Polyhedra and the Architecture of Edward James
Edward James recalled that, as a sixteen-year-old at Eton, he had powerful fantasies of an elaborate architectural structure. He described a poem he had written based on a vision of an eight-sided, perfumed tower, arches spread at its base, set upon a rock in the Mediterranean. He would later claim that he had found the real-world site for the tower somewhere between Sicily and North Africa, declaring that the top of the structure would be filled with “treasures, of art and literature and things which gave out light”.1 This vision would persist, in different forms, throughout James’s life. Such ambitious and speculative ideas would influence not only his writings, both poetry and prose, but also the realisation of immense concrete structures—the physical manifestations of his fantasies—at ‘Las Pozas’ in the jungles of Mexico.
The image of a fantasy city had been with James since early childhood. Inspired by a painting of a walled city in his night-nursery—occasionally referred to in unpublished manuscripts under the name ‘Seclusia’—James’s dream-vision was a focus for escapist dreams, a way of leaving behind the claustrophobia of his Edwardian upbringing. In Reading into the Picture, a poetic text published in 1936 that not only made evident some of his literary influences and pretensions, but anticipated his achievements in the Mexican jungle, James acknowledged Seclusia as a “composite place, never to be located on any map or in any century”.2 At the same time James rhapsodised at length upon its manifold sources, reflecting his elite education and his youthful tours of Europe. He was able to draw up a substantial list of ‘models’ for his fantasy city—all of which were destined, for one reason or another, to fall short. He cites Rothenburg-ob-der-Tauber, a picturesque medieval town in Bavaria; he thinks back to his alma mater, the University of Oxford, via the ‘Jonah window’ at Christ Church college, designed by Abraham van Linge and depicting the city of Nineveh towering up the chapel window; the elevated city of Perugia; Orvieto, perched on a flat shelf of rock; the fortified towns of Carcassonne and Aigue Morte; Albi and Salzburg. James enthuses about the Spanish city of Toledo, his affection rooted in an idealised landscape by El Greco.3 As well as real places visited and remembered, James also appeals to the generic Renaissance City of Paradise, even fantasies like Shangri-la and Xanadu. He would make specific reference to the Palace of Aladdin, both in Reading into the Picture and a 1978 interview conducted in the jungle, where James himself recalls the importance of the Genie being instructed to leave the palace unfinished.
James’s travels, often necessitated by his avoidance of the tax authorities, are chaotically documented in his correspondence. Thousands of unsent or copied letters and picture postcards, covered in his polychromatic writing, confirm that, as he toured the world he was documenting all manner of architectural inspirations and design features that could be incorporated into his own composite structures slowly blossoming in the jungle. His archive contains an undated postcard of the Château de Pierrefonds in Compiègne, Northern France, which was for an extended period of time a romantic ruin; a postcard from Antigua, Guatemala, ostensibly picturing the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, yet the decorative stone balcony of San Jose Cathedral seen in the foreground may be what James is capturing; the Spanish pueblo of Os de Civis, settled in the crux of hills in the Catalonian mountains, near the border with Andorra, is remembered—its roofs stacked on the incline as if arranged by a trick of anamorphic perspective.4
The composite nature of Las Pozas also indicates the influence of the capriccios or architectural fantasies of Hubert Robert, Claude Lorrain or Giovanni Piranesi, the kind of picturesque ruins installed at Potsdam and Versailles. Motifs were lifted from Grecian, Gothic and Oriental traditions, from Baroque to Rococo, from Pre-Columbian temples to Chinese pavilions. Even though James was untrained as an architect, he had much experience of overseeing ambitious projects of both exterior and interior design. He had already transformed Monkton House, a hunting lodge on the West Dean estate, turning Edward Lutyen’s original design into a Surrealist extravaganza.5
In an undated letter held in the archive at West Dean College, James describes a tower he is building “above and around the original bamboo huts” that he and Plutarco Gastelum had established at Las Pozas as early as 1947.6 The letter—one of many fragments that give a running commentary on the progress of Las Pozas until James’s death in 1984—acknowledges an impulse to “compete” with Plutarco after his friend had built a palatial house in the nearby town of Xilitla. James describes his burgeoning tower as being a stylistic mixture “between Giacometti and le Palais du Facteur Cheval”. The ‘ideal’ palace of Ferdinand Cheval, built between 1879 and 1912, is an obvious and acknowledged influence on James, as much as it was a source of fascination for André Breton and the Surrealists. The reference to Giacometti is perhaps less expected and it is unclear as to whether the influence might come from the artist’s drawings, in which sinewy pencil lines carve out three-dimensional space; his elongated figures or, perhaps most likely, his ‘model’ works, such as Project for a Passageway (1930) and The Palace at 4am (1932). James goes on to describe his tower as having Minoan style columns at the base, followed by a second storey with Doric pillars, citing direct inspiration from the archaeological excavations at Knossos and the Teonanacatl mushroom, a powerful hallucinogen said to used by Aztec civilisations, about whose effects James would write for the Mexican avant-garde magazine, S.NOB, in 1962.7
It is clear that James had grand and specific plans for his tower. He envisaged the structure reaching eight storeys in height, topped with an enormous transparent ‘aviary’ in the form of a dodecahedron, which would house live trees and rotate such that different light effects would be produced by its facets.8 This idea had developed, it seems, alongside a series of poems on a similar subject, many with the title ‘Dodecahedron’. Again this emphasises how James’s architectural experiments were constantly fed by his writings and vice versa. James’s letter specifies that the dodecahedron he has in mind comes directly from Leonardo da Vinci’s illustrations from Luca Pacioli’s early 16th century treatise on mathematics and geometry, Divina Proportione [The Divine Proportion], his own copy being a Spanish translation from the Venetian edition of 1509.9 He notes that da Vinci’s illustrations treat the dodecahedron form as both solid body and an open-sided figure—the latter being considered by James more beautiful—before going on to discuss how that basic ‘cage’ could be constructed with reinforced ribs (or arrets) made from aluminium girders, essentially resulting in what he calls a “glorious super-lantern”.10 The “variously inclined” faces of the Euclidian structure would then be filled with transparent material, for which purpose he nominates—in a manner that, together with his use of reinforced concrete, seems to echo the radical material innovations of Modernist architecture—the use of sheet plastic.
Pacioli, a pupil of Piero della Francesca, devoted much of his treatise to the Platonic solids, relating them to the golden ratio. The regular polyhedra—i.e. solids made from bounded polygonal shapes—are discussed in Plato’s Timaeus, where four are associated with the elements: cube (earth), tetrahedron (fire), octahedron (air), icosahedron (water). The dodecahedron, the fifth solid, is invoked as the container of all others, variously described by later interpreters as the ether, heaven or the cosmos. That the twelve faces of the dodecahedron—notably pentagons—align with the symbolism of the zodiac may support Plato’s assertion that the constellations are inscribed upon it.11 The dodecahedron was known in earlier cultures and may more broadly represent an idealised form of thought or will, as well as being the essence by which the four elements are brought into being. Pacioli certainly equates the dodecahedron with creative force and celestial virtue, identifying the Creation with the cosmogony of the Timeaus. It is unclear as to whether James’s intentions for his inclusion of the dodecahedron were as lofty, especially considering that it was one component in a large and complex architectural (and literary) project, which would not only remain continually in flux, but would appeal as much to the earthly as the ideal.12 However, no matter where his longstanding aesthetic preferences were, James was ambitiously ambivalent about his own project, declaring that his tower would be neither Regency nor Renaissance because it was still developing, both in his mind and on the ground: “to wit,” he says, “the Dodecahedron is still to come.”13 James’s eccentric approach to architecture (and much else besides) is summed up when he mischievously adds: “I have actually begun building my tower by starting with the top storeys and working downwards”, explaining that it is the “childlike cooperation” of the Huastecan Indian builders, combined with the power of conversing in “la lengua Nahuatl”, that permits such triumphs of illogic.14
The presence of the dodecahedron opens up many other points of references. Given James’s long-standing relationship with the artist, it is difficult to ignore its prominent appearance in Salvador Dalí’s The Sacrament of the Last Supper (1955), in which Christ and his apostles dine in a semi-transparent space roofed by a spectral dodecahedron (which seems to owe as much to Buckminster Fuller as it does to Plato’s sacred geometries). It cannot be discounted that some kind of connection remained between ‘artist’ and ‘patron’, especially when those designations and their overlaps are still a matter of some conjecture. Many of Dali’s influences would have been known to James—such as Gaudí, Lull, Meissonier and, of course, da Vinci—and it would be worth speculating as to who had the greater influence on the other. Dalí’s interest in Paciloi’s treatise is pleasingly confirmed in footage from the 1970 film, A Soft Portrait of Salvador Dalí, where da Vinci’s framework dodecahedron can be seen on the wall of the artist’s studio. A solid version also appears on the artist’s head throughout the film, having been fashioned into a kind of skullcap: Dalí once again putting his head into the cosmos.15
Although James clarifies that his poem, ‘Dodecahedron’, situates itself by the sea in a location that is “quite imaginary”, he immediately links it with specific places on the Pacific Coast of Mexico, naming both Puerto Vallarta and Barro de Navidad, near the city of Manzanillo. This setting links to a related poem, ‘El Torreon del Espiritu Santo at Cape Dodecahedron’, which formed the basis for a gouache illustration by the Mexican artist-architect Pedro Friedeberg. Produced in 1962, the illustration was admired by James yet he was reluctant to endorse or purchase it, claiming that he did not see any connection between his friend’s version of the so-called ‘House for Señor Edward James’ in two-point perspective and his own vision for the structure. Rather than this “pseudo-Gaudí [...] Art Nouveau”, James envisioned his tower more in terms of the early Renaissance, citing the Palace at Piena built by Pope Pio II in the early 16th century. Its higher storeys, he added, would be as “chaste as the tower at Pisa”.16 Yet contrary to the claim that he did not commission or encourage Freideberg’s work, James certainly had shown him Pacioli’s treatise, as well as photographs of a model built by artist José Horna some years earlier, of a Palladian-style house adapted from James’s original sketches. In any case, Friedeberg renders the dodecahedron atop the tower, notably fed by a double-helix staircase, a feature which itself appears in sketches found on drafts of James’s poem.
Given his fascination with Pacioli’s treatise, it is tempting to imagine James’s interest in Renaissance codexes, mathematical geometry and perspective in relation to other texts he may also have been familiar with. It is certain that James knew Francesco Colonna’s romance, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (also known as ‘The Strife of Love in a Dream’), first published in Venice in 1499, which he would compare stylistically to Hebdomeros, the novel written by proto-surrealist Giorgio di Chirico in 1929.17 Colonna’s elaborate, illustrated allegory features the endlessly fascinated, and quite Edward James-like, Poliphilo, who pursues his lover through a dreamlike landscape, obsessing over countless details, architectural features and so on. The text employs the kind of stylistic acrobatics that James would use throughout his publishing career: Colonna confidently throws together Latin, Greek and Italian texts, Arabic and Hebrew citations appear in woodcut illustrations, as well as inserts of invented language and dubious hieroglyphs. Hypnerotomachia Poliphili also includes varieties of idiosyncratic typographical layout that would occur in many of James’s own literary experiments, many lavishly published through his own imprint, The James Press.
Perhaps an even more compelling example, this time of a perspectival treatise produced in 16th century Germany, seems to have an uncanny relationship with what James was attempting at Las Pozas: a combination of idealised form with the unruly, ultimately entropic fecundity of nature. Lorenz Stoer’s Geometria et Perspectiva, published in 1567, is less a practical handbook for mathematicians or artists concerned with the workings of geometrical perspective than an album of sophisticated demonstration figures. Consisting of a title page and eleven woodcuts—with no text—Stoer’s illustrations present a variety of precisely rendered stereometric solids. Heavily influenced by Leon Battista Alberti’s De Pictura (‘On Painting’) (1435) and suffused with Albrecht Dürer’s facility with geometric representation, Stoer’s concern, like James’s, emphasises questions of beholder and subject, vista and spectacle, public and private space. Yet what additionally indicates a connection to Las Pozas is the fact that Stoer’s solids are presented in the peculiar context of a ruinous landscape, with largely uninhabited scenes crowded with half-formed buildings. Regular and complex polyhedra are posed on platforms, surrounded with arches, columns, obelisks and staircases, the scenes often edged with decorative trellises and scroll work. By setting his visual exercises in such a “dreamlike thicket of solid volutes, brackets, and frames”, with ruins “tufted with grass”, Stoer’s elaborate displays of technical virtuosity take on fantastical, even surreal, characteristics.19 Many of the designs also incorporate classical stage props such as trophies, armour, weapons and vases—these not only echo the ornaments that feature throughout James’s writings (including their illustration) but also echo his involvement with Les Ballets 1933, a season of celebrated performances in Paris and London. The set designs and stagings he commissioned may have had a lasting influence on his own creative aesthetic.
There are other examples of James’s interest in and appeal to polyhedra. In the archive at West Dean a series of designs exist for an elaborate, transparent cover for a swimming pool at Monkton House, the former hunting lodge that James had transformed, both inside and out, since the 1930s. Although John Warren, the architect commissioned to draw up the designs for the pool cover in the 1970s and 1980s, suggests that the main inspiration came from Victorian blancmange moulds hanging in the pantry at Monkton, it is not difficult to detect the presence of polyhedral structures in the various pool cover proposals. Schematics and, in some cases, scale models of these near-geodetic designs display varying degrees of complexity. The more radical concepts assume a compelling visual similarity to perspectival drawings by Wenzel Jamnitzer, the 16th century goldsmith whose variations on da Vinci’s polyhedral illustrations were collected in his 1568 treatise, Perspectiva Corporum Regularium.20 The ideas for James’s pool cover would gradually lessen in ambition as time went on, no doubt tempered by prohibitive costs and the demands of planning permission. None would ever be realised. Yet the notion of a transparent volume appears in other contexts too, again suggesting that this particular architectural dream-vision was one that would not easily fade away. Working with the architect Sir Christopher Nicholson in 1936, James conceived of an ‘Artichoke Pavilion’, a free-standing structure destined for the grounds of West Dean House. The oversized vegetable would contain a selection from James’s art collection, suspended within a transparent sphere inside the outer walls. The exterior ‘leaves’ of the pavilion were designed to slide downward, revealing the inner sphere and allowing the viewer inside the pavilion to see paintings against the backdrop of a changing landscape. Again the project remained unrealised. Yet once more the transparent sphere reappears in an even more astonishing context, this time a design for a six-storey glass sphere, which became known as the ‘Globular Gallery’. The beautiful structure was to be sited in the centre of a man-made lake on the grazing fields to the south of West Dean House. This gallery was on a more ambitious scale, proposing to house the largest collection of surrealist art in the country. Such a monumental project recalled the almost otherworldly designs of Étienne-Louis Boullée or Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, architecture of 18th century France that shifted from being radically utopian to symbolic of the ancien régime. The Globular Gallery survives only as a series of blueprints in the West Dean archive; the project, perhaps inevitably, never got off the ground. Yet a detail that can be clearly seen in the plans was indeed realised and remains in use to this day: the car park that serves West Dean College is rendered, quite specifically, in the form of a pentagon. This single face is physical trace of the dodecahedron form, forever associated with an absent sphere.
It could be argued that what is most important about all these forms—the spheres and various polyhedra—is their transparency. Could it be that part of the appeal for James was the notion that he, or indeed the animals he intended to house in these translucent volumes, would combine safety with visibility, where what is solid and what seems empty appear to coexist? Something close to this concern is developed in a passage from André Breton’s novel, Nadja, again a text with which James would have been familiar:
“I myself shall continue living in my glass house where you can always see who comes to call; where everything hanging from the ceiling and on the walls stays where it is as if by magic, where I sleep nights in a glass bed, under glass sheets, where who I am will sooner or later appear etched by a diamond.”21
Yet perhaps the most salient feature in all of James’s endeavours, whether intentional or not, is again something that is appealed to in certain types of perspectival treatise—cases in which, rather than being represented as ruins, buildings are shown to be still under construction.22 It is a subtle yet crucial distinction. It allows us to consider James’s endeavours as aspirational rather than resigned, as accepting rather than resistant; it provides us with a context in which his endlessly discursive activities—however maddening they might be when engendered in print—appear wholly appropriate to what his intentions were, in relation to what it was he was trying to build. As well as realising his latent fantasies, the concrete structures at Las Pozas also gave form to a search, to the desire to find form, which would engender both the ideal and the real, ultimately finding a point in-between wherein a sense of becoming might persist. By conceiving of bringing together idealised forms of the Platonic solids with concretised versions of the flora and fauna of his jungle paradise, James had set about his own set of Neo-Platonic meditations.
In another context, James suggested that another permutation of his vision for his tower at Las Pozas was to crown it with a vast glass pyramid—again a form discussed by Pacioli—in which da Vinci’s Gran Cavallo, the fabled equestrian sculpture and most famous unfinished artwork of the Renaissance, would be placed, revealed only at night.23 Such a dramatic image can be read not only as another homage to da Vinci, but as a gesture symbolic of so much of Edward James’s life and work—the apotheosis of that which is definitively unfinished. As much as it echoes his appeal to the Arabic proverb: ‘Never finish to build thy house’, it also betrays the ambition to capture the unattainable. Perhaps the description of Lorenz Stoer’s illustrations has it right: “although these trellises seems to be drawn correctly, it is not at all obvious that they could ever be built”.24 The structures of Las Pozas are anything but obvious.
1. Edward James, Swans Reflecting Elephants, ed. George Melly (London: Weidenfield & Nicolson, 1982), 43.
2. Edward James, Reading Into the Picture (London: Duckworth Press, 1940), xix.
3. James’s emphasis on how Toledo is encircled by a rushing river gives an indication of the importance of the nine pools and waterfalls that give Las Pozas its name. James calls El Greco’s painting of Toledo in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art the “loveliest landscape ever painted” but makes clear that the city failed as the model for his dream-vision because it lacked “surrounding woodland.” Ibid., xvi.
4. The back of the card reads: “This place is far, far away and a little magical. Please keep this postcard for me. Greetings to the children and tell them that one day I’m going to bring them all here.” [translation by author].The reference to anamorphic perspective is not accidental; James would become close friends with author Michael Schuyt in the late 1970s and would have some involvement in the 1975 exhibition ‘Anamorfosen: spel met perspectief’ [‘Anamorphoses: Games of Perspective’] at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam and subsequently at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris.
5. James also drew on his experiences of the New York World’s Fair in 1939 and his last collaborative project with Salvador Dalí. At the end of a period of sustained patronage of the artist, James was heavily involved in the development of Dalí’s ‘Dream of Venus’, a surreal pavilion installed at Flushing Meadows in Queens. The creative boundaries of the collaboration are still debated (as they are with other notable works) but James certainly served as one of the financial backers for the subversive pavilion, which involved mermaids swimming in an aquarium, outlandish costumes and sets incorporating many of the Spanish artist’s signature motifs: grand pianos, lobsters and mannequins.
6. Undated letter held in the Edward James Archives, West Dean College.
7. Edward James, ‘Cuando Cinquenta Cumpleaños’ in S.NOB, Mexico City, 1962.
8. James elsewhere suggests that the ‘aviary’ might not be restrcited to birds, playfully calling it a ‘Tanchoarium’ or ‘Kinkajury’, where tanchōzuru [a type of Japanese crane] as well as micos de noche [kinkajous, nocturnal mammals that lived in the Xilitlan jungle] might reside.
9. Luca Pacioli, Divina Proportione (Venice: Paganino de’ Paganini, 1509)
10. Op. cit. Edward James, undated letter, Edward James Archives, West Dean College.
11. In notes accompanying a recent translation of the Timaeus, Andrew Gregory expresses some doubt as to the role of the dodecahedron, suggesting that its relation to the zodiac or the cosmos is not wholly clear, especially as the latter is elsewhere “specifically described as spherical.” Plato, trans. Robin Waterfield, Timaeus and Critias (Oxford University Press, 2008) 144, n5c.
12. Describing his intention of building this “Euclidean construction in three dimensions” as a “folly (in Regency terminology)”, James goes off on a tangent decrying the lack of critical respect given to Regency architecture in the present day (likely to be the 1970s). He bemoans its devaluation, as if by example, in the “pasteboard, pastiche Regency” of areas surrounding the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles.
13. Undated letter held in the Edward James Archives, West Dean College.
15. Jean-Christophe Averty (dir.) Soft Self-Portrait of Salvador Dalí. France / West Germany, 1970.
17. Op. cit. Undated letter held in the Edward James Archives, West Dean College.
18. Francesco Colonna, trans. Joscelyn Godwin, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (London: Thames and Hudson, 1999)
19. Christopher S. Wood, ‘The Perspective Treatise in Ruins: Lorenz Stoer, Geometria et perspectiva, 1567’, in Lyle Massey (ed.) The Treatise on Perspective: Published and Unpublished (New Haven and London: Yale University Press & National Gallery of Art, Washington, 2003), 241-242.
20. Wood credits Jamnitzer with the design of the durchsichtige dodecahedron as represented in the hands of Johan Neudörffer in a 1561 portrait by Flemish painter Nicolas Neufchatel, failing to acknowledge da Vinci as the obvious precedent. Ibid., 238.
21. André Breton, Nadja, trans. Richard Howard (London: Penguin, 2008), 18.
22. An example being Hans Vredeman de Vries in the 1560s. [cf. Wood 2003]
24. The Gran Cavallo was commissioned by Ludovico Sforza, ruler of Milan, in the 1482. The enormous equestrian statue, for which Leonardo made numerous drawings and planned innovative techniques for casting in bronze, was never completed due to complex political and economic factors. Infamously, the artist’s clay model was used as target practice by French soldiers and destroyed in 1499. It was only in the 1960s, when Leonardo’s notebooks were collated, that renewed interest in the statue came about, eventually leading to the construction of full-scale realisations in Milan and Michigan in 1999.
25. Wood 2003, 242.
First published in Edward James in Mexico, 2017