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The Goetheanum and Ronchamp:

a comparison

17 August 2016 | Stephen Games

In September 2015, Docomomo.UK hosted an exploration of early 20th century housing in Basel, Switzerland. Because of the focus and brevity of the trip, there was no time to take in what must be two of the most unusual buildings of the 20th century, both of which are nearby. The two buildings have much in common. Both are built on grassy hilltops with panoramic views, both are religious or quasi-religious (one is a Catholic pilgrimage chapel, the other is a temple to an odd form of German nature-mysticism), both are orientated east-west, both are unusual in shape and hard to categorise, both are profound rejections of the right angle and of mass production, both use mass concrete, both are highly atmospheric and both are late works by their respective architects. 


The earlier of the two, the Goetheanum, is situated in Dornach, now a thriving village and commuter suburb 15 minutes south of Basel by train. A century ago Dornach was chosen by the esoteric Austrian philosopher and social reformer Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) as the base for his Anthroposophical Society, which promoted the idea that all human activity should be health-giving. In 1913 Steiner designed a double-domed wooden structure that he called the Goetheanum on the hill above Dornach to house theatrical and musical events for his summer festivals; the building was destroyed by an arsonist on the last night of 1922, just three years after completion. Steiner then designed a second and very much larger Goetheanum in reinforced concrete with a 1,000 seat auditorium at its centre.


The other building of special interest in the region is the chapel that Le Corbusier (1887-1965) designed on a colline overlooking the little village of Ronchamp, France, 75 minutes' drive west of Basel. For two centuries, Ronchamp had been at the centre of one of France's main mining concessions. It was also the site of a pilgrimage chapel built on land acquired by a group of local families after the French Revolution. Towards the end of the last war, the chapel was blown up by the Germans to stop it from being used as a lookout. Afterwards, a new building was commissioned by the celebrated patron of religious architecture, the French Dominican friar Marie-Alain Couturier (1897-1954). Couturier wanted to show that French Catholicism could be re-energised for the modern world. He therefore deliberately, even provocatively, chose an architect who had made his reputation as a giant of secular Modernism.

Le Corbusier's building (above) is much simpler and much smaller in function than the Goetheanum but there are intriguing correspondences between the two, not least in their resistance to the normal conventions of building, to rationalism, to structural logic, to convenience, to style, and even to the novel ideas of the architectural Avant Garde. In short, both buildings seem to be striving to be un-architectural or anti-architectural – to defy the predictability of architecture and the architecture profession. 


There is not enough space to explore all those issues here, but two questions deserve brief attention. One relates to the language of the two buildings. In both cases, the buildings seem to be composites of elements with no obvious parenthood, prompting endless speculation about what might have inspired them. Ronchamp consists of white walls, some exaggeratedly concave or convex, some massive and battered, punctuated by tiny windows like the projection wall of a cinema, together with three white towers that look like up-ended boats, and a massive dark concrete roof that could be the split hull of a boat or aeroplane wings or praying hands or a nun's shroud.


In the case of the Le Corbusier building (1950-54), these diverse elements knit marvellously and unexpectedly into a single composition – in fact, into several compositions, for each of the chapel's faces presents a different picture, each one of which is artistically coherent. The Steiner building (1924-28), is more problematic. 


Steiner's first Goetheanum gave aesthetic priority to conflicting interpretations of universalist architecture: monoaxial symmetry and perfectly spherical roofs combined with different types of wall treatment (concrete podium below, dascha-style wooden tiles above) expressed in rigidly horizontal bands interrupted by massive, clunky abstract decoration around the doors and windows. One part of the design seems to have emerged naturally from Platonism, the other from vernacularism, without either having been processed by a designer. 

The second Goetheanum (above) is quite different. Here, the overall building is clearly the product of original thought: Steiner has not shied away from making amazing, unprecedented shapes, rendered in concrete so as not to convey any other associations. The whole is a really novel piece of work and more consistent than Le Corbusier's. The shell of the building looks as if it had been carved by hand from a ball of clay or block of wood; its facets make no sense except as scaled-up scrapings. 


The inside of the shell is less consistent. The space is astonishingly dramatic (and photogenic). Looking upwards is like looking into a rib cage, with piers and beams that disappear into a mysterious darkness. Sometimes, however, these ligaments and bones are curved and biological and sometimes they are straight and mechanical, and the two types – the straight and the curved – clash. 


Because the building attempts so much, there are inevitably other disappointments. The front doors open onto a foyer with paired, curved, almost Rococo staircases on either side. These lead to an upper foyer with outer and inner walls glazed like an Art Deco spider's web. The outer glazing looks out over the roof of the apron that surrounds the building; the inner opens onto a low corridor with doors leading into small private rooms on each side: in any other building it would be an elevator lobby. That is a lot of drama for nothing! It takes another climb to get to the doors of great auditorium, with its oddly painted ceiling, on the second floor. But the auditorium is not the reward: the auditorium is almost an afterthought. The reward is the staircases.


The Dornach building invites internal exploration. The biggest rewards at the Le Corbusier building are the exteriors. The interior, for all its cavern-like mystery, is perhaps just too loose to work as a unity: it’s more an assembly of parts. There is, however, one other feature that connects the buildings: their roofs. Both buildings appear to wear hats. Steiner's is facetted and fits tightly to the head; Le Corbusier's is jauntier and up-turned. Both stick out over the ears, as it were. Steiner's is the more Germanic or northern European: it has a horizontal fringe over the forehead – the kind of hat worn by peasants in Pieter Brueghel's paintings or by the German military from 1916. Le Corbusier's is more French or French-Hispanic, rising to a ridge in the centre. 


My interpretations are of course fanciful, but like the face, the facade of a building is not just a set of features but a composite gestalt suggestive of meaning. Steiner's Stahlhelm is accompanied by what seem like downturned eyebrows, and indeed this heavy depressed look, not only speak to an aesthetic cultivated by the German-speaking world as a whole in the early 20th century but is now the established convention of all buildings in Dornach, from those built by Steiner in the 1920s to quite recent knock-offs. 


The hat as an architectural feature is a curiosity in 20th century architecture because the absence of a hat seemed to be as much a liberation for buildings from the 1900s as it was for people. Why two iconic works by designers committed to Modernism should have insisted on head coverings deserves more investigation. But not here.


First published in Docomomo.UK Newsletter 32

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