What do Architecture and Anthroposophy Have in Common?

Anna Sokolina, Ed. Arkhitektura i antroposofiia. Moscow: Izdatel’stvo KMK, 2001. 268 pages, 348 illustrations.

In her introduction to this pioneering Russian volume, Anna Sokolina notes that the anthroposophical movement, established by Rudolf Steiner, arose on the basis of dissatisfaction with an increasingly rationalistic, technological bias in approaches to society and culture at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Seeking to return modern culture to a holistic attitude toward human creativity and the environment, Steiner was particularly interested in the challenge of architecture–at once the shaper of the physical context and one of the preeminent forms of artistic endeavor.

Indeed, architecture played a central role in the creation of the anthroposophical community at Dornach, not simply as a means of erecting buildings but also as a material expression of the principles of anthroposophy.

The author of a treatise entitled “Ways to a New Style in Architecture”, Steiner was also the designer of two versions of the Goetheanum, the central structure of his Dornach ensemble.

Goethe was for Steiner the supreme embodiment of the union of intellectual, emotional, and spiritual aspects of humanity.

Steiner’s approach to integrative architecture arose in part from a rejection of urban architecture during the late industrial period, with its pastiche of decorative elements masking a box frame. In this he was not alone.

European architecture at the turn of the twentieth century demonstrated numerous attempts to restore elements of craftsmanship and non-standardized design in modern architecture.

From John Ruskin and the Arts and Crafts Movement (and its successor Charles Rennie Mackintosh) to the organic elements of Art Nouveau and Jugendstil design to the idiosyncratic exuberance of Antonio Gaudi, many architects and designers used sinuosity of form as a liberation from the predictable and from the prison of the urban grid.

Of course the architects and movements mentioned above had little, if any, direct relation to anthroposophy.

Rather, there were many tendencies in the reaction against generally accepted parameters of urban architecture.

Steiner, on the other hand, conceived of the liberation of form as part of a much broader quest that would define the spiritual essence in modern existence.

Free form and organic motifs in architecture were intended to contribute to an environment of healing in a technological age.

Architecture was both context and catalyst for a higher state of human development.

As Steiner stated in a lecture given in 1914:

“And when we animate everything that presses, bears, and curves, that crafts surfaces and masters completed forms –we begin to live by opposing and playing with the forces that shape the world, and by creating art we explore fantasy and endless metamorphoses, but we realize that we cannot understand the secrets of the world of forms until we try to express ourselves in the universal organic motion and in creative activity.” (p. 264)

All of this is very subjective and deliberately so, yet Steiner succeeded at Dornach in the challenge of implementing his ideals in the material forms of large structures.

In this sense the contributors to the present book examine both the ideational frame and specific buildings related to anthroposophical ideals.

In her introductory overview Sokolina establishes the context for these ideals and discusses their reception during the twentieth century. (This introduction also appears in English at the end of the book.)

The text proper consists of two parts divided into thirty-two brief chapters, each of which is extensively illustrated with photographs of varying quality.

Beginning with an extract from Steiner’s own writings, the first part focuses on Steiner’s work and on the buildings at Dornach, especially the Goetheanum in both its first and second versions.

The second part surveys related movements, including expressionism, the early work of Erich Mendelsohn, and designs by Friedensreich Hundertwasser.

This broader context reinforces the value of the book for a Russian audience, particularly since these phenomena have received relatively little attention in Russia and were deliberately ignored during the Soviet period.

At the same time it should be noted that this book, consisting primarily of translations of commentary by Western specialists, overlooks pre-revolutionary Russian examples of the topic, such as the work of Alexander Zelenko for the Vadkovskii Lane school and the Pfeffer dacha (both around 1910).(See William C. Brumfield, The Origins of Modernism in Russian Architecture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 97-99.)

Whether or not there exists a direct connection with anthroposophy, these examples should have been included.

Steiner’s principles and the ensemble at Dornack served as an important stimulus in the development of free form in architecture during the twentieth century.

Contemporary computer-aided designs by architects such as Frank Gehry demonstrate the importance of this direction for contemporary architecture.

Although no serious historian would claim that Steiner’s approach was the one and only path for these developments, it is nonetheless gratifying to have such a substantial work, in Russian, on the role of spiritual principles in concepts of modern architecture.

William Craft Brumfield is Professor of Slavic Studies at Tulane University and a member of the State Russian Academy of Architecture and Construction Sciences.