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FEATURE

RADICAL UTOPIAS

Rudolf Steiner and the Anthroposophical Society

With our “Radical Utopias” series, Slowness is exploring counter-cultural and avant-garde collectives of the past that have left an imprint, whether cultural, philosophical or aesthetic, on our contemporary world. Our second installment looks at the Austrian philosopher and esotericist Rudolf Steiner and his Anthroposophical Society, dedicated to a spiritual philosophy that still reverberates across architecture, dance, education, agriculture, wellness and beyond.

  • Writer Emily McDermott
  • Artwork Studio Airport

With our “Radical Utopias” series, Slowness is exploring counter-cultural and avant-garde collectives of the past that have left an imprint, whether cultural, philosophical or aesthetic, on our contemporary world. Our second installment looks at the Austrian philosopher and esotericist Rudolf Steiner and his Anthroposophical Society, dedicated to a spiritual philosophy that still reverberates across architecture, dance, education, agriculture, wellness and beyond.

  • Writer Emily McDermott
  • Artwork Studio Airport

When Rudolf Steiner was nine years old he had what he believed to be his first psychic vision. His aunt appeared to him in a state of crisis, begging for his help. At the time, neither Steiner nor his family knew that she had, in fact, recently died in a far-off town. This 1870 occurrence was proof to a young Steiner that he had made contact with a realm beyond everyday physical reality. And what many might eventually have dismissed as a commonplace childhood experience steeped in coincidence was, for him, the catalyst for a lifelong quest to understand our spiritual world—one that would profoundly shape the coming century.

From organic grocery stores and biodynamic agriculture to alternative education and buildings without perpendicular angles, it’s hard to travel far these days without stumbling over some trace of Rudolf Steiner, the Austrian philosopher and esotericist whose pioneering approaches to understanding the human body and our connection to the world permeate society today. From his teens until his death in 1925, Steiner was the very definition of a multihyphenate. He bridged the worlds of philosophy and occult with mathematics and science to create a comprehensive, holistic outlook and approach to understanding life that would eventually amass devout followers around the world.

Steiner was born in 1861 in a tiny village within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father was a telegraph operator who worked for the Southern Austria railway, and the family moved frequently. An intellectually gifted and introverted child, Steiner enjoyed mathematics and, after the vision of his aunt, continued to have what he later described as clairvoyant episodes. By age 15, he claimed to fully understand the concept of time, and at 21, he had a pivotal (though chance) encounter with an herb gatherer who conveyed a knowledge of nature that was spiritual and non-academic, cementing his spiritual interests even further.

After studying in Vienna, he was commissioned to edit the works of German literary titan Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. He fell deeply into Goethe’s world, moving, in 1888, to Weimar to work as an editor at the Goethe archives. It was at this point that Steiner began to philosophize the merging of our sensory reality with a parallel spiritual reality through a committed process of inner observation and meditative thought. He outlined this idea in the seminal work Philosophy of Freedom (1894), noting that “the experience of thinking, rightly understood, is in fact an experience of spirit.”

With the right training, he thought, anyone could develop the ability to experience the spiritual world, including the higher nature of oneself and others—and, in turn, become more moral, creative, and free as an individual. He adopted the term “anthroposophy” for his system of thought, blending anthropo (human) with sophia (wisdom) and in 1913, founded the Anthroposophical Society.

Rudolf Steiner

Eurythmy is a disciplined art of movement of the arms and body that visibly expresses the vowels and consonants of speech and the tones and intervals of musical melody. In the classroom, eurythmic movements have a therapeutic function in which the child’s development is supported.

In 1911, Lory Smits, a young girl interested in movement and dance, was brought to Steiner for advice. He proposed that she work on a new art of movement, so Smits began to study human anatomy, to explore the human step, to contemplate the movement implicit in Greek sculpture and dance, and to find movements that she felt would express spoken sentences using the sounds of speech. This form of movement art became what is today known as eurythmy, a name derived from Greek roots meaning beautiful or harmonious rhythm. By the following year, Steiner was incorporating the technique, which he described as an “art of the soul,” into his plays.

Around the same time that eurythmy was developed, construction began on the Goetheanum, a building designed by Steiner to accommodate the Anthroposophical Society’s annual gatherings as well as various performances, lectures, and meetings in Dornbach, Switzerland, where Steiner then moved and lived for the rest of his life. The Goetheanum—one of 17 buildings that Steiner designed during his lifetime—was constructed from timber and concrete, and it was intended as a gesamtkunstwerk infused with spiritual significance and influence from a variety of creative collaborators.

Architects created its unusual double-dome wooden structure over a curving concrete base, stained glass windows projected color throughout the interior, painters decorated the ceiling with motifs alluding to human evolution, and sculptors carved images of metamorphoses into columns, capitals and architraves. Here, as in all Steiner’s buildings, the architecture was characterized by a deviation from traditional models, most notably through his elimination of right angles. For the Goetheanum, he achieved this in wood by employing boat makers to construct the building’s rounded forms. The construction process—as well as performances by musicians, actors, and movement artists in Dornbach—continued throughout World War I, even as volunteers and members of the society heard bombs detonate in the distance. In 1919, the building was completed.

Rudolf Steiner

The basis of artistic creation is not what is, but what might be; not the real, but the possible. Artists create according to the same principles as nature, but they apply them to individual entities, while nature, to use a Goethean expression, thinks nothing of individual things.

While the arts flourished at the Goetheanum, Steiner began to rapidly apply the beliefs of the Anthroposophical Society to other realms, including education, agriculture and medicine. The same year the Goetheanum was finished, for example, the first Waldorf school was also born, following a request by the owner of the Waldorf-Astoria Cigarette Company in Stuttgart: An avid follower of anthroposophy, the businessman approached Steiner to help develop a school for children of the factory’s employees. Many of anthroposophy’s core ideas—including reincarnation, karma, the existence of spiritual beings and belief that children are themselves spiritual beings, and eurythmy—influenced the pedagogy of the original school and remain in place today. In 1922, Steiner brought Waldorf education to Britain through a series of lectures on educational methods delivered at Oxford.

As anthroposophy’s influence continued to grow, so too did Steiner become a target of public attention and criticism. When he proposed extensive social reforms though the separation of culture, politics, and the economy, academic theorists and Hitler himself verbally accused Steiner of being a “tool of the Jews.” When he suggested provisional independence for the area of Upper Silesia, which had been claimed by both Poland and Germany following the war, he was deemed a traitor to Germany. And the same year he brought the Waldorf methodology to the UK, a group of attackers let off stink bombs, turned off the lights, and rushed the stage during another one of his lectures in Munich; Steiner escaped safely, but his next lecture tour was canceled due to safety concerns. On New Year’s Eve of 1922–1923, the Goetheanum was also destroyed by fire; some accounts claim it was arson, though the cause was never officially determined.

During this turbulent time, Steiner was also working with Ita Wegman to develop an anthroposophic approach to health. Steiner recommended new naturopathic substances and conceived treatments through a holistic concept of man, including both mind and body, and extending treatments to include counseling, eurythmy exercises, and rhythmic massages. Ita Wegman opened the first anthroposophic medical clinic, now known as the Klinik Arlesheim, in Switzerland, in 1921, and the following year, Wegman and Steiner founded Weleda, the naturopathic pharmaceutical and cosmetic company that exists to this day. In 1923, Steiner founded a School of Spiritual Science, which he saw as “the ‘soul’ of the Anthroposophical Society,” offering courses on anthroposophical education, performing arts, literary arts, humanities, mathematics, astronomy, science and visual arts, as well as courses in medicine and meditative experiences led by Steiner.

While Steiner’s mindful and considered approach to health can be seen as the cornerstone of many modern wellness experiences and treatments, the criticized aspects of anthroposophic medicine are wide-ranging. They include the fact that drugs are prepared according to ancient notions of alchemy and homeopathy, completely unrelated to modern science and pharmacology. Steiner also argued that blood propels itself through the body, rather than the heart pumping it, and that patients’ past lives influence their illnesses and that the course of any illness is subject to karmic destiny. He went so far as to propose mistletoe, harvested when the planets are specially aligned, as a cure for cancer. While some anthroposophic propositions can be beneficial, they can also be harmful if used as substitutes—an effect most recently seen in response to the pandemic. Tragedies resulted when anthroposophic clinics administered remedies like ginger poultices and homeopathic pellets containing “the dust of shooting stars” to COVID-19 patients, some of whom were critically ill.

Rudolf Steiner

In ancient, prehistoric times, the temples of the spirit were outwardly visible, but today, when our life has become so unspiritual, they no longer exist where we can see them with our physical eyes. Yet spiritually they are still present everywhere, and whoever seeks can find them.

Around the same time Steiner founded the School of Spiritual Science, he himself began to show increasing signs of illness. His last lectures were given in 1924 and included one of his most important legacies: biodynamic agriculture. A group of farmers were experiencing degraded soil conditions and a deterioration in the health and quality of crop and livestock resulting from chemical fertilizers. In response, Steiner delivered a series of eight lectures that have since become known as the first presentation of organic agriculture, warning against the harms of pesticides and toxins. He proposed treating animals, crops and soil as a single organic system, emphasizing local production and distribution systems, and taking into consideration celestial and terrestrial influences on biological organisms. To test his proposed methodologies, he established several organizations devoted to biodynamic agriculture, one of which launched a sales organization for biodynamic products in 1928 called Demeter, a reference to the Greek goddess of grain and fertility.

Following Steiner’s death in 1925, his ideas continued—and still continue—to take hold and grow around the world. Demeter, for example, exists today as the world’s largest certification organization for biodynamic agriculture, and in 2020, biodynamic techniques were used on 251,842 hectares of farmland in 55 countries. Weleda is the leading global manufacturer of holistic, natural, organic cosmetics and pharmaceuticals for anthroposophic therapy. Waldorf, too, has become the largest independent school system in the world, with more than 1,200 schools and nearly 2,000 kindergartens spread across 75 countries.

The second Goetheanum, designed by Steiner and completed in 1928, not only still stands but also continues to host anthroposophy conferences and hasbeen granted protected status as a Swiss national monument; its architecture has been praised by Henry van de Velde, Frank Lloyd Wright, Hans Scharoun, and Frank Gehry. Steiner’s plays are also still actively performed by anthroposophic groups in various countries, notably at the Goetheanum and in Spring Valley, New York, and in Stroud and Sturbridge in the U.K.

His dramas greatly influenced the methods of renowned Russian actor, director and acting coach Michael Checkhov, whose students have included Marilyn Monroe, Clint Eastwood and Elia Kazan. Furthermore, Steiner’s ideas at large provided inspiration for some of the most significant artists and thinkers of the 20th century, among them the philosopher Albert Schweitzer, the writer Saul Bellow, the child psychiatrist Eva Frommer, the ecologist Rachel Carson, and visual artists Josef Beuys and Wassily Kandinsky. Even the Vitra Design Museum commemorated the 150th anniversary of Steiner’s birth with an expansive, traveling exhibition, “Kosmos – Alchemy of the everyday.”

Be it in the realm of philosophy, architecture, education, agriculture, the arts or wellness, Steiner’s work pushed the limits of human knowledge and achievement to untold new heights. And yet it is his reverence for the intangible, the invisible, for what lies beyond knowledge that may be his richest legacy. Or in the words of Steiner himself: “That which secures life from exhaustion lies in the unseen world, deep at the roots of things.”

Color drawing by Rudolf Steiner of motifs for glass windows originally intended for the first Goetheanum but now installed in the second Goetheanum. All images courtesy of Daniel Hindes / Rudolf Steiner Web.
A 1924 plasticine model of Steiner's second Goetheanum, built wholly out of cast concrete and finished in 1928 after his death.
Construction of Steiner's first Goetheanum in Dornbach, Switzerland.
Work on the interiors of the first Goetheanum, intended as a gesamtkunstwerk infused with spiritual significance and influence from a variety of creative collaborators.
The first Goetheanum viewed from the terrace, with Haus Duldek, Steiner's first residential construction, in the background.
A topographical schematic with Steiner's first Goetheanum at center.
The southeastern face of Steiner's second Goetheanum.
Poured concrete stairs in Steiner's second Goetheanum, photographed during construction.
Steiner working on one of his sculptures.
Sketches for product logos by Rudolf Steiner.
Eurythmy figure by Steiner, sketched in pen and ink with different angles of hatching representing different colors.
Color drawing by Steiner of motifs for glass windows originally intended for the first Goetheanum but now installed in the second Goetheanum.
Also designed by Steiner, the Helzhaus, constructed in 1914, contains the boiler for the hot water heating system of the first, and later second, Goetheanum. Form follows function in Steiner's design: the building is dominated by the smokestack, while the two qualified towers in the front are reminiscent of boilers.
Detail of the front steps to the Rudolf-Steiner-Halle (Eurythmeum), constructed 1924 and expanded in 1935. The building serves as a training center for students of the movement art in Eurythmy.
A night view of the entrance of the Eurythmeum, constructed in 1924 and expanded in 1935. The building serves as a training center for students of the movement art eurythmy.
Reproductions of Steiner's black-and-white eurythmy figures following Steiner's color indications.
Color drawing by Steiner of motifs for glass windows originally intended for the first Goetheanum but now installed in the second Goetheanum.
Steiner's first residential building, Haus Duldeck, was designed for Emil Grosheintz, a dentist and early supporter of anthroposophy. Construction began in 1915.
Color drawing by Rudolf Steiner of motifs for glass windows originally intended for the first Goetheanum but now installed in the second Goetheanum. All images courtesy of Daniel Hindes / Rudolf Steiner Web.
A 1924 plasticine model of Steiner's second Goetheanum, built wholly out of cast concrete and finished in 1928 after his death.
Construction of Steiner's first Goetheanum in Dornbach, Switzerland.
Work on the interiors of the first Goetheanum, intended as a gesamtkunstwerk infused with spiritual significance and influence from a variety of creative collaborators.
The first Goetheanum viewed from the terrace, with Haus Duldek, Steiner's first residential construction, in the background.
A topographical schematic with Steiner's first Goetheanum at center.
The southeastern face of Steiner's second Goetheanum.
Poured concrete stairs in Steiner's second Goetheanum, photographed during construction.
Steiner working on one of his sculptures.
Sketches for product logos by Rudolf Steiner.
Eurythmy figure by Steiner, sketched in pen and ink with different angles of hatching representing different colors.
Color drawing by Steiner of motifs for glass windows originally intended for the first Goetheanum but now installed in the second Goetheanum.
Also designed by Steiner, the Helzhaus, constructed in 1914, contains the boiler for the hot water heating system of the first, and later second, Goetheanum. Form follows function in Steiner's design: the building is dominated by the smokestack, while the two qualified towers in the front are reminiscent of boilers.
Detail of the front steps to the Rudolf-Steiner-Halle (Eurythmeum), constructed 1924 and expanded in 1935. The building serves as a training center for students of the movement art in Eurythmy.
A night view of the entrance of the Eurythmeum, constructed in 1924 and expanded in 1935. The building serves as a training center for students of the movement art eurythmy.
Reproductions of Steiner's black-and-white eurythmy figures following Steiner's color indications.
Color drawing by Steiner of motifs for glass windows originally intended for the first Goetheanum but now installed in the second Goetheanum.
Steiner's first residential building, Haus Duldeck, was designed for Emil Grosheintz, a dentist and early supporter of anthroposophy. Construction began in 1915.

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