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Goetheanum, Rudolf Steiner, Dornach, 1924-1928, Swiss Brutalism, © Karin Bürki/Heartbrut. Explore more on Heartbrut.com

Goetheanum

Words & Photography: Karin Bürki

Words & Photography: Karin Bürki

Is it still architecture or spiritual experience? Let’s settle for Gesamtkunstwerk.

Perched high on a hill above the village of Dornach, a good 30-minute train ride from Basel, the Goetheanum is impossible to miss. The monumental, dome shaped concrete solitaire immediately catches the eye with its swooping curves, organic shapes and near total absence of straight lines and right angles. Its DNA lies somewhere between Art Nouveau, German Expressionism, a temple and the Arts and Crafts movement. For lovers of architecture and art, the Goetheanum is above all an overwhelming experience.

Headquartering the Anthroposophical Society, the Goetheanum hosts concerts, theatre performances, exhibitions, and conferences as well as educational programmes and spiritual retreats. Founded in 1912 by Rudolf Steiner, an esoteric travelling lecturer and former head of the European Theosophical Society, Anthroposophy sought to explore the spiritual through scientific methods. The Goetheanum is the embodiment of Steiner’s ideals cast in concrete.

The first Goetheanum, an expressionist wooden construction designed by Steiner, was completed in 1918. It burnt down in 1921, most likely as the result of an arson attack. Construction for the second Goetheanum began in 1924 and ended in 1928, three years after Steiner’s death. At the new concrete temple nothing is left to chances, and everything has its function: the dome construction allows for large, airy spaces. Large-scale, stained-glass windows, some of them featuring expressionist-figurative motives, and skylights flood the building with light.

There are no ready-made elements. Everything was produced in the Anthroposophical Society’s own workshops. Steiner and his team also designed bespoke furniture and other objects for the Goetheanum. Known as Dornach Design, it echoed the curvilinear and organic architecture. The objects typically feature crystalline forms and a pared down aesthetic.

The Goetheanum also includes a sprawling anthroposophical colony, designed in the same idiosyncratic style. Two notable buildings are the Boiler House (1915), a double-domed concrete cross between a sphinx and a sprouting plant, and the more abstract blue Transformer House (1921). Set in gently rolling parkland, the Dornach Colony can be explored on a variety of walks. Just follow the signposts.

To get an idea of the Goetheanum’s transcendental power, flash back to the late 1920s. Picture members of the Anthroposophic Society, most likely clad in some sort of reform dress, convening to an experimental eurythmic dance performance at the 1000 seat auditorium. Now imagine how the uniformly dressed audience and the floating costumes of the dancers blend in with the swooping decor and the expressionist fresco along the ceiling illustrating the evolution of humankind in psychedelic colours.

While Anthroposophy has lost its spell – much of its claims have been debunked and critics call it a sect – the Goetheanum has retained its appeal. A highly controversial figure, Rudolf Steiner was one of the first to recognise the creative potential of concrete. Goetheanum’s genre-bending approach and detachment from the narrowly defined ideas about what a building is and what it should look like make the anthroposophical Gesamtkunstwerk one of the great masterpieces of 20th century architecture. It is also one of the first large-scale structures built entirely in exposed concrete. Echoes of it can be found in the Sidney opera, and the works of Eero Saarinen. The mystical concrete spaceship in the rolling hills of Dornach is a National Heritage Site. It is still light years ahead of the times.

Unlike his modernist contemporaries, Steiner saw ornament not as superfluous decoration but as a precise artistic expression of function. At the Goetheanum, form and ornament become one. Steiner called this unity “spiritual functionalism”. It offered a riposte to the rational functionalism of the Bauhaus, whose clean, interchangeable, no-frills shoebox aesthetic came to define modernist architecture. It was also closer to that other modernist mantra. “Form follows function – that has been misunderstood,” Frank Lloyd-Wright, the American uber-architect and co-founding father of Modernism once put the record straight, adding “form and function should be one, united in a spiritual unity”. The Goetheanum was much derided and for a long time ignored by the architectural canon. But it had found an ardent ally in Frank Lloyd Wright.
Steiner’s mystical views on art, interest in the occult and cosmology, belief in reincarnation and vision for a spiritual renewal of Europe were shared by many progressive thinkers of the time. Among the followers of Anthroposophy were avant-garde heavyweights such as Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian and Elsa af Klint. The English sculptor Edith Maryon played a formative role in the development of anthroposophical art as head of the sculpture department at the Goetheanum.

© Karin Bürki/Heartbrut

© Karin Bürki/Heartbrut

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Franziskus House, abandoned former retreat house, conference centre and student campus, Otto Glaus, 1969, Swiss brutalism. Explore more on Heartbrut.com
Brunnadern, Residential Buildings, Atelier 5, Bern 1970, Brutalism © HEARTBRUT / Karin Bürki