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Spiritual teachings

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Rudolf Steiner, Architecture: An Introductory Reader Compiled by Andrew Beard. Rudolf Steiner Press, 2003. £9.95

Rudolf Steiner is a name that you associate with alternative schooling, so it might come as a surprise to find that he had much to say about architecture. In fact, he had much to say about many areas of life, including agriculture, medicine, economics, science, religion and the arts. This book is one in a series devoted to Steiner's work, each with a different 'practical application' focus. The series title, 'Pocket Library of Spiritual Wisdom', alludes to the source of Steiner's confidence to speak with authority on such diverse subjects.

Steiner was the founder of a spiritual philosophy called anthroposophy, defined as 'the consciousness of one's humanity'.

This is the context in which this book on architecture should be read. Anyone new to anthroposophy and its concepts might at first find this context to be a hindrance. The 12 carefully selected Steiner lectures brought together here were largely for an audience familiar with anthroposophical thought, so most readers will have some catching up to do.

Not least, one needs to digest Steiner's own theory of the spiritual evolution of mankind; a kind of story of Creation. Concepts such as the etheric body and the ahrimanic principle seem important to understanding architecture according to anthroposophy, and yet could also alienate the reader. However, as one settles into the language of this strange new spiritual world, what Steiner actually says about architecture is extremely interesting.

For Steiner, architecture is a culmination of the arts, uniting sculpture, painting and engraving as a means to awaken each individual to their unique self, ultimately leading to a new world order. Quite a responsibility.

To understand Steiner's stance, it is important to acknowledge the climate in which his ideas emerged.As one of a number of people in the late 19th century to break with the tradition of stylistic plagiarism, his work was guided by a search for spiritual truth. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Steiner applied his ideas in the two Goetheanum buildings - so called because of the inspiration that Goethe's scientific work provided. Drawing on Goethe's principles of metamorphosis, Steiner gave time-based artistic expression to what he saw as the underlying laws of Creation.

It is this principle of Steiner's work which perhaps has the most resonance for architects today. In looking to nature, Steiner's work could clearly be labelled organic; and not in a superficial way - as a visual mimic of something 'natural' - but where the form results from an understanding of the underlying organic process.

Whatever your judgment of the resulting forms, the process leading to them is intriguing, but Steiner's description is vague. As a reader you are either left slightly frustrated, wanting to know more or alienated by the whole spiritual dimension; in the same manner that clairvoyancy leaves some scoffing and others wondering.

The book inevitably suffers from the fact that Steiner has not himself designed it as a comprehensive introduction to his thoughts on architecture. However, the use of lecture transcripts lends a certain vibrancy and leaves one wondering what the atmosphere was like in the hall where he spoke, how his ideas were received, just who was listening and why they were there. Given the times in which these lectures were delivered (1900-1920s), it would have added a great deal had glimpses of the social and political context been provided within the useful notes that introduce each chapter.

These notes and the introductory text guide the reader through what is a highly unusual perspective on architecture. If you enjoy having your views challenged, turn to this book. You may never see architectural form in the same way again.

Rosie Parnell teaches at the University of Sheffield

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