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The Goetheanum is a”true masterpiece of 20th-century expressionist architecture

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The Goetheanum

The Goetheanum hailed as a “true masterpiece of 20th-century expressionist architecture” is also a very good example of organic architecture that was enriched by the contribution of many artists. The Goetheanum, located in Dornach, in the canton of Solothurn, Switzerland, is the world centre for the anthroposophical movement. It also represents the pioneering usage of visible concrete in architecture, particularly in its achievement of sculptural shapes on an architectural scale.

The building was designed by Rudolf Steiner and named after Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. It includes two performance halls (1500 seats), gallery and lecture spaces, a library, a bookstore, and administrative spaces for the Anthroposophical Society; neighbouring buildings house the society’s research and educational facilities. Conferences focusing on themes of general interest or directed toward teachers, farmers, doctors, therapists, and other professionals are held at the centre throughout the year.

The Goetheanum is open for visitors seven days a week and offers tours several times daily.

The First Goetheanum, a timber and concrete structure designed by Rudolf Steiner, was one of seventeen buildings Steiner designed between 1908 and 1925. It was intended as a Gesamtkunstwerk (the synthesis of diverse artistic media and sensory effects), infused with spiritual significance. Begun in 1913 to house the annual summer theatre events of the Anthroposophical Society, it rapidly became the centre of a small colony of spiritual seekers located in Dornach and based around Steiner. Numerous visual artists contributed to the building, architects created the unusual double-dome wooden structure over a curving concrete base, stained glass windows added colour to the space, painters decorated the ceiling with motifs depicting the whole of human evolution, and sculptors carved huge column bases, capitals, and architraves with images of metamorphoses. Already during the construction, musicians, actors, and movement artists began performing a wide variety of pieces in a neighbouring workshop.

When the Goetheanum hall was completed, in 1919, these performances moved onto the stage located under the Goetheanum’s smaller cupola. The auditorium was located under the larger cupola. The building was opened on September 26, 1920. This building was destroyed by fire on New Year’s Eve, December 31, 1922 – January 1, 1923, and some claim by arson, but that is not proven. In the course of 1923, Steiner designed a building to replace the original. This building, now known as the Second Goetheanum, was built wholly of cast concrete.

Begun in 1924, the building was not completed until 1928, after the architect’s death. It represents a pioneering use of visible concrete in architecture and has been granted protected status as a Swiss national monument. Art critic Michael Brennan has called the building a “true masterpiece of 20th-century expressionist architecture”. The present Goetheanum houses a 1000-seat auditorium, now the centre of an active artistic community incorporating performances of its in-house theatre and eurythmy troupes as well as visiting performers from around the world. Full remodellings of the central auditorium took place in the mid-1950s and again in the late 1990s.

The windows made of stained glass in the present building date from Steiner’s time; the painted ceiling and sculptural columns are contemporary replications or reinterpretations of those in the First Goetheanum. In a dedicated gallery, the building also houses a nine-meter-high wooden sculpture, The Representative of Humanity, by Edith Maryon and Rudolf Steiner. Steiner’s architecture is characterized by liberation from traditional architectural constraints, especially through the departure from the right angle as a basis for the building plan.

For the first Goetheanum, he achieved this in wood by employing boat builders to construct its rounded forms; for the second Goetheanum by using concrete to achieve sculptural shapes on an architectural scale. The use of concrete to achieve organically expressive forms was an innovation for the times; in both buildings, Steiner sought to create forms that were spiritually expressive. Steiner suggested that he had derived the sculptural forms of the first Goetheanum from spiritual inspirations. Architects who have visited and praised the Goetheanum’s architecture include Henry van de Velde, Frank Lloyd Wright, Hans Scharoun, and Frank Gehry. Steiner designed approximately 12-13 other built structures, including both institutional structures and residences in and around Dornach.

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