The Beautiful Necessity
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The Beautiful Necessity

Essays on Architecture

Claude Bragdon, Joan Shelley Rubin, A Joan Saab

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eBook - ePub

The Beautiful Necessity

Essays on Architecture

Claude Bragdon, Joan Shelley Rubin, A Joan Saab

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About This Book

A noted American architect of the early twentieth century discusses universal principles behind the harmonious forms and proportions of ancient and modern buildings. Seven essays by Claude Bragdon offer a master class in the architectural union of art, beauty, and science. His observations and analyses encompass a tremendous variety of buildings, from Gothic cathedrals to Giotto's Campanile to the Taj Mahal, and his examples extend far beyond architecture to the natural symmetry found in the feathers of a peacock's tail, snowflakes, plants, and the human face.
`Art in all its manifestations is an expression of the cosmic life,` notes the author, `and its symbols constitute a language by means of which this life is published and represented. Art is at all times subject to the 'Beautiful Necessity' of proclaiming the 'world order'.` Bragdon's theories are illuminated by his graceful black-and-white line drawings, which portray the essentials of line and proportion as expressed in many well-known buildings and paintings.

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THE preceding essay was devoted for the most part to that “inevitable duality” which finds concrete expression in countless pairs of opposites, such as day and night, fire and water, man and woman; in the art of music by two chords, one of suspense and the other of fulfilment; in speech by vowel and consonant sounds, epitomized in a and in m; in painting by warm colors and cold, epitomized in red and blue; in architecture by the vertical column and the horizontal lintel, by void and solid,—and so on.


This concept should now be modified by another, namely: that in every duality a third is latent; that two implies three, for each sex, so to speak, is in process of becoming the other, and this alternation engenders and is accomplished by means of a third term, or neuter, which is like neither of the original two, but partakes of the nature of them both, just as a child may resembles both its parents. Twilight comes between day and night; earth is the child of fire and water; in music, besides the chord of longing and striving and the chord of rest and satisfaction (the dominant seventh and the tonic) there is a third, or resolving chord, in which the two are reconciled. In the sacred syllable Om, which epitomizes all speech, the u sound effects the transition between the a sound and the m; among primary colors yellow comes between red and blue; and in architecture the arch, which is both weight and support, which is neither vertical nor horizontal, may be considered the neuter of the group of which the column and the lintel are respectively masculine and feminine. “These are the three,” says Mr. Louis Sullivan, “the only three letters from which has been expanded the architectural art, as a great and superb language wherewith man has expressed, through the generations, the changing drift of his thoughts.”
It would be supererogatory to dwell at any length on this “trinity of manifestation” as the concrete expression of that unmanifest and mystical trinity, that three-in-one which under various names occurs in every world-religion, where, defying definition, it was wont to find expression symbolically, in some combination of vertical, horizontal, and curved lines. The ansated cross of the Egyptians is such a symbol, the Buddhist wheel, and the flyflot, or swastika inscribed within a circle; also those numerous Christian symbols combining the circle and the cross. Such ideographs have spelled profound meaning to the thinkers of past ages. We of to-day are not given to discovering anything wonderful in three strokes of a pen, but every artist, in the weaving of his pattern, must needs employ these mystic symbols, in one form or another, and if he employs them with a full sense of their hidden meaning, his work will be apt to gain in originality and beauty,—for originality is a new and personal perception of beauty, and beauty is the name we give to truth we cannot understand.
In architecture, this trinity of vertical, horizontal and curved lines finds admirable illustration in the application of columns and entablature to an arch and impost construction, so common in Roman and Renaissance work. This is a redundancy, and finds no justification in the reason, since the weight is sustained by the arch, and the “order” is an appendage merely, yet the combination, illogical as it is, satisfies the sense of beauty, because the arch effects a transition between the columns and the entablature, and completes the trinity of vertical, horizontal, and curved lines (Illustration 21). In the entrances to many of the Gothic cathedrals and churches the same elements are better because more logically disposed. Here the horizontal lintel and its vertical supports are not decorative merely, but really perform their proper functions, while the arch, too, has a raison d’etre in that it serves to relieve the lintel of the superincumbent weight of masonry. The same arrangement sometimes occurs in Classic architecture also, as when an opening spanned by a single arch is subdivided by means of an order (Illustration 22).
Three is pre-eminently the number of architecture, because it is the number of our space, which is three-dimensional, and of all the arts architecture is most concerned with the expression of spatial relations. The division of a composition into three related parts is so universal that it would seem to be the result of an instinctive action of the human mind. The twin pylons of an Egyptian temple, with its entrance between, for a third division, has its correspondence in the two towers of a Gothic cathedral and the intervening screen wall of the nave. In the palaces of the Renaissance a three-fold division—vertically by means of quoins or pilasters, and horizontally by means of cornices or string courses—was common, as was also the division into a principal and two subordinate masses (Illustration 23).
The architectural “orders,” so-called, are divided threefold into pedestal or stylobate, column, and entablature; and each of these is again divided threefold; the first into plinth, die, and cornice; the second into base, shaft, and capital; the third into architrave, frieze, and cornice. In many cases these again lend themselves to a threefold subdivision. A more detailed analysis of the capitals already shown to be twofold reveals a third member: in the Greek Doric this consists of the annulets immediately below the abacus; in the other orders, the necking which divides the shaft from the cap.


“As is the small, so is the great” is a perpetually recurring phrase in the literature of theosophy, and naturally so, for it is a succint statement of a fundamental and far-reaching truth. The scientist recognizes it now and then, and here and there, but the occultist trusts it always and utterly. To him the microcosm and the macrocosm are one and the same in essence, and the forth-going impulse which calls a universe into being and the indrawing impulse which extinguishes it again, each lasting millions of years, are echoed and repeated in the inflow and outflow of the breath through the nostrils, in nutrition and excretion, in daily activity and nightly rest, in that longer day which we name a lifetime, and that longer rest in Devachan, and so on, up and up and up, and forever and ever and ever.
In the same way, in nature, a thing is echoed and repeated throughout its parts. Each leaf on a tree is itself a tree in miniature, each blossom a modified leaf; every vertebrate animal is a complicated system of spines; the ripple is the wave of a larger wave, and that larger wave is part of the ebbing and flowing tide. In music this law is illustrated in the return of the tonic to itself in the octave, and its partial return in the dominant; also, in a more extended sense, in the repetition of a major theme in the minor, or in the treble and again in the bass, with modifications, perhaps, of time and key. In the art of painting the law is exemplified in the repetition with variation of certain colors and combinations of lines in different parts of the same picture, so disposed as to lead the eye to some focal point. Every painter knows that any important color in his picture must be echoed, as it were, in different places, for harmony of the whole.
In the drama the repetition of a speech, or of an entire scene, but under circumstances which give it a different meaning, is often very effective, as when Gratiano, in the trial scene of The Merchant of Venice taunts Shylock with his own words, “A Daniel come to judgment!” or, as when, in one of the later scenes of As You Like It, an earlier scene is repeated, but with Rosalind speaking in her proper person and no longer as the boy Ganymede.
These recurrences, these inner consonances, these repetitions with variations are common in architecture also. The channeled triglyphs of a Greek Doric frieze echo the fluted columns below (Illustration 24). The balustrade which crowns a colonnade is a repetition, in some sort, of the colonnade itself. The modillions of a Corinthian cornice are but elaborate and embellished dentils. Each pinnacle of a Gothic cathedral is a little tower with its spire. As Ruskin has pointed out, the great vault of the cathedral nave, together with the pointed roof above it, is repeated in the entrance arch with its gable, and the same two elements appear in every statue-enshrining niche of the doorway. In Classic architecture, as has been shown, instead of the pointed arch and gable, the column and entablature everywhere recur under different forms. The minor domes which flank the great dome of the cathedral of Florence enhance and reinforce the latter, and prepare the eye for a climax which would otherwise be too abrupt. The central pavilion of the Chateau Maintenon, with its two turrets, echoes the entire façade with its two towers. Like the overture to an opera, it introduces themes which find a more extended development elsewhere (Illustration 26).
This law of Consonance is operative in architecture more obscurely in the form of recurring numerical ratios, identical geometrical determining figures, parallel diagonals, and the like, which will be discussed in a subsequent essay. It has also to do with style and scale, the adherence to substantially one method of construction and manner of ornament, just as in music the key, or chosen series of notes may not be departed from except through proper modulations, or in a specific manner.
Thus it is seen that in a work of art, as in a piece of tapestry, the same thread runs through the web, but goes to make up different figures. The idea is deeply theosophic: one life, many manifestations; hence, inevitably, echoes, resemblances—Consonance.


Another principle of natural beauty, closely allied to the foregoing, its complement, as it were, is that of Diversity in Monotony—not identity; but difference. It shows itself for the most part as a perceptible and piquant variation between individual units belonging to the same class, type, or species.
No two trees put forth their branches in just the same manner, and no two leaves from the same tree exactly correspond; no two persons look alike, though they have similar members and features; even the markings on the skin of the thumb are different in every human hand. Browning says,
“As like as a hand to another hand!
Whoever said that foolish thing,
Could not have studied to understand—”
Now every principle of natural beauty is but the presentment of some occult law, some theosophical truth, and this law of Diversity in Monotony is the presentment of the truth that identity does not exclude individuality. The law is binding, yet the will is free: all men are brothers, bound by the ties of brotherhood, yet each is unique, a free agent, and never so free as when most, bound by the Good Law. This truth nature beautifully proclaims, and art also. In architecture it is admirably exemplified in the metopes of the Parthenon frieze: seen at a distance these must have presented a scarcely distinguishable texture of sunlit marble and cool shadow, yet in reality, each is a separate work of art. So with the capitals of the columns of the wonderful sea-arcade of the Venetian Ducal palace: alike in general contour they differ widely in detail, and unfold a Bible story. In Gothic cathedrals, in Romanesque monastery cloisters, a teeming variety of invention is hidden beneath apparent uniformity. The gargoyles of Notre Dame make similar silhouettes against the sky, but seen near at hand, what a menagerie of monsters! The same spirit of controlled individuality, of liberty subservient to the law of all, is exemplified in the bases of the columns of the temple of Apollo near Mitelus,—each one a separate masterpiece of various ornamentation adorning an established architectural form (Illustration 28).
The builders of the early Italian churches, instinctively obeying this law of Diversity in Monotony, varied the size of the arches in the same arcade (Illustration 29), and that this was an effect of art and not of accident or carelessness Ruskin long ago discovered, and the Brooklyn Institute surveys have amply confirmed his view. Although by these means the builders of that day produced effects of deceptive perspective, of subtle concord and contrast, their sheer hatred of monotony and meaningless repetition may have led them to diversify their arcades in the manner described, for a rigi...

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Citation styles for The Beautiful Necessity
APA 6 Citation
Bragdon, C. (2015). The Beautiful Necessity (1st ed.). Dover Publications. Retrieved from (Original work published 2015)
Chicago Citation
Bragdon, Claude. (2015) 2015. The Beautiful Necessity. 1st ed. Dover Publications.
Harvard Citation
Bragdon, C. (2015) The Beautiful Necessity. 1st edn. Dover Publications. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Bragdon, Claude. The Beautiful Necessity. 1st ed. Dover Publications, 2015. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.