Contemporary Architecture derived from Theosophy
Scott Finckler
Theory 2
December 12, 1998

The basis for how architecture is pursued in the late 20th century is directly related to how theosophy attempts to pursue truths in the existence of mankind. The focus on abstraction of ideas and feelings into spacial forms along with the knowledge that architecture is a pursuit and has no real means to an end parallels the way theosophy viewed truth in life.

Theosophy emerged in the late 1900’s due to the questioning of why consistent relationships between science and religion were impossible to establish. In large part this was due to the findings of Galileo and the publication of his theories relating to the structure of the solar system. In this publication Galileo proposed that the earth revolved around the sun. This idea was absolutely profound for the time and gained widespread interest even though it was in direct conflict with the mantra of the catholic church. A split between science and religion was established. For his scientific breakthrough Galileo was rewarded with a lifetime house arrest.

The significance was profound and led to a new perspective towards modern science and physics. Galileo instilled in science the belief that through the observation of the natural world humanity could unravel the mysteries of life and understand our existence. Science, astronomy, and physics progressed into new realms of search within the material world. This pursuit continues on into the present century. The early 20th century provided humanity with new possibilities of creation with the advent of the big bang and steady state theories. Throughout this time of rapid scientific pursuit traditional religions retained their ideals, rejecting these scientific proposals.

In the midst of this split, the growing division spawned new philosophical ways of thought that focused more towards the inner human spirit. A new alternative to sciences outwardly focused pursuits and the traditional religion mantras was necessary. These new spiritual theories attempted to synthesize science and religion. They were attempting to create some sort of cohesion between them. It was during this time of inner focus that theosophy emerged as a widely popular and inspirational view towards human existence.

It’s influence permeated society. Theosophy is based on the pursuit of truth as a goal. This differs from other religious attitudes were truth is imposed through authority. In theosophy truth is sought by the study of comparative religions in an attempt to find certain doctrines common to all faiths, offering a combination of eastern philosophical attitudes with a western Christian morality. The emphasis of theosophy is an existence of a deeper spiritual reality beyond the material world of nature. In further understanding this true nature found within ourselves we can better evaluate, and interpret our lives and experiences. This idea contradicts science’s concern with the physical world. Science pursues laws of the relationships of physical objects, while theosophy pursues truths found within the intangible spirit. Both science and theosophy are attempting to unlock and discover answers of human existence, but through the study of different aspects of the human experience. In both cases the conclusion is unknown and probably never will be found. The importance is that with every step or discovery we get a better understanding of who we are and how we relate to our surroundings on a physical and emotional level.

It’s inner orientation, optimistic world view, and lack of necessity for one to disavow previous religious views aided in it’s popularity throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. More important than it’s popularity was its extreme influence on the arts in general. In the early 20th century it was a catalyst for new theories towards abstraction in painting and architecture.

The idealistic and antimaterialistic attitude found within theosophy is what attracted many artists of the time to it. Artists embraced the freedom to interpret and integrate their own experiences. The goal of theosophy wasn’t to establish an independent religious body, therefore there was no specific dogma as with other religions.

Theories were diverse and individualistic throughout abstract art, but maintained a similar esoteric thread. The avant-garde artists in France and throughout Europe used theosophy as an inspiration. These artists were interested in art seeking a higher purpose other than the mere accurate representation of nature. Artists such as Kupka, Malevich, and Marc, have been cited as having theosophical influences. The lack of an avant-garde tradition and enthusiasm for religious informed art influenced American artists such as Dove, Hartley, and O’ Keefe to probe inner spirituality and emotion. Theosophy inspired art to reach for a deeper meaning and new ways of creation and perception that were highly innovative.

Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, and Piet Mondrian are the artists most closely associated with theosophy. All three artists had relationships to architecture even though they themselves were not architects. Klee and Kandinsky were professors at the Bauhaus school in Germany. Mondrian was instrumental in the De Stijl movement located in Holland. The impact of the Bauhaus and the De Stijl was world wide and many theories along with methods of teaching continue throughout the world today.

Even though the Bauhaus’s lasting impact was in the fields of architecture, interior and industrial design, the creative theories behind painting were the initial catalyst for creation in its early years. Klee and Kandinsky provided this emphasis on creative theory. Klee’s focus was the on creative thought. He believed that there was a mystical center of which it was the artist ‘s goal to pursue. To find this center would lead to the true understanding of creativity and creation. Klee looked towards nature for inspiration. He believed art was based on the same formative laws as nature. Klee pursued an understanding of more than just the appearance but also the inner order not necessarily visible. In creation he attempted to discover an order to the human experience. Klee’s views towards art were individualistic. His interest in the act of creation focused on the artist and human emotion rather than a greater societal harmony and order.

Kandinsky had a more universal vision. His focus was to elevate society to a more spiritually enlightened realm. He believed society was at the dawn of a new anti materialist era. In this new era, artists, scientists, and theosophists will guide the rest of humankind. The artist assumes a priest like role as the seer of this previously unforeseen realm. Unlike Klee, who looked towards nature for order, Kandinsky viewed nature as an obstacle to overcome. He believed art was completely autonomous from nature. Only through his emancipation from the representation of visual objects could Kandinsky create a truly abstract art. An art which moved away from the material world into a new spiritual world of which everything is related and based on similar laws. This new spiritual world was constituted of auras which surrounded all persons and things. It was thus the artists pursuit to see and represent these auras through a language of form and color to the greater society which otherwise is blind to this alternative realm.

For different reasons and with different approaches Klee and Kandinsky had a similar objective. Both searched for an existing spiritual order not yet discovered. Avante garde art could be described as a means towards displaying theosophical discoveries. Artists were at the forefront in search for answers about human existence. The continuously changing Bauhaus curriculum, eventually evolved into a more material and industrial focus, but the theoretical influences of Klee and Kandinsky were intact and are evident in the new aesthetic of the products which wouldn’t have existed without their influence.
Piet Mondrian and Theo Van Doesburg were the major proponents of the De Stijl movement. Emerging out of Holland after the first world war, Mondrian and Van Doesburg produced a new theory of creation named Neo-Plasticism. Neo- Plasticism’s aim was to create a cohesive unity through the reduction of natural form, and the limitation of color to the use of the primaries of red blue, and yellow. It was believed that these forms and colors could portray and express all without words. Clarity could thus be achieved through simplification. There aim was to demonstrate a utopian ideal of what humanity could become individually and as a society. The means to achieve this was in the integration of architecture, painting and sculpture into one environment. Other arts such as music, dance, drama and literature would also merge. Life in this new environment would be harmonious and there would be no need for an autonomous existence of the arts. Art would become an integral part of the human experience. Neo-plasticism rejects nature for the sake of human progress. Things such as trees and flowers would not be used for beautification. Beautiful cities would be produced through the opposition of buildings and empty spaces and the new integration of the arts in an equilibrated way. The De Stijl would create a new urban environment in which the in between spaces would become as important as the enclosed.

Traditional concepts of enclosure of space within a larger mass were disregarded. The creation of a system of elements would determine and divide space. Architecture for the De Stijl was based on this composition of elements in a similar way that Mondrian constructed his paintings. Color and structure were reduced to primaries and horizontal and vertical elements. The relationship, placement, and orientation of objects were all carefully orchestrated for maximum impact. In these architectural compositions the core was the grounding element. Spaces were projected from this central point towards the outside world. Flow and integration were the goal. The traditional feelings of enclosure were purposefully lost. The new open flow of space allowed for a new relationship to the exterior in which there became an ambiguity between interior and exterior. The implication created with the exterior is that similar to the way the component parts of the construction relate to create a whole, the structure and open spacial flow could be in relationship to the natural surroundings in a similar way, implying that the structure is part of a larger universal entity, a larger cosmic composition.

The De Stijls best example of these new spatial concepts is the Schroeder Schrader house. The architect Gerrit Rietveld used these ideas of color. form and space to exemplify the ideals of the de stijl. In the house a central area of stability is created at its core. This core contains the bathroom, stove, chimney, and staircase, and is the only fixed area in the house. All the spaces radiate from this core. One of the most intriguing aspects of the house is its movable partition system. The walls can disappear. The entire upper floor space can become livable at once, aiding the feeling of a spacial flow. The total environment concept is displayed through the furnishings, They are either built into the structure or have a strict arrangement. Everything has its own place and relationship to others. Color is used throughout the house to create a logic. The floor is the best example of this. The differentiation of color demarcates the rooms of the living area. The individual spaces are articulated even when the partitions are pulled back and there exists one continuous open space. The spacial radiation from the main core and lack of complete containment within cubic volumes help to create a new symbiosis with place. Large windows open outward visually extending interior space to the exterior and vice versa. Transitional elements, such as eaves, balconies, pillars, railings, door and window frames structure the transition between interior and exterior. A sensation of suspension is created. On the upper level, balconies open from the bedroom spaces, making it physically possible to move from interior to exterior. The implication with this relationship to the exterior is that just as the component parts of the house are in relationship to create a whole, the house it self is in relationship with its surroundings. It is a piece of a greater entity than itself.

Outside of the de stijl these architectural characteristics can be found within other examples of architecture. Mies van der Rohe, a former leader of the Bauhaus, used the concept of open flow of space , integration of other forms of art along with an ambiguity between interior and exterior in his Barcelona pavilion. The Seagram building is a good example of an urban strategy paralleling that of the De Stijls. The building is not an object within space but also a creator of it. The plaza created by the setback portrays the exterior space as having as much importance as the interior. The seagram building is also designed around the idea of a central service core. Another characteristic is that all parts to the finest detail of the building were designed by the architect.

Just as painting deviated from representation into new perspectives so did architecture. The change in attitude towards form, and ornamentation and outwardly focused building type has been replaced with a more inwardly focused human relationship. Architecture offers more possibilities towards the pursuit of human truth. It is interactive. It can be expressive and experiential through both the architect and the occupants. It has the ability to provide universal relation to its physical surroundings. There is no one language of architecture. Architects have freedom of interpretation and expression. There are no manifestos today. From Vitruvius to the futurists architecture is a synthesis of these languages. just as theosophy is a synthesis of religion. Truth is a goal to be pursued but never achieved. Just like in architecture perfection can never be achieved It’s the human spirit which is always willing to attempt to achieve the impossible.

Frank Lloyd Wright was also known for totally designing his environments. An example of this can be seen in falling water. Furnishings are either built into the structure or have a specific place. Falling water is also based on the concept of radiating spaces from a central core. Balconies are used in a similar to the Scroeder Scrader house to create a relationship to the exterior. The main difference is that Wright was attempting to relate to nature while Rietveld and the de stijl had no intention to do so.
By the creation of these new theosophical influenced theories artists were able to elevate art beyond mere representation. A new purpose was created which portrayed the importance of the human spirit. The search was not just for the sake of art, but for the good of humanity. Art had become as important of a way of understanding humanity as science. In the human spirit the true essence of life can be found.

Theosophy and the avante garde’s effect on architecture can be seen in two ways, physically through architectural characteristics and through theory and practice. Architectural characteristics such as spaces radiating from a central core, the design of the total environment, and the importance of the exterior spaces in relation to interior spaces, are examples of this influence on contemporary architecture. Architecture of today can also probe the human spirit in a similar way as the avante garde. While paintings influence on society has subsided into a seemingly trivial pursuit, Architecture has taken on a new importance. Space is the new medium of the age. New materials of construction allow for farther possibilities and interpretations. Architects not only have the ability to express emotion and experience but also have the ability to invoke and create it.




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