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.