The Goetheanum – the Gesamtkunstwerk of Anthroposophy

The second Goetheanum, located in Dornach (near Basel), Switzerland. The first was destroyed by arson on New Year's Eve in 1922.

Construction work for the Goetheanum, the chief theatre and conference centre of the anthroposophical movement, began in 1914. It was, in a sense, anthroposophy’s showcase and ticket to the world at large. The name is of course a tribute to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe because of the significance Rudolf Steiner attached to his views on art and nature. Goethe had discovered the laws of metamorphosis in organic nature, and Steiner applied these laws as an architectural principle; accordingly he called his style of building ‘living-organic’.

Initially the idea was to erect the building in Munich and call it ‘Johannesbau’, John’s Building, after the protagonist of Steiner’s mystery plays, but the city authorities would not grant a building permit. A generous private person then offered Steiner the use of a plot of land in Dornach, near Basle, and so the main seat of the anthroposophist movement moved to a country outside Germany. In the end it was decided to use another name for the centre to avoid any associations with John the Baptist or John the Evangelist. The anthroposophists still had to fight for their place under the sun amidst the throng of new Christian movements that were emerging at the time. It was a strategic decision to be associated with a great German poet.

To his regret, Steiner found little interest existing within the theosophical movement for art. The recitative and declamatory evening perfomances given by Marie von Sivers, whom Steiner married in 1915, heralded a new theatrical art. A special branch of this new art was eurythmics, an art which is neither dance nor pantomime but an art expressing tones and sounds through certain movements. The idea was that there were invisible gestures inherent in speech and in tones; eurythmics expressed, as it were, the act of ‘speaking or singing visibly’. Steiner himself made his debut as an artist at the age of 46, exhibiting designs for the scenery of a mystery play at the theosophical conference of 1907. At the time he was concerned with the symbiosis between spiritual effectiveness in an artistically designed space; an idea which he worked out in full for the Goetheanum, the interior and techniques of which were constructed in line with Steiner’s insights. The building contained sculptural elements, while much colour was used for the dome paintings (partly executed by Steiner) and for the windows, which had been engraved in a special way which had also been conceived by Steiner. The images were made visible in the coloured glass by incising parallel diagonal lines into the glass with greater or lesser pressure; a special workshop was even constructed to prepare these windows.

A view of the domed hall (Kleine Kuppelsaal) with a statue of the representatives of Humanity.

The building was ready in 1920, but the largely wooden construction was destroyed by fire (or arson) in the night of 31 December 1922. The present Goetheanum in Dornach is bigger, made of concrete and it is not a replica of the original. The concrete carcass was officially opened in 1928 and building work continued into the 1950s, after which further extensions and restorations were carried out. The Goetheanum still offers a platform for theatrical and declamatory performances, eurythmics, painting and sculpture, in addition to numerous other scientific disciplines.

The Portal of Initiation, Goetheanum 2010. Photo by Jochen Quas

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