Theosophy and Architecture: K. P. C. de Bazel’s Dutch Trading Company Building in Amsterdam
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 2)
On the exterior, lines are expressed in a subtler form, but before I elaborate on this, I first want to discuss the overall design. The building rests on a foundation of coarsely cut, greyish-green stone, called syenite (a granite-like igneous stone) from Hessen, Germany. De Bazel became acquainted with this type of stone through Lauweriks in 1912, when he visited his friend Lauweriks at his inauguration as the new head of the German section of the Theosophical Society. (Lauweriks thus was successor to Rudolf Steiner, who had just withdrawn to found his Anthroposophical Society.) This dark foundation of syenite can Theosophically be explained as ‘dense matter’. To the Theosophist this is the first and ‘lowest’ of the three main stages of cosmic evolution. It is chaos, the pre-mineral, undifferentiated cosmic state of matter from which all forms emerge.
Optically the foundation forms a solid, immovable block of granite although, apart from the entrance, two small shops penetrate the façade. These shops were not De Bazel’s idea, by the way. They were forced upon him by both the directors and the municipality. The directors wanted to have small cashier shops and the municipality thought the façade would appear more inviting to the public passing by. But they never served the purpose in the end. These are the parts of the façade which are now under much dispute between the City of Amsterdam and the Cultural Heritage Office.
Above the dark base the building rises to the sky in severe, concrete structures, designed by the engineers Van Gendt. This structure is hidden from sight and is literally cloaked in a wand of two kinds of stone: purplish Beucha granite and yellowish bricks. They alternate in bands and skip place, sometimes twirl into a knot and un-twirl again (fig. 4). This section of the building can be interpreted in Theosophical terms as the second main phase of evolution: ‘fine or differentiated matter’. This is the stage in which the cosmic primeval matter has developed into form. The Theosophical term for this stage in evolution is Mâya, which means ‘illusion’ or ‘sensory deception’. Materialized form stimulates the senses, but it also veils the insight into the spiritual essence of matter.
Fig. 4. The façade of the Dutch Trading Company building, photo by the author
This rumpling garment is unique in the architecture of the Netherlands and it contains many meanings, both eastern and western. The idea of a wand enfolding a building stems from the western architectural theory of the nineteenth-century German architect Gottfried Semper. Semper discerned several archetypes of art. One of them was textile art. Weaving threads produces textile, and hence it produces wall coverings, and therefore, Semper stated, textile art formed the archetype of architecture.
Exactly this archetypal aspect of weaving and covering is featured explicitly in Lauweriks’s design of 1904. In sloka 20 he writes: ‘With threads and fibres one weaves a garment, thus the line becomes a plane, a protecting cover. Also Maya and in sloka 25: ‘And when painted the colours gold and purple will be preferred. A purple effect can also be attained in other ways’. This is exactly what De Bazel did in the elevation of the building. Purple and yellow bricks are interwoven and give the impression of a textile garment.
Lauweriks said that purple and yellow should be preferred. To a Theosophist they have special connotations and specific meanings. Gold is equal to yellow, which is the colour of the sun, the male cosmic power. Violet is the colour of the moon, the female cosmic power. By combining the two forces, cosmic harmony can be obtained. Thus, De Bazel has symbolized the synthesis of cosmic creation, rising out of chaos, in the exterior of the building. It is the concrete visualization of one of the most important stanzas on which H.P. Blavatsky’s major work, The Secret Doctrine is based. Stanza 3, verse 10, reads: ‘Father-Mother spin a web whose upper end is fastened to Spirit (Purusha) – the light of the one Darkness – and the lower one to Matter (Prakriti) its (the Spirit’s) shadowy end; and this web is the Universe spun out of two substances made in one, which is Svabhavat [the essential nature of the universe]’.
The overall division of the building is another point worthy of attention. Of course the overall structure was determined by its function and by aspects of its engineering. But De Bazel cunningly used some of these aspects to imbue them with meaning; for instance in the distance between the columns and in the rhythm of the elevation.
The division of the building and the façade are based on the number 5. This is readily discernable from the street. The number 5 has many esoteric meanings. Again the design by Lauweriks from 1904 proves instructive. In slokas 26 through 29 he writes: ‘As geometric form the regular 20-plane should be the leading motif. […] The regular 20-plane [is] the symbol of astral light’. The astral light in Theosophy is the source of all creation. ‘Another characteristic of the 20-plane is the pentagon, 20=4 x 5, and then the system would be based on the triangle from the pentagon.’ Lauweriks then continues cryptically, but essentially refers to the cosmic energy within a human being: ‘Sloka] 30. The number 5 is connected to kundalini.’ Lauweriks then adds: ‘[The number 5 is connected] To the 5th and 10[th] sign of the zodiac, simham and makaram.’ Simha(m) is the astrological sign Leo and represents the male force of creation, and it is the symbol of man. Makara(m) is the astrological sign of Capricorn and is represented by the pentagon.
Finally I want to examine the glass roof above the two central courts, the main halls on the ground floor. In the first design for the building the central courts were to be crowned by a pointed, triangular roof rising above the building. Because the Board of Directors demanded more stories, the view on the roof from the street disappeared. But it is still there (fig.5).
Fig. 5. The glass roof under construction in the 1920s, from ABN AMRO, 1994
As De Bazel designed it, through the glass roof daylight was to reach the ground floor unhindered. Apart from the fact that this construction served functionally as a light source within the building, the glass roof must also have had a specific meaning, if we look at it from De Bazel’s own frame of mind. At the time of completion of the building – hence before the floors were removed during renovation in the 1970’s and thus lost forever – light struck directly upon the meandering floor, activating the intersecting and superimposed lines with energy in form and colour and, so to speak, ‘bringing them to life’.
This remarkable element, taken from religious architecture, cannot but symbolize how Light – astral light, in the cosmic sense – brings life to matter. Theosophists believe that astral light shoots itself downwards into inert matter and thus imbues it with the spark of life. Astral light thus charges matter with energy and forces it to develop. The roof therefore symbolizes the highest plane of evolution, Spirit.
By thus combining and analyzing basic Theosophical ideas, it seems very plausible that the elevation of the Dutch Trading Company building represents the three main planes of evolution in Theosophical thought: chaos, fine matter and the immaterial. More research is necessary to discover how De Bazel translated Theosophical ideas into form, colour and the use of materials in this design.
ABN AMRO. De Bazel en de Bank: Architect K. P. C. de Bazel en het hoofdkantoor van de Nederlandsche Handel-Maatschappij. Amsterdam: ABN AMRO Historisch Archief, 1994.
Bax, Marty. “De geheime leer van Lauweriks: Een architectuurontwerp uit 1904.” Jong Holland 6.1 (1990): 22-34.
Bax, Marty. Het Web der Schepping: Theosofie en kunst in Nederland van Lauweriks tot Mondriaan. Amsterdam: SUN Publishers, 2006.
Maszsystem und Raumkunst. Das Werk des Architekten Pädagogen und Raumgestalters J .L. M. Lauweriks (exhibition catalog). Krefeld, Germany: Kaiser Wilhem Museum; Hagen, Germany: Karl Ernst Osthaus Museum; Rotterdam: Museum Boymans van Beuningen, 1987-1988.
Reinink, Wessel. K. P. C. de Bazel Architect. Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 1993. Originally published Leiden, 1965.