Cities made of rocks, palaces of crystal and towers of minerals designed by the Expressionist Glass Chain group are famous, but were not the only design concepts that informed the world of “crystalline” architecture. Whilst the term “crystalline” is not strictly codified, it is not widely accepted and used by architectural historians; it relates to many different topics. In summary, it can be said that “crystalline” architecture is an independent architectural phenomenon, a creative relay race of hundreds of years or even millennia.
The essence of crystalline architecture is the Crystal metaphor; its mythology is the mystics of light and energy. It consists of diagonals, visible frames, polyhedrons and triangles. Its materials are not only glass but also stone and concrete, and its faceted morphology is more important than its material.
The Crystal metaphor derived from antiquity and the early Middle Ages, the era of mythological and religious para-architectural texts. Rosemarie Haag Bletter points to the Solomonic’ and Alhambra’ legends as sources of inspiration for German Expressionists. She cites Abu Mansur: “The aerial city is erected by the genii at the order of Solomon, who bids them build him a city or palace of crystal a hundred thousand fathoms in extent and a thousand storeys high, of solid foundations but with a dome airy and lighter than water; the whole to be transparent so that the light of the sun and the moon may penetrate its walls.” A similar theme is evident in the early kabbahlist literature of Hekhalot (“palaces” is one meaning of the word), or in St. John’s vision of New Jerusalem, with walls that were “garnished with all manner of precious stones. The first foundation was jasper; the second, sapphire; the third, a chalcedony; the fourth, an emerald; The fifth, sardonyx; the sixth, sardius; the seventh, chrysolite; the eighth, beryl; the ninth, a topaz; the tenth, a chrysoprasus; the eleventh, a jacinth; the twelfth, an amethyst. And the twelve gates were twelve pearls; every several gate was of one pearl: and the street of the city was pure gold, as it were transparent glass” (Revelation zI:18-z2).
Antiquity is known as the second thread of Crystal architecture: “sacred geometry” of the triangle, Platonic and Archimedean solids, golden ratio and numerology. Renaissance images of regular polyhedrons, such as rhombicuboctahedra made of glass from The Portrait of Luca Pacioli, or those drawn by Leonardo. These are often thought of as the first illustrations of skeletonic solids, inspirate cubist and structuralist architecture up to the present day. Kepler’ platonic solids illustrate God’s geometrical plan for the universe in his Mysterium Cosmographicum.
Over time, the crystalline narrative has become increasingly saturated with esoteric meanings. The legends of the Holy Grail, alchemy, Kabbalah, and the texts of the Freemasons and Rosicrucians assert mystical formulas related to the links between crystals, geometry, light and Higher Powers.
The esoteric component be especially important towards the age of Romanticism. Texts by Novalis and Goethe are full of mystical symbolism of mountains and gems. Both writers were professionally engaged in mineralogy: Novalis studied at the Mining Academy in Freiburg, and Goethe was interested in mineralogy ever since his student days. For Goethe, crystals, precious stones and metals are motifs of wisdom and divine miracles. In the story “Das Märchen” (The Fairytale) Goethe describes a snake that crosses the river as a crystalline “building”, and crystalline cliffs with golden statues, which rise out of the river as a temple. Similarly to Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister story, alchemical metaphors of transmutation refer to a path to perfection for Heinrich von Ofterdingen by Novalis. On his journey, Heinrich hears about “the palace, consisting of metal plants and crystal trees, hung with varied jewel-blossoms and fruits. The manifold and delicate shapes, the lively lights and colors, all of which contribute to the great spectacle, were made even more magnificent by the lofty fountain, frozen in the midst of the garden.” The “Frozen Fountain” is the title of a book by Claude Bragdon, a theosophist who invented the neo-Gothic architectural ornament based on Platonic solids, magic squares and hyper-cube, or tesseract. The book was held in high regard, such as by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1932.
The most striking period for crystalline architecture occurred during the XIXth century and the beginning of the XXth, when crystalline imagery began to develop at speed. Theosophical concepts were combined with scientific discoveries in crystallography, mineralogy, physics, as well as with new glass technologies:
– New England Unitarianism and the Transcendentalism of the 1830s by American R.W. Emerson, endow Nature with Primary Spiritual Strength;
– The Theosophical Society of Helena Blavatsky, founded in 1875 in New York, and Anthroposophy of the Austrian Rudolf Steiner of the early 20th century spread throughout the world with the aim of “comprehending the secret laws of Nature”;
– The Fourth Dimension and Hypercube principle by Charles Hinton, Röntgen’s X-rays, and Einstein’s theory of relativity were fully and creatively adopted by metaphysics as “scientific evidence” for the mystical forces that rule matter.
These ideas, interpreted by artists of the time, flourished along with the aestheticization of crystals and minerals, as well as novel designs based on polygonal stereometry, numerology and a new esoteric ornament.
From then on, a form of “Crystal architecture” rooted in reality was recognisable internationally. It was met in the oeuvre of J. L. M. Lauweriks and K. P. C. de Bazel, H. P. Berlage, Peter Behrens, Gerrit Rietveld, Theo van Doesburg, Josef Hoffmann, Wenzel Hablik, Czech Cubist’ and Bauhaus architects, and others including F. L. Wright, Buckminster Fuller, Louis Kahn.
The work of these artists and architects expressed an abstract architectural iconography: not simply a kaleidoscope of events, but a saturated ‘substance’ in which another, non-orthogonal architecture was constantly crystallizing – an ageless and extraterritorial spatial philosophy.
This philosophy clearly influenced the zig-zag patterns of Art Deco shapes in the 1930s. It inspired many crystal-like glass and faceted, concrete edifices of the 20th century, including many renowned structuralist and brutalist structures.
Now, in the 21st century, the philosophy of crystal architecture is part of our everyday environment, having likely lost its initial metaphysical roots… Or perhaps not? We should ask the creators of crystal architecture whether they, like their predecessors, still believe that mystical geometry and crystalline forms are capable of improving the “geometry of society and would reunite the shards of social life into a composition of community, such as the spiritual fellowship?”
This article is based on Yulia Leonova’ presentation, “The ideas of “crystal” architecture and their implementation: projects by W. Hablik, F. L. Wright, B. Fuller and A.Neumann” at the international scientific conference, “Spiritual City. Fantasy and Fantasy in Architectural Creativity ”. Moscow, Apr 27, 2021
1 Bletter, Rosemarie Haag. “The interpretation of the glass dream-expressionist architecture and the history of the crystal metaphor.” The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 40, no. 1 (1981). p.23.
2 Feuß, Axel. “Wenzel Hablik (1881-1934) auf dem Weg in die Utopie: Architekturphantasien, Innenräume, Kunsthandwerk.” PhD diss., Doctoral, Universität Hamburg, 1989, p. 22
3 Tieck, Ludwig, and Friedrich von Schlegel, eds. Novalis schriften. Heinrich von Ofterdingen, Vol. 1. AF Macklot, 1826, p. 118
4 Bragdon, Claude. The Frozen Fountain: Being Essays on Architecture and the Art of Design in Space, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1932.
5 Isenstadt, Sandy. “Crystal and Arabesque. The visionary architect Claude Bragdon helped shape a thrilling moment in design history” Places Journal, 2009.