Technically symbolic: The significance of schema and Claude Bragdon's Sinbad drawings in “The Frozen Fountain”

Mary Nixon, University of Pennsylvania


In this dissertation I argue that Claude Fayette Bragdon (1866–1946) viewed schema as both technique and symbol and that he saw schemata as preeminent for the architect. Displacing the traditional approach to schematism as solely a systemized procedure, Bragdon assigned it representational meaning, the means to an instrumental and figurative end. “Schematic” is described by Bragdon as “a systematic disposition of parts according to some co-ordinating principle,” as well as “belonging to the higher dimension of consciousness, the aesthetic quality, a spiritual essence, love manifesting as beautifulness.” He linked sign to technique, spirituality to instrumentality, and did so by appropriating fundamental, universal principles of design (harmony, balance, rhythm) and creating representational sites of signification for both beauty and necessity. For Bragdon, schematic techniques developed from regulating lines of linear grid units, elementary figures of geometry and the human figure, parallel diagonals and musical ratios, the logarithmic spiral, platonic solids, hypersolids and magic squares, raised architecture from “mere scene-designing” to the level of art. This thesis explores the importance of Bragdon's final book of architectural theory, The Frozen Fountain, Being Essays on Architecture and the Art of Design in Space, which has received scant attention by architects since its publication in 1932. I demonstrate the relationships inherent in imagery and quests, the importance of the art of books and posters, the influence of orientalism and mathematics in the early 1900's, Bragdon's preference of point-of-view, and his belief in the first principles shared by all designers. Bragdon offered The Frozen Fountain as part manual and part missal of fundamental, universal truths for architects in a secular age. Although similar approaches to ordering and signification were used and described by architects such as Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Louis Sullivan, it was Bragdon's reputation as a Theosophist and his advocacy of a four-dimensional theory of ornament, that doomed this project to neglect. Bragdon's final architectural work provides an unusual view of the quest to navigate the traditional divide of technique and symbol.

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Recommended Citation

Nixon, Mary, "Technically symbolic: The significance of schema and Claude Bragdon's Sinbad drawings in “The Frozen Fountain”" (2005). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3179781.