Welcome back to #ModernistMondays! At TTC, we are constantly inspired by modernist architects and artists from past and present. To showcase some of our favorites, we launched #ModernistMondays, where we highlight one modernist each month to explore with ten quick facts. Our first pick of the new year is Rudolph Steiner, who, including architecture, excelled in philosophy, agriculture, and the arts. Little known fact: the popular wellness brand Weleda was formed in part by Steiner and influenced by his biodynamic ways of thinking! Keep reading to discover more about one of modern history’s most powerful thinkers.
(Left) young Steiner, (Right) Steiner as an adult
Rudolf Steiner was born in the Kingdom of Hungary, now Croatia, in 1871; his mother was a housemaid, and his father was a former gamesmith (hunter) for a Count. His father, previously held in high regard, relinquished his position to marry a commoner. Steiner and his family moved throughout Austria during his younger years, and Steiner’s education was a top priority for the family, with his father taking on the role of teacher for a few years.
(Left) German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, (Right) A spiritual book published by Steiner in 1904
When Steiner attended the Vienna Institute of Technology, one of his professors recommended him to the editor of a new book by Goethe, his favorite poet. Without any literary credentials, Steiner served as an editor on the book while still a student. Perhaps more interestingly, a few years prior Steiner had declared himself a clairvoyant with a mastery of time, and claimed to have seen the spiritual world.
(Left) A plant-focused book by Steiner from 1910, (Right) A Steiner book titled “Goethe the Scientist”
Two encounters helped to propel Steiner into the future. When he was 21, he met a gardener on the train who told him about the connection between nature and the spiritual world, something Steiner would later speak about and develop further. He was also asked to work in Germany for Goethe’s editor, where he was employed from 1888-1896. Steiner received a doctorate in philosophy during this time.
A few years after this time with Goethe’s team, Steiner wrote an essay on the spiritual nature of Goethe’s writings. As a result, he was asked to speak at a meeting of the Theosophists, a developing religion during the late 1800s. Soon after, he became the head of the German Theosophist Society, speaking at meetings and developed his own biology-derived take on Theosophy, called “Anthroposophy.”
A Steiner-led meeting of Theosophists
In 1913, in need of a space where the popular anthroposophic group could meet, Steiner, having no architecture experience, designed the Goetheanum building in Switzerland, where Steiner relocated. The large building was built mostly by volunteers who believed in the anthroposophic movement.
(Left) The exterior of the Goetheanum, (Right) Volunteers helping to built the Goetheanum
When an arson attack destroyed the Goetheanum in Switzerland, Steiner immediately began working on a second iteration, made this time from concrete rather than wood. (He would eventually go on to design 17 buildings, some celebrated as amongst the most significant works of modern architecture.)
He also founded The Waldorf School in Germany, which has spread to become a worldwide network of schools.
The exterior of the second Goetheanum
As a respected thought leader in biological philosophy, Steiner was invited by scientists to develop a pharmaceutical company with an anthroposophic approach. Weleda, the result, is a popular brand today sold at natural health stores worldwide.
(Left) A graphic of biodynamic agriculture principles, (Right) A Weleda ad from the 1920s
Holding strong beliefs about nature through anthroposophism led to his founding of biodynamic agriculture, a farming technique that advocates for manure and compost as an alternative to fertilizers and pesticides. This approach grew in Germany and Switzerland and became a globally recognized practice.
Throughout his life, Steiner was a philosopher, painter, educator, architect, agriculturist, social reformer, and political commentator among other things. He led multiple schools, encouraging anthroposophic thinking, as well as one for those with developmental challenges.
His drawings from blackboards during lectures are celebrated and have been published as art. A bookstore dedicated to his teachings and work has been operating in Manhattan since 1975 and serves as the New York City Branch of the Anthroposophical Society in America.
Perhaps one of the most multi-faceted thinkers in recent history, Steiner passed away in 1925, and, through his writings and systems, continues to spread his ideas, philosophies, and designs with future generations. SOURCES: “Rudolf Steiner and the Theosophical Society,” Wikipedia; “Rudolf Steiner,” Wikipedia; “Rudolf Steiner and Architecture,” RudolfSteinerWeb