The Rudolf Steiner Goetheanum

Free movement of the spirit among the concrete curves of the Goetheanum. The second building as a commemoration of the first.


Architecture / Ákos Moravánszky

It is slightly misleading to look at photographs emphasising the similarities between the concave concrete facades of Rudolf Steiner's Goetheanum building and the eroded rock formations of the surrounding landscape. The pictures suggest that a mimetic approach towards nature, which itself is not exceptional in architectural history, would provide an explanation for the architectural form. Every visitor of Casa Milà, without knowing much about the political or religious views of Gaudí, grasps the significance of planting the forms of the Catalonian landscape into the centre of Barcelona, a bustling modern metropolis. However, it would seem pointless to build similar forms in a natural environment. Why should a concrete solitaire, which houses a large stage with auditorium and a range of studios, echo the form of the neighbouring hills? What first meets the eye in Dornach is exactly what is non-natural: the composed character, the symmetry of the building, and the dynamic movement that seems to animate the volume starting with the relatively heavy and inert eastern part all the way to the finely articulated western facade, that is, in the opposite direction to the visitors' movement.

Rudolf Steiner denied a mimetic relationship to nature: "The style-forms of the Goetheanum should not be understood as naturalistic imitations of some kind of external living or lifeless form," he wrote. (1) The building is the result of metamorphic processes. The previous Goetheanum was a wooden domed structure whose foundations were laid in September 1913, and which burnt down on New Year's Eve of 1922. The present building is its successor, and as such, its memorial. The fact that it was envisioned by the same person, who developed, among other theories, a theory of architecture, proves the basic continuity between the two structures: a conceptual, but not a literal "reconstruction". Steiner, the founder of anthroposophy, a movement dedicated to man's relationship to the spiritual world, associated the first building with the idealism of the beginnings. According to Steiner, the second building was not only intended to be the product of mourning, but also a document of the movement's development since the time of its foundation. (2)

Another metamorphosis is the form-finding process itself. In 1924, Steiner made a Plastiline model, which served as the basis for the realised building. The model assumed particular importance as Steiner was unable to participate further in the design process: he died after a long illness in March 1925, three years before the building was completed. But his decision was to build the new Goetheanum of concrete. A material of dubious identity, concrete can behave like wood in tectonic post-and-beam constructions, but can also slip into supple, clay-like and atectonic roles. Steiner's decision for the latter alternative was perhaps not evident, but had to do with his interpretation of the "nature" of this material. The execution process, however, had nothing to do with the form-finding in the supple, clay-like material. Building the wooden formwork was an immensely elaborate and demanding process, carried out by craftsmen of the Hamburg shipyard. The reason why Erich Mendelsohn's Einstein Tower in Potsdam (1920-1924) was finally built of traditional masonry, rather than of reinforced concrete as originally planned, lies in the difficulty and enormous costs of the shuttering. (3)

The second Goetheanum emerges conspicuously from the hilly context of Dornach.

Indeed, it is revealing to compare photographs of the two building sites: the scaffolding and construction of the wooden Goetheanum anticipates the shuttering of the concrete building. The third kind of metamorphosis is only indirectly related to the design and construction process, and more to Rudolf Steiner's theory. Steiner was familiar with Gottfried Semper's theories of material transformation (Stoffwechseltheorie), as he studied at the Technical University in Vienna under Josef Bayer, a follower of Semper.(4) He was, however, critical of Semper's views, since they were based on the "materialist interpretation of Darwinism and the teaching of evolution", which regarded architectural form as the consequence of production technologies, he thought, simplifying Semper's original argument. (5) In a lecture about the common roots of the forms of the first Goetheanum building and the acanthus motif in Greek architecture, Steiner rejected the theory of a "naturalistic imitation of the acanthus leaf", proposing instead the "transformation of an ancient solar motif, the palmette, the expression of power flowing from the etheric body". The starting point of this statement was very likely the critique of Semper by the art historian Alois Riegl, who in his book Stilfragen replaced Semper's empiricism with the notion of Kunstwollen, a quasi-organic "will" or power which determines the stylistic preference of a given epoch. Steiner's emphasis on the free movement of spirit seems to reflect Riegl's teaching. But Steiner also criticised Riegl for not going further, and for failing to explain the origins of the palmette in the "powers of man". The most important aspect of Vitruvius's legend on the origin of the Corinthian capital, wrote Steiner, is that Callimachus was a clairvoyant who saw over the tomb of the Spartan girl the motif of Sun fighting the Earth, with the etheric body of the girl floating above. We should not search for symbolic meanings, he concluded, but grasp "the movement of our own spirit" as the basis of artistic form.

Detail of the mighty concrete forms of the second Goetheanum.

In a lecture on the origin of architecture, held in 1913 in Berlin, Steiner spoke about the forms of subtraction, about Indian rock-cut temples as the human soul's penetration into the corporeal realm of the Earth. (6) The development of architecture is the development of the human soul starting with the "feeling-soul" (Empfindungsseele), through "intellect-soul" (Verstandesseele) to "consciousness-soul" (Bewusstseinsseele). (7) Today, emphasised Steiner, the rock-cut space of the pre-architectural stage finds its complement: it is built outward from within, opening up in all directions, "however not to the Material but the Spiritual. And we can achieve this if we can forget that there is a city or something else other than our building." (8) A sense of openness can be achieved despite material envelopes – "I would like to perforate the canvas, to find what I am looking for," wrote Steiner quoting Johannes Thomasius (9) (anticipating Fontana), after whom he originally wanted to call the Goetheanum "Johannesbau". Rudolf Steiner saw his contribution to a new architectural style in the "spiritualisation" of tectonic forms. Such thoughts were certainly influenced by the so-called theory of empathy (Einfühlungstheorie), developed by German theorists of aesthetic perception like Robert Vischer, Theodor Lipps or Wilhelm Worringer. The basis of the psychological empathy with the structural system is gravity, a force that observers can relate to on the basis of their everyday experiences. The Greek temple gives a god a house by systematising the power of gravity. The Greek temple, in Steiner's view, is based on a purely physical understanding of space and gravity. "But the spirit is not a mere mechanist and dynamist; it reveals itself not only in the relations of space and power – the spirit is alive and consequentially it gives the building a living expression."(10) In the case of the Goetheanum, this means abandoning a static appearance for the sake of differentiation: on the east, the appearance is more heavy, impacting a certain pressure on the mass of the two lateral wings, while on the west, the facades show a more refined physiognomy, with lateral supports detached from the main volume, as if the mass would undergo an evolutionary process from the rudimentary to the articulate.

Entrance facade and detail of the convex forms derived from the concrete mass.

The transformation between the wooden construction of the first Goetheanum and the concrete structure of the second one represents a significant shift. The suppleness of the wood, its fibrous, "grown" character, lent itself well to the idea of an organic architecture. While working in wood, observed Steiner, one creates space by subtracting a cavity. Concrete, on the other hand, is a material which generates convex forms by adding to the surface. This was a new interpretation of the identity of concrete, generally used at the time to build tectonic frames, comparable to timber construction. Steiner, however, rejected this model, even when he had to replace a wooden construction. What Steiner called the "spirit" manifests itself in metabolic processes: the heavy concrete body of the Goetheanum, itself an imprint, works as a kind of a mould, enveloping the memory of its burnt-down predecessor, absorbing the observer's attention, and in turn, forming the observer's sense. Steiner spoke of Umstülpung, eversion, turning inside out a form-defining process which he identified as a cosmic principle: making a cavity out of mass, putting spirit and matter in a dialectical relationship. The "animate forms" of contemporary computer-generated architecture might appear as a further move on a metabolic chain. But in reality, the new superficiality of computer-generated forms lacks the most important dimension of Steiner's work, the drama of the struggle with gravity, with the resulting architectural object constituting an objection against the ongoing process of immaterialisation. Ákos Moravánszky

The sculptural forms of the building built between 1925 and 1928, the year in which it was opened even though still incomplete. In the following 70 years the Goetheanumn underwent several alterations. Today it houses the Free School of Moral Sciences and the General Society of Anthroposophy.

1. Rudolf Steiner, Das Goetheanum in seinen zehn Jahren, in Der Goetheanumgedanke inmitten der Kulturkrisis der Gegenwart. Ausgewählte Aufsätze, Rudolf Steiner Verlag, Dornach 1982, p. 149.
2. Ibid., p. 129s.
3. Hans Wilderotter (a cura di), Ein Turm für Albert Einstein. Potsdam, das Licht und die Erforschung des Himmels, Haus der Brandenburgisch Preussischen Geschichte, Potsdam 2005, p. 103.
4. Rudolf Steiner, Der gemeinsame Ursprung der Dornacher Bauformen und des griechischen Akanthus-Ornamentes, in R. Steiner, Wege zu einem neuen Baustil, Rudolf Steiner Verlag, Dornach 1992, p. 81.
5. Ibid., p. 82.
6. Rudolf Steiner, Der Usprung der Architektur aus dem Seelischen des Menschen und ihr Zusammenhang mit dem Gang der Menschheitsentwickelung, in Wege..., op.cit., p. 53. 7. Ibid., p. 54.
8. Ibid., p. 60 s.
9. Ibid., p. 61.
10. Rudolf Steiner, Der neue baukünstlerische Gedanke, in Wege..., op. cit., p. 146.

Model of the second Goetheanum (photo Otto Rietmann, Rudolf Steiner Archiv) and detail of the limestone rock from the Jura Mountains, near which stands the building designed by Rudolf Steiner.

Born in 1950 in Székesfehérvár, Hungary, Ákos Moravánszky studied architecture at the Technical University in Budapest between 1969 and 1974, and then worked as an architectural designer in Budapest. From 1977 he studied art history and historic preservation at the Technical University in Vienna. He has been Titular Professor of the Theory of Architecture at the Institut gta of ETH Zurich since 2005. The main areas of his research and publication activities are the history of East and Middle European architecture in the 19th and 20th centuries, the history of architectural theory, and the iconology of building materials and constructions.

The photos by Christiaan Stuten have been published in the book Der Goeheanum-Bau in seiner Landschaft. Rudolf Steiners plastische Architektur, Dornach/Schweiz. Concept and photography by Christiaan Stuten, text by Wilfried Hammacher, baag Verlag, Arlesheim 2006.