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The Soul of a City: The Crystal Cathedral as Organizing Metaphor for (post)Modern Architecture at the Bauhaus
THE SOUL OF A CITY: THE CRYSTAL CATHEDRAL
AS ORGANIZING METAPHOR FOR (POST)MODERN
ARCHITECTURE AT THE BAUHAUS
The Bauhaus, founded in 1919 at Weimar, Germany by Walter Gropius, was arguably the most influential school of design in modern times, set up in the form of a residential creative community of designers, craftsmen, architects and artists. "The Crystal Cathedral" is a familiar name in contemporary Southern California, and stands, almost literally, for what it says - a religious monument with the appearance of a transparent four-pointed crystal. It was designed by Philip Johnson (1906-2005) and completed in 1980. Johnson was an American architect, who entered the limelight since 1932, the year of the closure of the Bauhaus at Dessau, Germany, with the publication of an article called "The International Style". One may call this piece the clarion call heralding the approach and dominance of the "Bauhaus idea" in the U.S., since the International Style was that style of modernist architecture that was "crystallized" at the Bauhaus from important, often contradictory ideological approaches to individual and social identity and form which had come into prominence at the turn of the 20th century and its pre World War I years. Clarion call also, of course, since the next few years were to see the emigration to the U.S. of several major creative personalities from the Bauhaus, including both its founding and terminating directors, the architects Walter Gropius (1883-1969) and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe(1886-1969), and the consequent shaping of modern American and world architecture by the ideas of this school. In this, the 'synthesis' that was creatively realized in Weimar Germany, may be seen, like the Hegelian Zeitgeist, to have migrated to a more favorable environment for its manifestation and further evolution - America, the nation with no history, the 'international nation', where "starting from zero" (Gropius' term), mankind might build the structure of the ideal life, "like the crystal symbol of a new faith".
Though, by 1980, when the Orange County "Crystal Cathedral" was being built, Philip Johnson, in typical 'modernist' style, was re-identifying himself, altering his stance from that of the founder of the "International Style" to that of the originator of "Post-modernism", the shift was to be seen as not a break but a modification and an evolution, a 're-dressing' of some of the issues implicit in the International Style, which had, since, more clearly articulated their cohabitational discomforts. Nor are these discomforts absent in Johnson's structure, the anticlimactic appropriation of visionary idealism and architectural genius by questionable dehumanizing and mediocratizing interests, be they garbed as consumerism, socialism, nationalism or religion, being the ironic and somewhat quixotic adventure of modern architecture in its search for the perfect structure to house the human spirit. In this adventure, a grand initiatory note is struck by the Bauhaus, Johnson's work being a continuation of the ongoing text. Johnson's "Crystal Cathedral" is pre-figured in the Bauhaus Manifesto, as hinted already, both terms of his appellate being present in it : the Manifesto is illustrated by Lyonel Feininger's woodcut, "The Socialist Cathedral", and Gropius' text mentions "the crystal symbol of a new faith". Moreover, several other features of resemblance between the two are noteworthy:
1) In the illustration for the Bauhaus Manifesto, Feinenger's soaring cathedral spires are illuminated by five-pointed stars, an echo of which may be seen in the four-pointed star shape of Johnson's cathedral;
2) Though the illustration supposedly shows a Gothic cathedral, the depiction of space in it is complicated by deliberate continuations in lines constituting the cathedral, as if through transparencies, the emphatic verticality of sheer rising columns, surrounding and including the cathedral lines, and oblique rays streaming out from the three apical stars. These create the impression of the cut faces of a crystal, with its multiple internal reflections; while being echoed also in the vertical glass faces of Johnson's cathedral.
3) Gropius' text invokes the image of the cathedral of the 'future', therefore presumably built with new 'futuristic' materials, 'rising towards heaven', emphasizing the verticality.
Finally, as if inviting the association between this 'future' and its content, comes the phrase, "like the crystal symbol of a new faith" .
At the outset, the ideas of 'crystal' and 'cathedral' as references in the Manifesto seem innocent enough. But more persistent attention draws out a complexity of connotation that relates these terms to varied idea-forces that can be seen as trying to define individual and social identity in terms of structure, material and function. Spiritual, social, political, economic and aesthetic issues clamor for dominance behind this symbol of the future trajectory and habitation of the universal human. In this essay, focusing on the metaphor of the "crystal cathedral" as central to the Bauhaus idea, I will attempt to identify what these background issues were and how they were sought to be harmonized by the style and community that evolved at the Bauhaus.
The turn of the 20th century in Europe in general, and Germany in particular, was an extremely fertile period for the shaping of new ideologies. Rapid industrialization in the latter part of the 19th century had introduced pervasive social changes, giving rise in result, to humanistic reactions against mechanization. These reactions took many forms, ranging from the proliferation of esoteric cults to the study of metaphysical writings. The teachings of German mystics such as Jakob Bohme and Meister Eckhart became popular, as did non-western philosophies, such as Hinduism and Buddhism and esoteric "sciences" such as Rosicrucianism and Theosophy. On the other hand, German imperialism and nationalism were on the rise, and were contended by ideas of democracy, anarchism and socialism. Creative artists of all kinds felt and spoke about a crisis of the human soul and strove to load their work with the messages which would shape a new individual in a new society. In this sense, the creative artist took on the role of the prophet, the soul or conscience of afflicted humanity, who as the founder or follower of an ideological stylistic movement, saw his or her work as significant and propagative of transformational values. This background is important in understanding the artist's perception of him/herself as fulfilling a self-appointed sacred function in society and of the creative act as an independent power, equal in importance to political or economic agendas.
One such stylistic movement that swelled in its importance in Germany and elsewhere in the European continent, influencing varied practices until the 1920s, when post-war disappointment discredited it, was Expressionism. The stylistic category Expressionism first came to be used to describe the brilliant color effects and textures originated in French Fauve painting and carried over into the works of the Brucke and Der Blaue Reiter in Germany. Among the artists of the Blaue Reiter, Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) published, in early 1912, his "On the Spiritual in Art", equating abstraction with spirituality. Prior to Kandinsky, the art historian Wilhelm Worringer had published a treatise "Abstraction and Empathy" in 1908, linking abstract styles with transcendental points of view. Kandinsky and the other members of the Blaue Reiter were familiar with Worringer's ideas, and his publication combined with their group's artistic practices, became instrumental in the relating of abstraction and Expressionism; and with the equation of antinaturalism with antimaterialism and antipositivism to such an extent, that this new style was soon perceived as a means for expressing visions of an utopic spiritual world.
Kandinsky's interest in eastern philosophies and his explicit affiliation with Theosophy and the ideas of the leader of the German Theosophical Society, Rudolf Steiner(1865-1921), played no meager part in the development of his own artistic ideas and those of many of the creative personalities of his time. Moreover, the universalism of Theosophy and its development of correspondences between shapes, colors, sounds and psychic states led him to see in abstraction an international visual language, equally applicable and influential for all humanity.
An important publicist for transcendentalist Expressionism was the art dealer Herwarth Walden, who operated the Sturm gallery in Berlin. Through his exhibitions, publications and the periodical he edited, Der Sturm, an entire generation learned about Expressionism and abstraction as the essence of the international modern movement and Kandinsky as its high priest. Soon, architects too began to claim the term Expressionism for architectural innovations and to use Kandinsky's theories and interpretations of color as support for new theories in architecture.
As in the visual arts, in the field of architecture, important innovations were in progress. The impact of the Industrial Revolution in England had already resulted in a decided reaction in decorative style, with William Morris and his Arts and Crafts movement, which sought to resist mechanization through the preservation of fine craftsmanship. This revivalism of the medieval organization of decorative practice in the form of craftsman's guilds and the abolition of distinction between artist and craftsman became part of Germany's ideological matrix, elements of it showing up prominently in Gropius' Manifesto : "Artists, sculptors, painters, we all must return to the crafts! For art is not a 'profession'. There is no essential difference between the artist and the craftsman. The artist is an exalted craftsman. In rare moments of inspiration, transcending the consciousness of his will, the grace of heaven may cause his work to blossom into art. But proficiency in a craft is essential to every artist. Therein lies the primary source of creative imagination. Let us create a new guild of craftsmen, without the class distinctions which raise an arrogant barrier between craftsman and artist."
However, the contrary view of architecture as allied to industry, conditioning it aesthetically, while utilizing its new materials and enhanced handling methods, was even more prevalent, Gropius' own designs for the Fagus and Werkbund exhibition factories bearing testimony to this trend. Important in the establishment of the close relationship of industry and craftsmanship in German architecture was Hermann Muthesius, who in 1907, founded the Deutscher Werkbund, the first of many societies, which sprang up throughout Europe to improve standards in design and industry. Its aims, laid down in its statutes, were, to unite "artists, craftsman, experts and patrons, intent on an improvement of production through the collaboration of art, industry and the crafts." This statement can be seen to be very similar to Gropius' Manifesto, except for its conscious inclusion of "industry", (omitted in Gropius) and its prosaic lack of mystical romanticism. Gropius was a member of the Werkbund, as was Bruno Taut (1880-1938), a close associate and friend of Gropius. Bruno Taut was also closely connected with Herwarth Walden's Sturm circle, and befriended there the poet, Scheerbert, whom Walden called "the first Expressionist". Since the 1890s, Scheerbert had been associating with the Theosophists and drew on their theories as well as Eastern spiritual writings and the works of Boehme and Meister Eckhart to describe the colored lights of the astral planes. Taut met Scheerbert in 1912, and was impressed by his views on architecture as an art which could transform human consciousness through the induction of meditative processes. Just before the outbreak of World War I, at the Deutsche Werkbund exhibition at Cologne, Taut collaborated with Scheerbert on a glass pavilion where colored glass and Scheerbert's mystical inscriptions were combined to evoke a transcendental atmosphere. Scheerbert's aphorisms reflected both men's mystical faith in color and light : "Light wants to penetrate the whole cosmos and is alive in the crystal." Clearly, once again, the crystal cathedral!
The polar ideas of the new art and architecture as being on the one hand, a revival of the German Gothic in modern times, and on the other, an international futuristic style, persisted in the perceptions of both commentators and practitioners of these arts. Where Walden saw Expressionsim as an international drive against materialism, Paul Fechter in his 1914 book, Expressionismus, emphasized its rootedness in the communal metaphysical tradition of the Gothic. In his essays in Der Sturm, Taut emphasized the "religious intensity" needed to strive for forms expressive of metaphysical thoughts. He extolled the Gothic period as a time when artists had collaborated to create monumental works, but also urged architects to use new materials - glass, iron and concrete - in designs that would intensify spiritual feelings as they worked with other artists to create a temple to art.
Gropius' views were influenced to a great extent by Taut. Immediately after the November Revolution, Taut and Gropius formed an artists' council based on the Soviet model : the Arbeitsrat fur Junst (Work Council for Art). The aim of this council was to unite art and the people by reforming art education, organizing exhibitions and bringing together all the arts to build a great temple to the future. Taut's theories dominated the Arbeitsrat. He advised architects to learn from such painters as Kandinsky, methods that could assist in the creation of an ideal communitarian society. As symbols of such a society, he envisaged monumental colored-glass temples of culture rising from the center of small, decentralized communities. In 1920, Taut published "The Dissolution of the Cities", which he called a parable for the "Third Millenium", and in which he advocated a form of architecture combining colored glass and music to create meditation environments, in which individuals would become one with their community and ultimately with the universe.
These ideas had a strong influence on Gropius. In April 1919, he teamed up with Taut and Adolf Behne to organize "The Exhibition of Unknown Artists", inviting architects, painters and sculptors who had "faith in the future" and believed that "one day a philosophy of life [would] exist and then its symbol, its crystallization - architecture - [would] also exist." (italics mine) A majority of the exhibitors presented representations of visionary structures, a typical case being that of Johannes Molzahn,
illustrating crystalline tower shapes as exemplary monuments of future utopian society. In fact, the intersection of Molzahn with Gropius and Taut was not coincidental. An important participant of Walden's Sturm group, Molzahn lived in Weimar, and though he never joined the Bauhaus faculty, was closely connected with it, recommending other young artists, such as Georg Muche for appointment to the school.
In the same month as "The Exhibition of Unknown Artists", Gropius opened the Bauhaus. The idea of the merging of all arts in order to create the transformational structures for society, along with Gropius' choice of painters to lead the design and fine arts courses from among the proponents of abstract transcendentalist Expressionism, established the tenor of the Bauhaus as the think tank and the experimental society for fashioning the future crystal cathedral. With the exception of Gerhard Marcks, the major fine arts instructors, Johannes Itten (1888-1967), Georg Muche (1895-1986), Lyonel Feininger, and eventually, Kandinsky - all shared Gropius' mystical, utopian vision of transforming society through architectural and educational reform. When he wished to appoint Paul Klee (1879-1940) and Oskar Schlemmer (1888-1943) to the staff, Gropius had to write to Edwin Redslob, minister of culture, for assistance in dealing with the new government's fears that the two Swiss-born artists were "more wildly expressionistic than the artists already present". In making the Bauhaus a residential educational system, organized in the fashion of medieval guild societies, with the instructors addressed as Meisters, Gropius echoed both traditional German metaphysics as well as some of the ideas of the Arts and Crafts movement of England. However, a third connotational component went into this choice - that of the secret esoteric lodge, whose members practiced magical ceremonies, seeking the collective experience of a higher consciousness. In an early speech to Bauhaus faculty and students in July, 1919, Gropius drew explicit attention to this reference, as, once again, to the image of the crystal cathedral. He mentioned that they should all see themselves as part of a "secret lodge" that would help work out a "new, great world idea"; and that the times were a catastrophic period of world history in which much misery and privation would have to be endured before "spiritual and religious ideas" would find their "crystalline expression" in a great "cathedral [shining] its light into [the] smallest things of everyday life."
A brief consideration of some of the artists spoken of also reinforces the prevalence of these ideas, both as pre-Bauhaus tendencies in them and as shaping influences during their Bauhaus days. The case of Johannes Itten is perhaps the most striking. Itten had also been acquainted with the Expressionist circles around Walden and had exhibited at the Sturm gallery in the spring of 1916. During these years, his experimentation with abstraction as a transcendental style intensified, and he explained in a letter to Walden that his paintings would henceforth be directed towards "primary matter" through the search for crystalline shapes, referring to the crystal as "fermenting mother's milk". Like Scheerbert, Itten used the crystal metaphor to convey his own commitment to communicating spirituality through the purest means. In the fall of 1916, Itten moved to Vienna, where he remained till he was invited by Gropius to teach at the Bauhaus. It was here that he read Indian philosophy and pursued Theosophy, to which Gropius' first wife, Alma Mahler, is said to have introduced him. In 1918, he found the theosophical text Thought Forms, by Annie Besant and Charles W. Leadbeater, and noted that after comparing their charts with his paintings, he was impressed by their equations of color and psychic states. At the Bauhaus, his spiritual interests further intensified, as he turned, with cult-like intensity, towards the practice of the principles of the Zoroastrian-based Mazdaznan ideology, with its heightened awareness of a battle between the forces of Good and Evil and the need for conscious choices at every instant and in all one's works. Itten's spiritual extremism combined with his dominating personality at the Bauhaus soon plunged the community, willy-nilly, into a disciplinarian environment of yoga practices and vegetarianism, ultimately leading to a split into two camps and Itten's resignation from the Bauhaus in 1922. However, two facts are noteworthy and often overlooked in discussions of Itten's contribution at the Bauhaus:
Post-Itten Bauhaus veered away from spiritual extremism to a more moderate idealism and a greater concern for the prevalent social condition in the environment. Moderatism also in the alignment with industry as against an uncompromising visionary stance was emphasized by Gropius, both in recognition of the need for architecture to engage with mechanization and its dependence on industry and government for funds to survive. However, Gropius did not abandon his idealism due to the Itten episode, bringing in Kandinsky, who had returned from a disappointing liaison with communism in Russia, to fill in Itten's place. Considering that Kandinsky was already considered one of the founders of transcendentalism in art, Gropius' choice evidences his continued faith in the power of spirituality to shape art and identity.
Though Kandinsky's contribution to the fundamental ideas that went into utopian expressionism have already been discussed, his stay at the Bauhaus, saw a shift in his own artistic expression. While his earlier abstract forms had a more free-flowing appearance, his choice of forms now, like Itten's, began
showing a greater concern for geometry. Typical paintings of this period are "Circles within a Circle" and "Several Circles", where circular forms seem to reflect and refract one another, as in a regular transparent colored object struck by light - another echo of the crystal. With the closure of the Bauhaus, Kandinsky's abstraction returned, once again, to a new direction - this time, the exploration of more organic forms, resembling microbiological life-forms as seen under a microscope. Thus, the Bauhaus period, seems unique in Kandinsky's output, determined quite probably, by the guiding influence of the symbol of the crystal cathedral.
Feinenger's cubist-influenced crystallic human and other natural forms and apparitional presences manifesting in intersecting light rays, Georg Muche's cosmic themes and Josef Alber's color experiemnts may all be seen in this light. The matter can be fruitfully further investigated; however, it may be more useful to draw together, at this point, the various meanings that the metaphor crystal cathedral had/has become associated with at the Bauhaus, as form representative of identity:
As exampled in Philip Johnson's building, near to us in time and space, this organizing metaphor of the Bauhaus idea can be seen to be still very much alive and among us. Also, as in that example, its anticlimactic and dubiously compromised usage continues to be equally evident, spotlighting a central deficiency in the image of the architect as an independent creative shaper of society through spatial and environmental conditioning.
The crystal cathedral as an utopic form representative of identity in the future, as envisaged by Gropius and his associates, thus remains unmanifest, in spite of its many approximations and compromises with false gods, its idealism a magnetic image whose subtle pressure continues working on human identity, its transformative influence more astral than material. It is a structure whose idea was before its time and doomed to remain so until mankind changes.
The primary deficiency of modernism may be observed in this failure. The endeavor to build a collective communitarian space, which Gropius and Taut attempted in principle, was given the lie by the exigencies of the time. Modernism is the artistic response to modernity, a paean song to the gigantism of the human ego, driven by the larger-than-life unified Subject and its rejection of anchors in time, with the towering monolithic skyscraper as his totem and dwelling space. The "crystal cathedral" here had to shear its communitarian function and stand isolated in its libidinous alienation, the ironic intersection of creative ego and the market. With its seeking for "a new beginning" this crystal became an appropriate emblem of Modernity's Machine Age, cold, abstract, lacking any cultural or historical reference. Modernity's ecology of speed, the production of accelerated surplus and accelerated obsolescence found its simulation of ruptured time, an eternal succession of futures without past well suited by its rhetoric. When Philip Johnson tried to distance himself from Modernism, with the founding of Postmodern Architecture, all he could address of this deficiency was the ahistoricity of the symbol. Deliberately working in motifs of nostalgia, he reinvented collective memory in the American dwelling. But such memory was spurious, since the dweller and dwelling were still under the thralldom of techno-capitalism, ubiquitous modernity, which offered the subjective ideal of the individual with one hand and conditioned subjectivity to the global market with the other. The hour of true postmodernity, that defined by Gropius' or Taut's original dream, community which prioritizes creative intersubjectivity free from conditioning, was still distant.
Can we think of this today? Could there be a structure, the soul of a decentralized utopic collective, as Taut envisaged, whose sheer perfection could transform identity in the community at whose center it stands? Without a collective will to an alternate habitus, free from the determining agency of the world market, it would be impossible. Auroville is the Mother's experiment to give body to this ideal. And the Matrimandir is her crystal cathedral, the soul of the city. And in this, in its communitarian subjectivity, it is less monolithic quartz than multi-faceted diamond. But nevertheless, though oriented through its charter, towards the sustainable collective expansion of spiritual subjectivity, the lessons of Gropius and Taut cannot be neglected by it if the structure at its center is to manifest its truth as the soul of a city. For this, the aspiration for perfection of identity in the inhabitants of the city would need to reach a critical mass before it could manifest. An uncompromising purity, a will to Harmony, a collective universality, a clear discrimination and a refusal to suffer conditioning by the forces of sectarian, economic or egoistic interests in a sufficient number are perhaps the exacting psychological conditions that need to be fulfilled.
From Mother's Prayers and Meditations, May 25, 1914, we read:
Oh, to be the pure flawless crystal which lets thy divine ray pass without obscuring, colouring or distorting it. Not from a desire for perfection, but so that Thy work may be done as perfectly as possible.
And when I ask Thee this, the "I" which speaks to Thee is the entire Earth, aspiring to be this pure diamond, a perfect reflector of Thy supreme light.
The crystal cathedral is not a mere material construct. It is the Mother's Body and the future earth, which seek human collaboration to manifest.
Keywords: WalterGropius, Postmodern, PhilipJohnson, Mother, Modernity, Klee, Kandinsky, CrystalCathedral, BrunoTaut, Bauhaus, Auroville, ArtsAndCrafts, Architecture
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