Introduction to ‘Authoritarian Architecture’

 

She’d have fulfilled whatever obligation she had to the forces of unreason. It was Eve’s destiny always to take her irrationality to greater and greater heights.

Roth, I married a Communist

In the last complete winter of the 20th century, together with an Argentinean architect, I travelled into eastern France and the north-western tip of Switzerland. To visit two buildings: The Goetheanum designed by Rudolf Steiner, the second of two versions honouring Goethe; and the Notre-Dame du Haut at Ronchamp, done by Corbusier, the edifice a sacrifice to light.

Some people claim that Steiner inspired Ronchamp. Corbusier certainly visited the site in Dornach. Inspiration, however, is a complicated word and I shall falsify this assumption of a stylistic link.

 

Corbusier’s Ronchamp

 

Out there, under a clear sky, on its hill, in a glorious sunlight intensified by a fresh layer of pure white snow, stood Corbusier’s chapel. We were the only visitors.

Atheists that we are, my companion and I celebrated this architectural miracle with a splendid wine, kept under my coat to keep it at the right temperature and poured into fine glasses brought for the occasion. No transubstantiation – I am no priest. It certainly did warm our blood, giving us a chance to remain longer in that architectural deep-freezer, which through its famous slit between roof and wall immediately connected us with the icy universe. For at least an hour we enjoyed its author’s composition of light.

Steiner’s Goetheanum II

The weather changed overnight; an icy rain from a leaden sky accompanied us to Dornach, south of Basel. The concrete mass of Steiner’s Goetheanum II exuded its miserable radiance of dull-wet grey. Heaving read the major writings of both Corbusier and Steiner, I felt pleased by the change in atmosphere. I had become sincerely averse to the anthroposophist’s irrational metaphysics; I could still smile at the architectural irrelevance of the Frenchman’s poetry.

Which brings me to the vital point of this introduction: my prejudices and how to handle them. Though I openly admit aversion to the man, his writings and his architecture, I am doubly conscious of the necessity to approach Steiner’s work sine ira et studio as dead Latin so graciously has it. I shall do my best to analyse it from a neutral distance, bracketing my parti pris. That in itself is an achievement.

My consolation is that by just presenting this myth in a distant manner, I may provoke the reader into Nietzschean laughter, which might make other people want to read my book. Now and then a joke managed to sneak into a footnote; isn’t the footnote the privileged realm of the frivolous? To be honest, though, as a corpus these notes are no laughing matter.

Your author is convinced that whatever is high and exalted in this, our world is always the high and exalted of the low; it is never anything but its sublimation. We start out as a body; subsequently complicate its senses, functions, appetites and rudimentary instincts. However exalted these complications, they continue to be the complication of our inescapable, fleshy existence.

As an occultist Steiner contends that the low is but the embodiment of the high. This view is at the root of his puritanism, which aims at the de-materialisation of almost anything. His philosophy feigns to commence with our body; before it does, however, Steiner tilts the issue. Life is merely something in-between birth and death, two dots on a timeline that extends into the ‘spiritual worlds’ of before-birth and after-death.

My task is to analyse his concepts and arguments, in order to answer the question as to their connection with anthroposophy’s art and architecture. As Steiner often does not argue at all, this proves a difficult job. Like his contemporary, the ‘decadent’ late-Romantic author D’Annunzio, he firmly believed in ‘insights beyond the veil on which life has painted voluptuous images’. Sadly enough, Steiner did not have the Italian’s erotic imagination, which makes the analysis of his anthroposophical writings a far more tedious labour than reading the poet

In his Flame D’Annunzio wrote ‘that by the wild speed of his thoughts he knew that he was in a state of grace, close to the holy delirium which only the power of the lagoon could give him’. This typifies Steiner’s mentality, but it contains poetry he could never compose. The anthroposophist was no writer; the most he achieved was a pseudo-poetry that can only charm his firmest believers.

Another poet lauded the astonishing quality of his myth:

Did he dream these things? Did he, because they once happened at the beginning of time? Anyway, it is certain that they are more astounding than the Demiurges and snakes and bulls of other cosmogonies.

The praise for anthroposophy, however, is ambivalent if not ironic. As an artistic influence, Borges did not like the language of Blavatsky and Steiner at all, preferring Poe and Hoffman. He reproached Meyrink for his ‘theosophical evangelisation’ under the influence of ‘Dornach’s angel in the Western window’.

In this book, Authoritarian Architecture – A critical analysis of sectarianism and expressionism, I have tried to follow Steiner’s own words closely, guided by what I think is reasonable suspicion. To clearly represent his ideas, my text needs many quotations and footnotes. It resulted in some ugly language; his for sure; not mine I hope. Only thus could I clear up anthroposophy’s myth, a mixture of non-sequiturs, vague allusions and metaphysical authority. In order not to burden my text, I have refrained form apostrophising all Steiner’s curious notions, assuming that my reader takes it for granted that they are his and not mine.

_____

Conclusion

Mausoleum

First-rate masters are known for their capacity to find the perfect ending, whether in small or in important matters, whether it is the end of a melody or of a thought, whether it is the fifth act of a tragedy or an act of State. Towards the end, the first of the second-rate always become restless. They don’t slope in such proud, quiet equability into the sea, like the mountains close to Porto fino do – at the spot where the Bay of Genoa sings her melody to its end.

Nietzsche, Fröhliche Wissenschaft

To read from Goetheanum’s exterior what goes on inside the edifice is difficult, if not impossible. Behind the large coloured windows you may assume a large hall – that is more or less it. Once inside, without a guide, you feel trapped in a shadowy labyrinth of sometimes-colourful corridors.

Cultural elements can only be understood when they are connected with the feelings and intuitions that people receive from the spiritual world.

For an anthroposophist the present Goetheanum functions as authoritarian architecture, as did its wooden predecessor in the past; he is convinced that, once inside, he must receive intuitions from a spiritual world that allow him to penetrate its walls. This is prescribed by the sect’s ideology – its walls are spiritually transparent.

An unbeliever, who is not acquainted with such higher worlds, will react quite differently. The very same building for him is expressive of an atmosphere that corresponds to his own ideological perspective on fellow men and on life more generally. Even the intense reading of Steiner’s mythological texts, before my visit to Dornach, did not change mine. So, the Goetheanum did not raise me to spiritual heights; I merely observed the sense impressions the edifice made on me.

Both Goetheanums are intended to produce a kind of baroque illusion; its artefacts are meant to immediately affect your mind. One must, however, distinguish between, on the one hand, a work of art that in an illusionary way draws you inside itself, as for instance a 17th century catholic who contemplated Bernini’s St. Theresa and lost himself in its radiance; and, on the other hand, the effect of trompe l’oeil of a later date in which the observer knows that he is intentionally fooled by art. Steiner aimed at baroque illusion, but – at least for the unbeliever – merely achieved trompish effects. To a sceptic the Goetheanum, designed to make you forget the sensual world, seems like a theatre that excludes all laughter. Anthroposophy, which purports to enlighten, really inspires an architecture of dusk.

Entering the Goetheanum, you leave all splendour of the surrounding Jura behind. When an anthroposophist recommended the view of the mountains from the terrace of the Goetheanum, he was more right than he wanted; enjoying that view, you turn your back on the building. Even on that dark day when I walked up to it, a snowy sky shed its mysterious light on that grand natural scenery, disdainfully neglecting the grey concrete of Steiner’s edifice. Entering Dornach, you also leave light’s source behind.

By contrast, the Notre-Dame du Haut at Ronchamp is both bright outside and light through-and-through. Inside, the beton brut catches fire – featherweight concrete, light as a butterfly. In Dornach concrete’s brutal qualities prevail. Steiner’s folded cement may have ‘inspired’ Corbusier, but only in the technical sense of shaping beton into apparently vast masses. The similar use of shafts for the lighting of the interior is not a coincidence either. Steiner invented this, but in his Goetheanum it just does not work; Corbusier re-invented it for Ronchamp, which became justly famous for it. Corbusier did not connect to Steiner’s ‘spiritual’ Weltanschauung at all; he used these techniques to make his chapel an expression of a sacral joy.

In the Goetheanum Death reigns – “All hope abandon, ye who enter…” Its walls are adorned with lamps in the shape of cross-formed coffins. The ceilings exude such weight, that they seem to need your support. To me, at least, its shapes, colours and forms remained mute. It has been said that ‘even in architecture expressionism ennobled ugliness, encapsulating it in a totality that transcends the contrast of beauty and ugliness’. I could not manage such transcendence.

Shivering from the wintry cold, the confrontation with Steiner’s occult sculpture inside made me shudder again how deadly ugly his is. You cannot escape its counterpunctual association with Grünewald’s magnificent crucifixion in Colmar, not all that far away. This splendid orgy of death, yet another celebration of ascetic puritanism, originated from the same morbid denial of life-here-and-now – but what difference!

Grünewald transformed his Lord’s torment into a voluptuous feast of coloured swooning; Steiner’s statue on the other hand makes you sad. What else can you expect from someone who thought that man’s will and fantasy aspire to the after-death, and who considered death a restoring experience? Notwithstanding all his odes to reincarnation, anthroposophy shares many an expressionist’s aversion to life; all of them read Fechner’s Little Look on Life after Death, and it is said, with great pleasure. In 1914, Thiersch designed a house for an architect, which looked like a sarcophagus. ‘Homelessness becoming the destiny of the world’, as Heidegger phrased it a few years later – das Sein zum Tode.

Enveloped in the great, concrete hall of the Goetheanum, designed by a man who taught that all should be felt and lived, there I stood. For me that huge room was expressive of an atmosphere of sacral gloom and anthropophagous death. This second Goetheanum is not only a monument to the first one; it is also serves as a coffin for Steiner’s astral and ethereal remains. One huge morgue, symbol of the petrifaction of his myth; a mausoleum for his myth and as such an architectural success.

Suddenly, up there on the ceiling of the great hall, I saw what would become my metaphor of metaphors – yet another cross-shaped coffin! Fitted into the ceiling like a keystone, it seemed to close off the dome; but as part of a concrete roof it does not hold together anything. It is a fake capstone, merely a decorative relief, unreal like Steiner’s clairvoyance, that other keystone, which must hold together the immense architecture of his myth.

One evil moment, an awesome fantasy took hold of me. Could I be the reincarnation of Rudolf Steiner – his rerun however, who does not believe in reincarnation? Not doubting that life ends in the one death I live, it would be like biting my own tail.

1 Rinder, Rudolf Steiner’s Blackboard Drawings, 1.
2 In the bibliography I made a distinction between material analyzed and instruments of analysis – the corpus delicti and the scalpels
3 D’Annunzio, The Flame, 35.
4 Idem, 71.
5 Borges/Guerreo, quoted in Lemm, The Man of Letters as a Philosopher, 183.
6 Steiner, Arts and their Mission, 22.
7 Hagen, The Goetheanum Building, 15.
8 Pehnt, Expressionist Architecture, 21.
9 Originally published in 1836, a fourth reprint however published in 1900.
10 Heidegger, Being and Time, 234ff.

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Author: rjsiersk

contact: rjsiersk@xs4all.nl 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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