitual perception of an ulterior meaning, a hidden beauty and significance in the objects, acts, and events of every day. Though binding us to a sensuous existence, these nevertheless contain within themselves the power of emancipating us from it: over and above their immediate use, their pleasure or their profit, they have a hidden meaning which contains some healing message for the soul.

A classic example of a sacrament, not alone in the ordinary meaning of the term, but in the special sense above defined, is the Holy Communion of the Christian Church. Its origin is a matter of common knowledge. On the evening of the night in which He was betrayed, Jesus and His disciples were gathered together for the feast of the Passover. Aware of His impending betrayal, and desirous of impressing powerfully upon His chosen followers the nature and purpose of His sacrifice, Jesus ordained a sacrament out of the simple materials of the repast. He took bread and broke it, and gave to each a piece as the symbol of His broken body; and to each He passed a cup of wine, as a symbol of His poured-out blood. In this act, as in the washing of the disciples' feet on the same occasion, He made His ministrations to the needs of men's bodies an allegory of His greater ministration to the needs of their souls.

The sacrament of the Lord's Supper is of such beauty and power that it has persisted even to the present day. It lacks, however, the element of universality—at least by other than Christians its universality would be denied. Let us seek, therefore some all-embracing symbol to illustrate the sacramental view of life.

Perhaps marriage is such a symbol. The public avowal of love between a man and woman, their mutual assumption of the attendant privileges, duties and responsibilities are matters so pregnant with consequences to them and to the race that by all right-thinking people marriage is regarded as a high and holy thing; its sacramental character is felt and acknowledged even by those who would be puzzled to tell the reason why.

The reason is involved in the answer to the question, "Of what is marriage a symbol?" The most obvious answer, and doubtless the best one, is found in the well known and much abused doctrine, common to every religion, of the spiritual marriage between God and the soul. What Christians call the Mystic Way, and Buddhists the Path comprises those changes in consciousness through which every soul passes on its way to perfection. When the personal life is conceived of as an allegory of this inner, intense, super-mundane life, it assumes a sacramental character. With strange unanimity, followers of the Mystic Way have given the name of marriage to that memorable experience in "the flight of the Alone to the Alone," when the soul, after trials and purgations, enters into indissoluble union with the spirit, that divine, creative principle whereby it is made fruitful for this world. Marriage, then, however dear and close the union, is the symbol of a union dearer and closer, for it is the fair prophecy that on some higher arc of the evolutionary spiral, the soul will meet its immortal lover and be initiated into divine mysteries.

As an example of the power of symbols to induce those changes of consciousness whereby the soul is prepared for this union, it is recorded that an eminent scientist was moved to alter his entire mode of life on reflecting, while in his bath one morning, that though each day he was at such pains to make clean his body, he made no similar purgation of his mind and heart. The idea appealed to him so profoundly that he began to practise the higher cleanliness from that day forth.

If it be true, as has been said, that ordinary life in the world is a training school for a life more real and more sublime, then everything pertaining to life in the world must possess a sacramental character, and possess it inherently, and not merely by imputation. Let us discover, then, if we can, some of the larger meanings latent in little things.

When at the end of a cloudy day the sun bursts forth in splendor and sets red in the west, it is a sign to the weather-wise that the next day will be fair. To the devotee of the sacramental life it holds a richer promise. To him the sun is a symbol of the love of God; the clouds, those worldly preoccupations of his own which hide its face from him. This purely physical phenomenon, therefore, which brings to most men a scarcely noticed augmentation of heat and light, and an indication of fair weather on the morrow, induces in the mystic an ineffable sense of divine immanence and beneficence, and an assurance of their continuance beyond the dark night of the death of the body.

When the sacramentalist goes swimming in the sea he enjoys to the full the attendant physical exhilaration, but a greater joy flows from the thought that he is back with his great Sea-Mother—that feminine principle of which the sea is the perfect symbol, since water brings all things to birth and nurtures them. When at the end of a day he lays aside his clothes—that two-dimensional sheath of the three-dimensional body—it is in full assurance that his body in turn will be abandoned by the inwardly retreating consciousness, and that he will range wherever he wills during the hours of sleep, clothed in his subtle four-dimensional body, related to the physical body as that is related to the clothes it wears.

To every sincere seeker nature reveals her secrets, but since men differ in their curiosities she reveals different things to different men. All are rewarded for their devotion in accordance with their interests and desires, but woman-like, nature reveals herself most fully to him who worships not the fair form of her, but her soul. This favored lover is the mystic; for ever seeking instruction in things spiritual, he perceives in nature an allegory of the soul, and interprets her symbols in terms of the sacramental life.

The brook, pursuing its tortuous and stony pathway in untiring effort to reach its gravitational centre, is a symbol of the Pilgrim's progress, impelled by love to seek God within his heart. The modest daisy by the roadside, and the wanton sunflower in the garden alike seek to image the sun, the god of their worship, a core of seeds and fringe of petals representing their best effort to mimic the flaming disc and far-flung corona of the sun. Man seeks less ardently, and so more ineffectively in his will and imagination to image God. In the reverent study of insect and animal life we gain some hint of what we have been and what we may become—something corresponding to the grub, a burrowing thing; to the caterpillar, a crawling thing; and finally to the butterfly, a radiant winged creature.

After this fashion then does he who has embraced the sacramental life come to perceive in the "sensuous manifold" of nature, that one divine Reality which ever seeks to instruct him in supermundane wisdom, and to woo him to superhuman blessedness and peace. In time, this reading of earth in terms of heaven, becomes a settled habit. Then, in Emerson's phrase, he has hitched his wagon to a star, and changed his grocer's cart into a chariot of the sun.

The reader may perhaps fail to perceive the bearing of this long discussion of symbols and sacraments upon the subject of art and architecture, but in the mind of the author the correlation is plain. There can be no great art without religion: religion begins in consciousness as a mystic experience, it flows thence into symbols and sacraments, and these in turn are precipitated by the artist into ponderable forms of beauty. Unless the artist himself participates in this mystic experience, life's deeper meanings will escape him, and the work of his hands will have no special significance. Until it can be said of every artist

"Himself from God he could not free,"

there will be no art worthy of the name.


I take great pleasure in availing myself of this opportunity to speak to you on certain aspects of the art which we practise. I cannot forget, and I hope that you sufficiently remember, that the architectural future of this country lies in the hands of just such men as you. Let me dwell then for a moment on your unique opportunity. Perhaps some of you have taken up architecture as you might have gone into trade, or manufacturing, or any of the useful professions; in that case you have probably already learned discrimination, and now realize that in the cutting of the cake of human occupations you have drawn the piece which contains the ring of gold. The cake is the business and utilitarian side of life, the ring of gold is the aesthetic, the creative side: treasure it, for it is a precious and enduring thing. Think what your work is: to reassemble materials in such fashion that they become instinct with a beauty and eloquent with a meaning which may carry inspiration and delight to generations still unborn. Immortality haunts your threshold, even though your hand may not be strong enough to open to the heavenly visitor.

Though the profession of architecture is a noble one in any country and in any age, it is particularly rich in inspiration and in opportunity here and now, for who can doubt that we are about to enter upon a great building period? We have what Mr. Sullivan calls "the need and the power to build," the spirit of great art alone is lacking, and that is already stirring in the secret hearts of men, and will sooner or later find expression in objective and ponderable forms of new beauty. These it is your privilege to create. May the opportunity find you ready! There is a saying, "To be young, to be in love, to be in Italy!" I would paraphrase it thus: To be young, to be in architecture, to be in America.

It is my purpose tonight to outline a scheme of self-education, which if consistently followed out I am sure will help you, though I am aware that to a certain order of mind it will seem highly mystical and impractical. If it commends itself to your favor I shall be glad.

Many of you will have had the advantage of a thorough technical training in your chosen profession: be grateful for it. Others, like Topsy, "just growed"—or have just failed to grow. For the solace of all such, without wishing to be understood to disparage architectural schooling, I would say that there is a kind of education which is worse than none, for by filling his mind with ready-made ideas it prevents a man from ever learning to think for himself; and there is another kind which teaches him to think, indeed, but according to some arbitrary method, so that his mind becomes a canal instead of a river, flowing in a predetermined and artificial channel, and unreplenished by the hidden springs of the spirit. The best education can do no more than to bring into manifestation that which is inherent; it does this by means of some stimulus from without—from books and masters—but the stimulus may equally come from within: each can develop his own mind, and in the following manner.

The alternation between a state of activity and a state of passivity, which is a law of our physical being, as it is a law of all nature, is characteristic of the action of the mind as well: observation and meditation are the two poles of thought. The tendency of modern life and of our active American temperament is towards a too exclusive functioning of the mind in its outgoing state, and this results in a great cleverness and a great shallowness. It is only in moments of quiet meditation that the great synthetic, fundamental truths reveal themselves. Observe ceaselessly, weigh, judge, criticize—this order of intellectual activity is important and valuable—but the mind must be steadied and strengthened by another and a different process. The power of attention, the ability to concentrate, is the measure of mental efficiency; and this power may be developed by a training exactly analogous to that by which a muscle is developed, for mind and muscle are alike the instruments of the Silent Thinker who sits behind. The mind an instrument of something higher than the mind: here is a truth so fertile that in the language of Oriental imagery, "If you were to tell this to a dry stick, branches would grow, and leaves sprout from it."

There is nothing original in the method of mental development here indicated; it has been known and practised for centuries in the East, where life is less strenuous than it is with us. The method consists in silent meditation every day at stated periods, during which the attempt is made to hold the mind to the contemplation of a single image or idea, bringing the attention back whenever it wanders, killing each irrelevant thought as it arises, as one might kill a rat coming out of a hole. This turning of the mind back on itself is difficult, but I know of nothing that "pays" so well, and I have never found any one who conscientiously practised it who did not confirm this view. The point is, that if a man acquires the ability to concentrate on one thing, he can concentrate on anything; he increases his competence on the mental plane in the same manner that pulling chest-weights increases his competence on the physical. The practice of meditation has moreover an ulterior as well as an immediate advantage, and that is the reason it is practised by the Yogis of India. They believe that by stilling the mind, which is like a lake reflecting the sky, the Higher Self communicates a knowledge of Itself to the lower consciousness. Without the working of this Oversoul in and through us we can never hope to produce an architecture which shall rank with the great architectures of the past, for in Egypt, in Greece, in mediaeval France, as in India, China, and Japan, mysticism made for itself a language more eloquent than any in which the purely rational consciousness of man has ever spoken.

We are apt to overestimate the importance of books and book learning. Think how small a part books have played in the development of architecture; indeed, Palladio and Vignola, with their hard and fast formulae have done the art more harm than good. It is a fallacy that reading strengthens the mind—it enervates it; reading sometimes stimulates the mind to original thinking, and this develops it, but reading itself is a passive exercise, because the thought of the reader is for the time being in abeyance in order that the thought of the writer may enter. Much reading impairs the power to think originally and consecutively. Few of the great creators of the world have had use for books, and if you aspire to be in their class you will avoid the "spawn of the press." The best plan is to read only great books, and having read for five minutes, think about what you have read for ten.

These exercises, faithfully followed out, will make your mind a fit vehicle for the expression of your idea, but the advice I have given is as pertinent to any one who uses his mind as it is to the architect. To what, specifically, should the architectural student devote his attention in order to improve the quality of his work? My own answer would be that he should devote himself to the study of music, of the human figure, and to the study of Nature—"first, last, midst, and without end."

The correlation between music and architecture is no new thought; it is implied in the famous saying that architecture is frozen music. Vitruvius considered a knowledge of music to be a qualification of the architect of his day, and if it was desirable then it is no less so now. There is both a metaphysical reason and a practical one why this is so. Walter Pater, in a famous phrase, declared that all art constantly aspires to the condition of music, by which he meant to imply that there is a certain rhythm and harmony at the root of every art, of which music is the perfect and pure expression; that in music the means and the end are one and the same. This coincides with Schopenhauer's theory about music, that it is the most perfect and unconditioned sensuous presentment known to us of that undying will-to-live which constitutes life and the world. Metaphysics aside, the architect ought to hear as much good music as he can, and learn the rudiments of harmony, at least to the extent of knowing the simple numerical ratios which govern the principal consonant intervals within the octave, so that, translating these ratios into intervals of space expressed in terms of length and breadth, height, and width, his work will "aspire to the condition of music."

There is a metaphysical reason, too, as well as a practical one, why an architect should know the human figure. Carlyle says, "There is but one temple in the world, and that is the body of man." If the body is, as he declares, a temple, it is no less true that a temple, or any work of architectural art is in the nature of an ampler body which man has created for his uses, and which he inhabits, just as the individual consciousness builds and inhabits its fleshly stronghold. This may seem a highly mystical idea, but the correlation between the house and its inhabitant, and the body and its consciousness is everywhere close, and is susceptible of infinite elaboration.

Architectural beauty, like human beauty, depends upon a proper subordination of parts to the whole, a harmonious interrelation between these parts, the expressiveness of each of its functions, and when these are many and diverse, their reconcilement one with another. This being so, a study of the human figure with a view to analyzing the sources of its beauty cannot fail to be profitable to the architectural designer. Pursued intelligently, such study will stimulate the mind to a perception of those simple yet subtle laws according to which nature everywhere works, and it will educate the eye in the finest known school of proportion, training it to distinguish minute differences, in the same way that the hearing of good music cultivates the ear.

It is neither necessary nor desirable to make elaborate and carefully shaded drawings from a posed model; an equal number of hours spent in copying and analyzing the plates of a good art anatomy, supplemented with a certain amount of life drawing, done merely with a view to catch the pose, will be found to be a more profitable exercise, for it will make you familiar with the principal and subsidiary proportions of the bodily temple, and give you sufficient data to enable you to indicate a figure in any position with fair accuracy.

I recommend the study of Nature because I believe that such study will assist you to recover that direct and instant perception of beauty, our natural birthright, of which over-sophistication has so bereft us that we no longer know it to be ours by right of inheritance—inheritance from that cosmic matter endowed with motion out of which we are fashioned, proceeding ever rationally and rhythmically to its appointed ends. We are all of us participators in a world of concrete music, geometry and number—a world, that is, so mathematically constituted and co-ordinated that our pigmy bodies, equally with the farthest star, throb to the music of the spheres. The blood flows rhythmically, the heart its metronome; the moving limbs weave patterns; the voice stirs into radiating sound-waves that pool of silence which we call the air.

"Thou canst not wave thy staff in air, Or dip thy paddle in the lake, But it carves the bow of beauty there, And ripples in rhyme the oar forsake."

The whole of animate creation labours under the beautiful necessity of being beautiful. Everywhere it exhibits a perfect utility subservient to harmonious laws. Nature is the workshop in which are built beautiful organisms. This is exactly the aim of the architect—to fashion beautiful organisms; what better school, therefore, could he have in which to learn his trade?

To study Nature it is not necessary to go out into the fields and botanize, nor to attempt to make water colours of picturesque scenery. These things are very well, but not so profitable to your particular purpose as observation directed toward the discovery of the laws which underlie and determine form and structure, such as the tracing of the spiral line, not alone where it is obvious, as in the snail's shell and in the ram's horn, but where it appears obscurely, as in the disposition of leaves or twigs upon a parent stem. Such laws of nature are equally laws of art, for art is nature carried to a higher power by reason of its passage through a human consciousness. Thought and emotion tend to crystallize into forms of beauty as inevitably, and according to the same laws, as does the frost on the window pane. Art, in one of its aspects, is the weaving of a pattern, the communication of an order and a method to lines, forms, colors, sounds. All very poetical, and possibly true, you may be saying to yourselves, but what has it to do with architecture, which nowadays, at least, is pre-eminently a practical and utilitarian art whose highest mission is to fulfil definite conditions in an economical and admirable way; whose supreme excellence is fitness, appropriateness, the perfect adaptation of means to ends, and the apt expression of both means and ends? Yes, architecture is all of this, but this is not all of architecture; else the most efficient engineer would be the most admirable architect, which does not happen to be the case. Along with the expression of the concrete and individual must go the expression of the abstract and universal; the two can be combined in a single building in the same way that in every human countenance are combined a racial or temperamental type, which is universal, and a character, which is individual. The expression of any sort of cosmic truth, of universal harmony and rhythm, is the quality which our architecture most conspicuously lacks. Failing to find the cosmic truth within ourselves, failing to vibrate to the universal harmony and rhythm, our architecture is—well, what it is, for only that which is native to our living spirit can we show forth in the work of our hands.

Your work will be, in the last analysis, what you yourselves are. Let no sophistry blind you to the truth of that. There are rhythms in the world of space which we find only in the architecture of the past, and enamoured of their beauty we repeat them over and over (off the key for the most part), on the principle that all the songs have been sung; or we just make a noise, on the principle that noise is all there is to architecture anyway. It is not so. Those systems of spatial rhythms which we call Egyptian, Classic, Gothic, Renaissance architecture and the rest, are records all of the living human spirit energizing in the stubborn matter of the physical plane with joy, with conviction, with mastery. When that undying spirit awakes again in you, stirred into consciousness by meditation, which is its prayer; by music, which is its praise; by the contemplation of that fair form which is its temple; and by communion with nature, which is its looking-glass; you will experience again that ancient joy, hold again that firm conviction, and exercise again that mastery to transfuse the granite and iron heart of the hills into patterns unlike any that the hand of man has made before.

[Footnote 1: An address delivered before the Boston Architectural Club in April, 1909.]


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