Sunday, September 20th 2015
Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) is one of those people whose description differs radically depending on who is doing the describing. It would be impossible to describe him, his beliefs and his life’s work in a few words, so I will not try to do so. I will simply refer you to the relevant Wikipedia article, which is as good a place to start as any. We were interested in Rudolf Steiner House from the point of view of aesthetics and architectural history, though Steiner’s beliefs and teachings obviously have an influence on the design.
To visit the house, other than the bookshop and cafe, it was necessary to join one of the tours. On the whole, the tour was well done and the guides had obviously been instructed not to expound anthroposphical principles to their captive audience, except insofar as this was relevant to the design of the house.
I think that if you glanced at the house on your way past, say from the top of a bus, you would not notice anything particular about it. We are told that this is the prime (possibly only) example of Expressionist architecture in Britain, but I think you see this in a few of the details rather than in the whole.
The house was designed by Montague Wheeler (1874-1937) who was a member of Steiner’s Anthroposophical Society and the building was erected in two stages during the period 1924-37. It is now a Grade II listed building.
The Expressionist aspect of the outside seems to be limited to the shape of some of the windows. A special point was made of the circular stained glass window though this is seen to best effect from inside the building (see below).
Having taken a look at the outside, we were gathered in the foyer for a talk on the house and its design but I missed most of that because I was much more interested in what I could see around me and to discover that the doorways were asymmetrical in shape. What fun! And, of course, if your doorway is asymmetrical, your door must also be so. This small detail is an example of the quirky but attractive stylistics underlying the whole design.
I was also taken with the staircase which has a very organic structure, bringing to mind designs by Gaudí. The foyer areas, including this section of the staircase, were remodelled in 1989-90. (Perhaps this fact will serve to remind us that good architectural design is not a lost art though it seems to be so as far as many modern architects are concerned.)
The theatre is considered a very important part of the establishment and was the first element to be completed. The stage is unusually deep because it was intended for performances of Steiner’s mixture of art and therapy called Eurythmy.
We then proceeded upstairs to look at some of the rooms. These included the large Eurythmy Room which, on entering it, gave me the feeling of a dance studio, a not unreasonable feeling as it was designed for people to practise eurythmy here. The original plan was to panel it entirely with cedar wood but this was never completed. The present decor dates from 1991-2.
Great importance is given to the staircase and the pamphlet handed to visitors refers to it as the house’s ‘crowning glory’. I am sympathetic to this view because rooms are more or less rectangular spaces furnished according to their purpose, whereas in designing the staircase, the architect can play with shapes and dimensions to make something that is unusual yet practical.
The Rudolf Steiner House, as an organization, has a year-round programme of events and activities, artistic, spiritual and educational, so lecture rooms are an integral feature of the building.
I have mentioned before that stairwells hold a special fascination for me and this one is no exception. You may be able to see that there is something at the bottom but what it is is not clear in my photo. We’ll come to it shortly.
People and organizations participate in Open House London for various reasons, perhaps because they are proud of their establishment and want others to admire it too or perhaps also to advertise their activities or beliefs. I don’t doubt that as a result of visiting the Rudolf Steiner House, some will go on to seek more information. It is to the credit of the guides, then, that they do not ‘advertise’ their beliefs or the institution though I did at moments feel that our guide was itching to tell us more. The brave man was able to refrain, however!
Cats were never once mentioned during the tour nor did we ever see a cat, not even a picture of one. Yet, as committed felinophiles, we could not fail to notice the paw prints on the stairs. When these stairs were first laid and before the material had completely solidified, a cat must passed this way on an exploratory visit, leaving his signature visible to future generations.
This is what I mentioned above as lying at the bottom of the stairwell. Is it a ‘water feature’ (a decorative structure involving moving water) or a ‘water garden’ (a garden featuring water and aquatic plants)? Perhaps both. Water flows into the top tray and cascades downwards into a bowl, creating harmonious movement and creating a moist environment for the plants. (Update: See the comment by Joy.)
Back on the ground floor, I admired the floor mosaic with its stylized wavy pattern,
wondered at the two translucent panels at the window,
and first forgot then rushed back to photograph the famous circular stained glass window from inside the building.
In an age when so many architects seem single-mindedly devoted to the cult of ugliness, buildings like Rudolf Steiner House remind us that beauty and practicality can come together in harmonious partnership. Unfortunately, that message is heard today ever more rarely.