Theosophy and the Society in the Public Eye

Theosophy and Architecture: K. P. C. de Bazel’s Dutch Trading Company Building in Amsterdam (Reprint from January 2011)

Marty Th. Bax – The Netherlands  

[This essay was first published in Masonic and Esoteric Heritage: New Perspectives for Art and Heritage Policies. Proceedings of the First International Conference of the OVN, Foundation for the Advancement of Academic Research into the History of Freemasonry in the Netherlands, October 20-21, 2005. Ed. A. Kroon, M. Bax, J. Snoek. The Hague, Netherlands: OVN Foundation, 2005. It is reproduced here in a revised form.]

Theosophy and Architecture (part 1)

Introduction

The building of the Nederlandsche Handel-Maatschappij (Dutch Trade Company) (1919-1926) is a long-time favourite of mine. When I started my PhD research on Theosophy and Art in the Netherlands in 1987, I came across this building in the literature on Karel de Bazel (1869-1923, a Theosophical architect and designer whose most famous work is the subject of this article). I was struck by the peculiarity of it, not only by itself but also with the vision and total work of the architect. It is curiously un-Western in appearance, a pleasure to the eye because of its fine sculpturing, but monolithic in appearance and emphatically turned inward. I was sure from the start that there was more to this building than the literature suggested.

Through the years I have closely followed the building’s repeated changes of owner and function. It was owned privately over the years by a succession of banks. Hence I have always secretly feared that this remarkable and impressive Gesamtkunstwerk, or what was left of it, sooner or later would be destroyed by incapable hands or out of commercial interests. Then, in the 1990s it received the official status of national monument. At least this would provide some protection, I hoped, and it did. Interior renovation plans by the ABN AMRO bank were rejected. The building was sold to the city of Amsterdam shortly afterwards. Just a few years ago the city council decreed that the Municipal Archive, in desperate need of expansion, would be its next occupant. I was delighted. The Archive, known for its utter respect for history, would surely guarantee the preservation of this monument.

However, as there never has been a serious investigation, neither into the building’s history nor into the intentions of the architect or the commissioners, the quintessential question arose: What criteria turned this building into a cultural heritage of national importance? Should that question not be investigated before any plans for renovation were made?

The prime responsibility for such research would lie with the cultural heritage organization (Monumentenzorg), as after all this was the organization that declared the building a monument. That organization should therefore be able to produce clear-cut criteria. In the formulation of these, had they considered that De Bazel was a convinced Theosophist and a Freemason, and hence that his architecture could have been influenced by his esoteric convictions?

Conversations with the Municipal Archive and Monumentenzorg revealed that expertise on the possible esoteric symbolism of the building, or even knowledge of the building’s full history itself, was not available internally. However, neither of them was prepared to finance external preliminary research.

The Archive, in its turn, decided to preserve as much of the original building as possible, no matter what. It would undo most of the renovations the ABN bank undertook in the
1970s and would try to restore the original ambience of the building as far as possible.
After much discussion with an advisory board, last year (2004) the remaining furniture of the original interior was sold by the ABN AMRO for the symbolic amount of one Euro to the City of Amsterdam. At the moment of writing this paper two aspects of the building are being discussed between the City and the Heritage Organization (Monumentenzorg): the pattern of the floor on ground level, which is the central hall of the building, and the ‘opening up’ of the façade on the street level. Two former shops are supposed to make place for ‘eyes’ that should symbolize ‘the eyes of Amsterdam’. Right now the Archive has proposed to clear out the façade, but to make this adaptation reversible. That is to say: to dismantle the areas involved stone by stone, but to store them, in case they have to be reinstalled in the future.

The Archive, therefore, proved to be a perfect example of the aim of the current OVN congress. (The Dutch abbreviation ”OVN” stands for three Dutch words meaning ” Research Freemasonry Netherlands ” and is a short form for the Dutch name of the Foundation for the Advancement of Academic Research into the History of Freemasonry in the Netherlands.) The OVN wants to raise awareness about esoteric elements in art and architecture with owners and cultural heritage organizations. Even if these elements are not valued as such right now, great care should be taken in conservation and restoration to avoid destroying these elements thoughtlessly. The OVN wants to provide new criteria for research and plead for saving what is left of the past in order to create a fuller picture of our cultural history for future generations.

The gap De Bazel left behind

When the building of the Dutch Trade Company was well underway, the architect died suddenly, in 1923. The Dutch Trade Company thus became De Bazel’s last creation. In published sources the building is discussed marginally. It is as if researchers became tired and thought: ‘now a quick analysis of this last piece and that’s that’. This, however, fails to do justice to the uniqueness of the building, both within De Bazel’s oeuvre and within the architecture of his time. That is why I want to focus on this building, especially on the esoteric symbolism [evident in its architecture], something which is omitted in the literature altogether. I will thus try to fill the gap De Bazel left behind.

It should be stated here that my explanation of the possible Theosophical symbolism of the building is based partly on existing literature, partly on circumstantial evidence and partly on hypothesis, as the actual research on the building is yet to take place. My hypothesis is based on my long-time experience as a researcher into the way a Theosophical artist views life on earth and expresses this through art. This way of thinking does not create a direct line from A to B. As we shall see it will have turns and hooks but that does not mean it is less coherent than a traditional Western, non-esoteric architectural theory.

Background

Until his commission for the Dutch Trading Company De Bazel’s architecture was characterized by a very strict use of systems and measures, a flat perception of the façade, and a detailed and very refined use of materials within the building and on the outside. All these elements combined identify his architecture as clearly ‘De Bazel’. In his time there was no architect who could rival him in these respects.


Fig. 1. The two sketches of the Dutch Trading Company, 1917-1919, from Reinink, 1993.

The remarkable ‘De Bazel-style’ can still be seen in his first design of the Dutch Trading Company of 1917-18 (fig. 1). This design, however, was rejected by the Board of Directors. It is said that they wanted more floors for future expansion. But the second design of 1919, which incorporates the necessary extra floors, does not differ in this practical aspect alone. It also differs aesthetically. In the first design the façade was flat, severe, serene and classical; superficially it resembled the seventeenth century palace on Dam Square by Jacob van Campen. Its seventeenth-century outlook would have fitted nicely into the atmosphere of the buildings along the canals in the immediate surroundings. The second design is the opposite of the first in many respects: it is capricious, obtrusive and basically Eastern. It is a combination of Assyrian architecture and a Hindu temple.  The overall result is a kind of an ape rock, much too plump and high compared to the rest of the façades in the street at that time.

I don’t want to elaborate on how De Bazel acquired his commission for the building. It is enough to say that De Bazel was appointed as the supervisor of the reconstruction of the Vijzelstraat in 1916 at the same time as the Dutch Trading Company sought a new facility near its headquarters on the Herengracht and found it on the same street. The Directors thought up a cunning plan: De Bazel could just as easily become their architect as well.
The municipality regarded this as a conflict of interest, and therefore decreed that De Bazel could redesign the street save for the area owned by the Dutch Trading Company. Thus De Bazel got a separate commission for the new building.

It should be mentioned here that De Bazel did not become the sole architect. The construction architects were the Van Gendt brothers, supervised by an engineer from the Company itself, J.J.J. de Bruijn, Director of Building Affairs. The Van Gendt brothers had just finished their project of the Scheepvaarthuis (House of Navigation) on the Prins Hendrikkade. The building’s exterior was designed by Piet Kramer and Melchior van der Meij, who were appointed as its aesthetic architects. In the same way De Bazel was appointed as the aesthetic architect of the Dutch Trading Company.

When De Bazel made his first designs for the Dutch Trading Company he was no longer at the apex of his fame, even though he was still much revered. At the end of the nineteenth century he had, together with his best friend Mathieu Lauweriks, developed a new method of architectural designing based on the strict use of geometrical systems.


Within the frame of the Theosophical Society, of which both had become members in 1894, they founded a special course in Theosophical design based on triangles, squares and circles, called the Vahâna course.

By 1918, this method had become obsolete. It was criticized by the younger generation of architects who became known as the Amsterdam School architects, among whom were Piet Kramer, Johan van der Meij and Jan Gratama. Gratama described De Bazel’s oeuvre as ‘finely tuned and civilized’ (in Dutch:‘fijn-beschaafd’), but ‘not bright [in the double sense of ‘witty’and ‘spiritual’] and not titillating’ (in Dutch: niet geestig, niet tintelend’). They strived for a more dynamic perception of the façade, for ‘emotional beauty’ (in Dutch: ‘bewogen schoonheid’) in the words of Gratama. Instead of strict geometry they wanted to use organic structural forms.

It looks as if De Bazel was well aware of his decline of fame and sought to bridge the gap between himself and the younger generation, the architects of the future. This might explain the sudden and essential changes in the consecutive designs for the Dutch Trading Company. Although there is still much research to be done on the way De Bazel acquired his commission and on the possible influence of the Directors of the Company on the design, it seems that the Directors gave De Bazel a free hand in his design. On the other hand, the relationship between the two parties seems to have been tense to say the least, so that the Directors and the Architect were not on personal speaking terms and mainly conversed through the engineer De Bruijn.

The sudden and radical change in design principles poses the seminal question: as the oeuvre of De Bazel shows no real precedents, what or who would have been his source of inspiration for this radically different piece of architecture?

Sources of inspiration

An architect who greatly influenced the Amsterdam School architecture was none other than De Bazel’s former friend and colleague Mathieu Lauweriks. In 1916 Lauweriks had just returned from a prolonged stay in Germany. From 1904 he had worked as a teacher at the design school in Düsseldorf, and from 1909 we was appointed head of a workshop for arts and crafts in Hagen, founded by the Maecenas (or generous benefactor) Karl Ernst Osthaus. During his German years, Lauweriks not only became an influential theoretician in Germany but also an architect. He designed and built several houses, and dictated the design within and without, thus realizing true Gesamtkunstwerke. Lauweriks also developed new, more organic design systems. Of utmost importance was his concept of the angular, meandering line. In his designs of that time this line pervades all forms of spatial design, from interior decorations to façades to gardens.

Lauweriks, who regularly visited Amsterdam during his stay abroad, stayed in contact with his former colleagues of the Genootschap Architectura et Amicitia (Society [of] Architecture and Friendship) and thus influenced the younger generation of the Amsterdam School. When he returned to Amsterdam in 1916, he became Director of the Quellinus Design School. The meandering line taught by him at this school became the new design principle for a whole new generation. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the Quellinus School became the most important source of Art Deco design in the Netherlands.

Lauweriks’s building adventure in Germany did not see a continuation in Holland, however. If it had so, his buildings would have been among the few of purely Theosophical nature in this country. There are a few other (known) Theosophical buildings in the Netherlands, but they differ quintessentially from the Dutch Trading Company, because they are emphatically functionalist. To these buildings belong the Van Nelle factory in Rotterdam and several private houses for the directors of the factory in the same city, and the new headquarters of the Dutch Theosophical Society in Amsterdam.

As far as discernible De Bazel gave no written account of his aesthetic views on the Dutch Trading Company before his death. This leaves only one option for a more thorough analysis of the building: to draw a parallel with the design principles of the only architect who had the same far-reaching Theosophical convictions as De Bazel: Lauweriks. It so happens that Lauweriks left one unique document, which I found among archival material at the headquarters of the Dutch Theosophical Society. In 1904, while preparing for his future profession as a teacher of architectural design in Germany, Lauweriks made a sketch of a ‘Theosophical building’ as a kind of finger exercise and jotted it down in a small, nondescript notebook. It doesn’t detail  a recognizable and universal Theosophical iconography for design, but from it one can infer the way in which a Theosophical architect would be motivated to design when taking the Theosophical worldview and train of thought as his starting point. Close examination of this complex design system of Lauweriks reveals that most of the elements return in the building of the Dutch Trading Company of De Bazel in an almost literal sense.

It would seem that I am implying by this that De Bazel simply ‘stole’ Lauweriks’ new design principles and applied them to the Dutch Trading Company. I would not go that far, but the parallels between the Theosophical thinking and designing of Lauweriks and De Bazel are very close indeed. However, as artists, former companions and as committed Theosophists they would have worked from the same basis. It is also possible that after Lauweriks had returned to Amsterdam, they might have discussed De Bazel’s new commission and the possible architectural solutions. We do not know, until further research has been done.


A Theosophical interpretation of the Dutch Trading Company


Fig. 2. A page from M. Lauweriks, design for a “Theosophical building,” 1904.

Completely in line with modern Theosophy, Lauweriks’ design is a combination of Eastern and Western design principles (fig. 2). The justification of the design is closely modelled on Sanskrit texts: it has forty slokas (stanzas in Sanskrit holy books). Lauweriks used mostly Sanskrit sources – he knew Sanskrit fluently – to justify his choice for the leading design principle, which is Kundalini-shakti, which is the cosmic power inherent to all matter.
In human beings, kundalini is symbolically expressed as a snake that rests in the hollow of the tailbone of the spine and that can be activated by chanting certain slokas during yoga meditation. It then unfolds and travels up the spine, activating chakras along the way, thus producing different stages of cosmic energy and consciousness. It is also represented by the caduceus, a rod with wings, on either side of which two snakes entwine upwards. Westerners know the caduceus mainly as a medical symbol.

Kundalini is expressed by the line. Sloka 9 in Lauweriks’s architectural design reads: ‘The principle of geometry is the line, a distance. Transferred to geometry Kundalini can thus be symbolized by the line’. In slokas 10 and 11 he continues:

“In architecture this line is represented by the perpendicular and the water-level, by columns and beams, by the bands and divisions of the floors and in different ways in the decorations. The floor, for instance, can be decorated with meanders or bands or motifs that are intertwined”.

In Eastern -- and especially in the Hindu and Buddhist -- architecture the line as a structural, form-giving element is of extreme importance. A world-famous example, which was cherished by Dutch Theosophists because it stood on colonial lands in the Dutch East-Indies, is the Buddhist temple Borobudur in Java. Both the ground plan and the elevation of the temple are determined by the meandering line, which has its parallel in meditation diagrams.
 


Fig. 3. The floor and ceiling decoration in the basement of the Dutch Trading Company building, from ABN AMRO, 1994.

The line is in many respects a predominant feature in De Bazel’s design of the Dutch Trading Company (fig. 3). The interior, which is very severe, and clear-cut in character, almost like a whitewashed cloister, has its counterpart in the capriciousness of the walls of the entrance and the floors of the former public part of the main hall on the ground floor. In the entrance the use of Kundalini is evident: the walls are a vibrating mass of lines, intersecting each other cross-wise but forming geometrical patterns that create an optical depth within the pattern itself. There are sections in the building where lines are less geometrically designed, such as on the ceiling in the basement. But I suspect these are additions made after De Bazel’s death by his office workers. The ceilings look more like the new Art Deco decorations with their seemingly organic, irregular patterns.

To be continued

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