Ausgabe 01-02/24

History of the Waldorf School Architecture

Lars Frerichs

The architects who planned Waldorf school buildings had no examples from Steiner, but were required to develop their own approaches to content and find creative solutions. Of course, there was the opportunity to look to Dornach.

Steiner's architectural work in Dornach

In Dornach, Switzerland, Rudolf Steiner created a unique complex of buildings between 1913 and 1928, designed as an architectural expression of anthroposophy: the first and second Goetheanum and their adjoining buildings. I would like to draw attention to a few aspects of the building impulse in Dornach.

When you see the heating house standing imposingly in the north-east of the Goetheanum today, you don't assume that there was a laborious design process beforehand. The Goetheanum houses a whole series of design models made of modelling clay that Steiner created during the design phase. It is very impressive to see that Steiner also struggled artistically as an architect.
When the first Goetheanum, completed in 1920, burned down on New Year's Eve 1922/23, it would not have been far-fetched to believe that the reconstruction would take the same form. But the second Goetheanum was clearly different in its external appearance. The architecture of the first Goetheanum was based on the "artistic expression of the content of anthroposophy"; the building was developed as a pure idea from within. Just one year after the fire, Steiner presented his approach for the second Goetheanum: He now placed the building in a context of tension between inner and outer forces, thus incarnating the idealistic approach of the first Goetheanum. This was an astonishing new development that was accomplished with breathtaking speed.
Do I pay great attention to the design of a single window and make the forces of support and load artistically visible? Or do I neglect this partial aspect and emphasize the overall artistic form? Steiner answered this question individually from an overall context and weighed it up artistically. An exciting example can be seen in the second Goetheanum. The east and west sides of the building have polar designs: The east side is flat and strictly orthogonal. Only in the eaves area is there a touch of liveliness. In contrast, the west side is more sculptural and dynamic. An orthogonal window in the middle of the facade conveys a touch of severity. Between the polarities, the north and south facades develop a lively transition as a transformation of form. Based on an artistic understanding, the individual elements such as the windows are naturally subordinated to the principle of polarity. Rudolf Steiner always wrestled with himself, he weighed things up artistically and developed his approaches further in terms of content. He thereby exemplifies a lively architectural design process.

Stuttgart 1919

The first Waldorf school was founded in Stuttgart in 1919. The first school building was a converted restaurant situated on Uhlandshöhe. The architecture of the new building from 1921 onwards corresponded to a classically designed school with the difference that the ground floor area was slightly sculptured. Steiner specified the color scheme for the individual classrooms according to the child's development.

Dynamics of the 1960s to 1980s

It was only during this boom period of new school foundations that Waldorf school architecture developed an impressive dynamic with new ideas, formative approaches and courageous buildings. Without claiming to be complete, I would like to highlight the metamorphosis of the classrooms, which accompanies the mental and spiritual development of the child through the school years. It was first implemented by the architectural firm Werner Seyfert (1930-2000). The architect Hans Scharoun (1893-1972) anticipated this idea as early as 1951 in his design for the Darmstadt elementary school and Rudolf Steiner ultimately laid the first foundations with his color specifications in Stuttgart. Alongside Seyfert, it was also Winfried Reindl (1939-2022) to whom we owe the development of expansive and highly sculptural designs. The Waldorf School in Überlingen (designed by Wilfried Ogilvie, *1929) with a roof landscape of concave and convex forms is exemplary of the sculptural building impulse.

One of the impressive features of the Waldorf schools designed by Stuttgart-based bpr (Billing, Peters, Ruff) is their ability to rethink school layouts. For Jens Peters (1934-2014), the functional room layout was not to be planned as a spatial juxtaposition, but rather to be organized according to the daily lives of the schoolchildren. In this way, the students pass through the building in its entirety, which means that they experience the rooms not just as separate, but as belonging together, taking into account the time dimension. The Scandinavian architects Espen Tharaldsen (*1947), Erik Asmussen (1913-1998) and the Hungarian Imre Makovecz (1935-2011) also provided important impulses.

To summarize, Waldorf school architecture at this time was very progressive and inventive in terms of combining architecture and pedagogy. School architecture that was oriented towards the physical, mental and spiritual development of the respective age of the students was an absolute novelty. In comparison, public school buildings – with a few exceptions – worked with a reductionist view of childhood, which led to a correspondingly reduced architectural language.

Disillusionment

When the number of schools founded slowed down in the late 1980s and the development of Waldorf architecture stagnated, a phase of disillusionment began.

One explanation for this is that the scope of artistic freedom became narrower. In addition to the positive insights and experiences that were gathered and translated into "design rules", there were architectural suggestions and Steiner's knowledge of human nature. All of this hindered a carefree approach: The architectural-artistic approach was in danger of being worn down between content-related constraints. An architecture that wanted to do justice to all content ran the risk of overloading buildings with design and overwhelming users. Building forms that had proven themselves elsewhere and were now used in an inartistic way were no longer experienced, but only read. A tragic example is the sculpturally designed window header, mockingly referred to as a «telephone receiver into the spiritual world». If the artistic depiction of the forces of weight-bearing and carrying is not experienced, but merely perceived as a symbol, it should be dispensed with.

Reorientation and impetus from outside

In the meantime, school construction in the public sector has opened up in terms of design, certainly also under the inspiring influence of Waldorf schools. This has gone so far that public procurement tenders for the construction of a new public school today even suggest that it is a Waldorf school. The architecture is asked to find forms that support the child and correspond to the nature of the child.

Since the deconstructivism of the 1990s, the strict doctrine of reductionist functionalism has been on the retreat at architectural colleges. This has been fueled by a new generation of architects who are self-confidently giving in to their natural need for sensuality and working with an expanded range of forms, colors and materials. The result is inspiring and emotionally appealing school designs. Designed by talented architectural firms, they have little in common with Rudolf Steiner's anthroposophical approach. An impressive example is the design by Thomas Kröger Architekten, Berlin, for the school in Marschland, Hamburg.
This fresh architectural wind was blowing at a time when the future of Waldorf school architecture was being discussed in principle in parts of the Waldorf community. As a result of demands, Waldorf schools were increasingly entrusting design tasks to architectural firms with no connection to anthroposophy. On the other hand, public schools are showing interest in architectural firms with an anthroposophical background and are commissioning them because of their process-based approach and deep understanding of the human being.

Perspective

If a public school claims that it wants to see the nature of the child taken into account, then the concept of essence remains vague. Anthroposophy offers more precise concepts and certainties. Architecture is also about processes of awareness; it is not about personal preferences or taste, but about the confidence that we can arrive at objective knowledge by training our sensory and artistic abilities. It is about questions of how form, color and material can be consciously used in design for the benefit of children. In this respect, public architectural colleges tend to cultivate an epistemological pessimism.

I hope that future school construction projects will be preceded by an intensive design process that allows for bold decisions and a breath of fresh air. The list of future topics and challenges for school construction is long. When asked about good and contemporary school architecture of the future, whether for the public sector or for Waldorf schools, it is common to refer to architecture with an anthroposophical background.

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