1. Ethereal Walls


Within the sphere of all these notions of Nature and transparency Rudolf Steiner began to think. His eclectic philosophy would in itself not deserve our attention as it lacks any argumentative rigor and is cumbersome to read. However, he did design architecture as he did touch upon the problem of transparency – like did Bentham.


Steiner’s teachings were an attempt to fuse elements of Romanticism, Nietzsche, Freud and the theosophist Madame Blavatsky into what came to be known as Anthroposophy. [17] Amongst other things, his doctrine culminated in his design for the first Goetheanum, still made of wood (1913-1923).




Steiner’s first Goetheanum, wood


Whereas Bentham’s Panopticon was used to imprison and thus to exclude people from society, Steiner’s Anthroposophy and the cult’s embodiment in this Goetheanum allowed his disciples to voluntarily imprison themselves, by separating from society in an opaque sect. Like most sects, Anthroposophy has always denied its status of a sect, at the same time not accepting any outside criticism of its tenets.


Steiner transformed Freud’s therapeutic insight into an idealistic, clairvoyant certainty of a spiritual world. Rather than considering ‘the unconscious’ as source of man’s darker side, Steiner believed that the Modern unconscious was the thing ‘most directed by the gods’, therefore the most sacred part of man.


However and alas, not everyman is capable of peering into these ‘higher worlds’ all by himself. Whereas Freud introduced the analyst, Anthroposophy’s challenge was to develop a different manner in which the common member would be induced to accept their leader’s clairvoyant, though obscure insights. The method was highly mystical, calling for complete acceptance of and total openness to the leader’s clairvoyant words: ‘The path of devotion to truth and knowledge.’ [18]


The clairvoyant ‘sees through’ the physical world. To his inner eye matter becomes transparent, at the same time ‘the inner geometer’ becomes transparent to cosmic forces. Steiner not only severely rebuked Nietzsche for his preference of chiaroscuro over the unveiling light of truth, he also reprimanded him for allowing only mythical and symbolic understanding of the spirit, thereby refusing the vision of ‘true spiritual essence’ which unforgivably reduces the powers of the Self. Nietzsche’s notion of ‘eternal return’, then, is for Steiner but a perverse misunderstanding of the soul’s reincarnation, of its fusion with a before- and an after-life.


The clairvoyant supposedly intuits and even perceives in the form of pure images the motivating forces behind phenomena. Like Bentham before him, Rudolf Steiner believed that ideological symbolism was insufficient to communicate the meaning of this world. Also like Bentham, Steiner believed in a transparent universe, albeit one rendered transparent by using metaphysical means. Compared with the richer language of things he claimed that normal language cannot be but a poor vessel for communication.


Thus, architecture and the other arts become important, they are ‘immediate and intuitive’ and help us to create a material space in which spiritual transparency can be achieved. Only as poetry and only spoken in the context of the right kind of architecture does language touch upon images and thus becomes less ‘representational’.


Instead of Banal Bentham’s rather crass dismissal of art and poetry as ‘nonsense’, Steiner by contrast demanded that ‘one should live in genuine art’ –  that is: Anthroposophical art. That relates to the secrets of clairvoyant initiation and infuses the material world with the spiritual. In opting for plastic and pictorial art, Steiner refused the primacy of the Word over cultic, practical ritual, thus proving himself closer to Roman Catholic than to Protestant orthodoxy.


Anthroposophy lifts ‘the three veils’ which shade us from higher worlds. Its true sectarian dictum, then, is not surprising:


“What will be created in our building is not there to be seen – absolutely not to be seen! Let us be happy that people who believe that works of art solely exist to be seen, think that our works of art are so bad as possibly can be. Precisely then can we be sure that what those people do not want, is exactly what we want!” [19]


Anthroposophical transparency is not physical but metaphysical, a revelation facilitated by architectural experience. Not the physical body is in need of surveillance, man’s ‘astral body’ is. Once liberated from its physical foundation, the receptacle becomes transparent to the radiating powers from the cosmos. [20]


While designing the Goetheanum, Steiner aimed


“…at creating an interior space which, in its effects of colour and forms as well as in its other artistic achievements, is closed. At the same time it is in all its details of such quality that this closure is no closure at all, but instead invites us wherever we look to penetrate its walls with our eyes, with our total feeling and with our sentiment… Although this cell closes us in, we are also connected to the totality of the moving world-divine. Physical walls do not live, but our ethereal or spiritual walls do become alive…, an interior that just wants to be there in order to let the cosmos enter.” [21]


To have and not to have walls – that is the question! The sect’s social prison thus turns out to be an open institution, designed to offer its members spiritual porosity. Anthroposophists disapproved of what they called ‘square, naked Modernist architecture’, because of its mere transparency to material light, not to spiritual luminosity. The Goetheanum is certainly not open, not like Bentham’s lucid construction of glass and iron, nor is it open like the see-through buildings of Mies. It is, claims ecstatic Steiner, transparent nonetheless.


Anthroposophical architecture must split facade and interior. According to Steiner this is the case in the first Goetheanum as well as in the second version, which was built in concrete after in 1922 an arsonist’s fire destroyed the first one.



Steiner’s Second Goetheanum, concrete


Its heavy, oppressive exterior, expressive of shelter, then, must completely renounce the way in which the edifice presents itself on the inside. The interior should be ‘spiritually transparent’, designed in manner as to bestow on the soul the power of transcending the immediate physical present. [22] The interior, then, should be productive of an unworldly sublime.


Whereas the exterior seems completely closed off,


“…inside, our edifice should open itself to all sides, its walls should be open to all sides – not towards matter, but towards the spiritual. This will be achieved by designing our forms in such a way that we may forget that outside our edifice is some town or whatever… this, in order to experience the illusion that it expands into the cosmos.” [23]


Steiner’s odd conception of the arts touches on the motive of Baroque Illusion, which affected man’s mind as if it were reality. Steiner provides those willing to engage with his architecture with a theatre of forgetting, however excluding all laughter.


According to the tenets of Bentham’s 19th-century utilitarianism the architectural ornament is not intrinsic to a building’s expression, but rather an extrinsic application. Steiner, by contrast, used meaningful plastic and organic ornamentation heavily, as part of the very foundation of its structure. Precisely the sculpted columns, window panes and walls should produce that sublime feeling. A ‘spiritually transparent wall’ for Steiner is ‘a living dynamism’.


Added to the dynamic effect of sculpted plasticity was a use of colour that is supposed to have an effect on ‘the inner eye’. Thus visitors may respond to a ‘colour cosmos’ that binds matter and form and connects the earthly with the spiritual. In Steiner’s authoritarian Gesamtkunstwerk the smallest change would necessitate a change everywhere else. [24] Even in the mystery plays he wrote ‘there was not a word out of place.’ Quite logically, Anthroposophy rejected spatial illusion by way of linear perspective, because this merely refers the observer to earthly matters and diverts one’s attention from the inner life.


An visiting adept described his experience in the third person, this in rather kitschy terms, precisely following the leader’s creed:


“When he entered the hall, he was suddenly submerged in a bright-green sea. He had the feeling that he was beneath the sea’s surface, seeing vague figures of a dreamlike world. Very fast, images from ancient times were passing by and he was now certain of only one thing: I belong to this world, I feel at home here, here is where I want to collaborate.” [25]


One is reminded of Bavaria’s Prince Ludwig, King Kitsch who, charmed by the lighted, coloured walls of his ‘grotto’ and floating in a boat with swans, was listening for hours to the music of his protégé Wagner.




17 Other sources were used besides those quoted below: Rudolf Steiner, Friedrich Nietzsche. Ein Kämpfer gegen seine Zeit (Dornach: Rudolf Steiner Verlag, 1963); Steiner, Die Rätsel der Philosophie in ihrer Geschichte als Umriss dargestellt (1914), (Berlin: Verlag G. Cronbach, 1918, fourth edition); Steiner, Algemene Menskunde als Basis voor de Pedagogie, (Zeist: Uitgeverij Vrij Geestesleven, 1993); Steiner, De Spirituele Bronnen van de Kunst (Zeist: Uitgeverij Vrij Geestesleven, 1993).


18 Rudolf Steiner, Hoe krijgt men Bewustzijn op Hogere Gebieden? (1904), (Zeist: Uitgeverij Vrij Geestesleven, 1978), pp.16-17.


19 Rudolf Steiner, Wege zu einem neuen Baustil (1911-1914), (Dornach: Rudolf Steiner Verlag, 1982), p.65.


20 Rudolf Steiner, Der Dornacher Bau als Wahrzeichen geschichtlichen Werdens und künstlerischer Umwandlungsimpulse (1914), (Dornach: Rudolf Steiner Verlag, 1985), p.58.


21 Steiner, Wege, pp.23-25, p.68.


22 Steiner, Wege, p.25.


23 Steiner, Wege, pp.35-36.


24 Steiner, Wege, 59.


25 Daniel van Bemmelen, Rudolf Steiners farbige Gestaltung des Goetheanum (Stuttgart: L. Ch. Mellinger Verlag, 1973), p.8.




Author: rjsiersk

Sierksma was born in Friesland, a 'county' in the northern part of the Netherlands with its own language which he does not speak and with an obstinate population to which he both belongs and does not belong. A retired Professor of Social Philosophy and Aesthetics, as a Harkness fellow he taught at Rutgers and Berkeley Universities in the USA, and at GUAmsterdam and TUDelft in the Netherlands. In 1991 he was awarded his PhD from Leiden University on the subject of 'Surveillance and Task: Labour Discipline between Utilitarianism and Pragmatism'. His books include Minima Memoria (1993), Lost View (2002 with Jan van Geest), and Litter Scent (2013). He has published poems and articles in Te Elfder Ure, Nynade, Oasis and the Architectural Annual. Half the year he lives in Haarlem, the other half he spends in la France Profonde, living ‘in his own words’ as the house out there was bought with the winnings from his essay Eternal Sin, written for the ECI Essay Prize (1993). In this blog, Sierksma's Sequences, written in English, he is peeping round his own and other people’s perspectives. Not easily satisfied with answers nor with questions, he turns his wry wit to a number of philosophical and historical issues. His aim in writing: to make parts of the world light up in his perspective - not my will, thine! Not being a thief, he has no cook, one wife, some children, one lover and three cats.

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