NEW DESIGN TECHNOLOGIES: HEALING
A CASE STUDY OF THE VIDARKLINIKEN
GARY J. COATES, B.E.D., M.Arch.
SUSANNE SIEPL-COATES, M.Arch., Dipl. Ing.
Coates: For the past seven years, Susanne and I have being doing research on Erik Asmussen's architecture in Järna, Sweden. We will focus here on Vidarkliniken, a healing center that first opened in 1985 and was completed in 1988. From the first time we saw this complex of buildings, we were quite struck by the fact that architecture and the landscape associated with architecture can, in fact, even in the hospital environment, be nurturing, alive, and healing.
Asmussen is a significant architect because he has chosen to explore the possibilities of functional design by expanding the definition of function beyond the merely technological or mechanistic. At this Symposium, we heard Clare Cooper Marcus and Marni Barnes say that therapeutic gardens for hospitals should be radically different from the hospital environment itself. The implicit assumption is that these architectural environments are so deadening and lacking in soul that if you don't make the gardens different, you've made no contribution to the healing process. This is true, of course, for nearly every hospital with which I am familiar.
But what if we had a different kind of architecture? What if we had an architecture whose forms, surfaces, materials, character, moods, and so on, were derived from the same principles that underlie the forms and processes that we respond to so positively in nature itself? What if we had an organic architecture that was truly functional and spoke to the needs of the whole human being? This is what Asmussen offers us.
All too often in this country, organic architecture is just a catch-all label for idiosyncratic, individualistic, free-form, often very sloppy, and sometimes simply very bad architecture. One of the significant things about Asmussen's architecture is that it is based on a phenomenological science of nature, in contrast to the positivistic science that is so clearly expressed in conventional hospital architecture. In Asmussen's work, we're looking at a different stream of science, medicine, and architecture. It is our hope to be able to communicate something about this other tradition. You may not, in some cases, like Asmussen's architecture, but the principles upon which it is based are transferable and can form the basis for the creation of designed environments that actively and truly support the process of healing.
Asmussen is now an extraordinary 82-year-old man. He rides his bicycle from the apartment in which he lives through a beautiful garden landscape to the office in which he works. I have seen him turn compost heaps eight hours a day, on a Sunday, just to relax. He's Danish by birth, was educated in Denmark, moved in 1939 to Stockholm just before World War II began. He met his wife there and he has lived in Sweden ever since. For 20 years, he worked for the architect Nils Tesch, who was a modern architect who relied on the vernacular traditions of Sweden as well as the principles of modernism as an inspiration for design. In 1960, at the age of 47, Asmussen began his own independent practice with the design of Kristofferskolan, the first Waldorf school in Stockholm.
The landscape in which Asmussen has built the greatest number of his most important buildings (more than 20 in all) is located near Järna, a town of some 7,000 people located 50 kilometers south of Stockholm at the edge of the Baltic Sea. It is an agricultural area that is very well tended, a gently swelling landscape of grainfields punctuated by outcroppings of granite and gneiss, the oldest rock in Europe. The land itself has been rising ever since the 2,000-foot-thick glacier lifted after the last Ice Age, so in Järna, the newest and oldest lands in Europe are juxtaposed in a landscape that itself lives between the opposites of deep winter and glorious, radiant, energy- and life-filled summer. Typical buildings in the area are combinations of wood, brick, and plaster architecture. These are the kinds of materials Asmussen has chosen to work with and his building forms are also similar in terms of scale.
I should have mentioned before that Asmussen has followed the impulses of the Austrian scholar, scientist, artist, clairvoyant, and spiritual researcher Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), who founded anthroposophy, which is both a body of knowledge covering the whole of life and a spiritual path for the direct attainment of such knowledge. The entire community of which Asmussen is a part and for which he has designed comprises people, organizations, and initiatives that have been inspired by the ideas, writings, and research of Steiner.
Most of the buildings that Asmussen has designed in Järna are part of the Rudolf Steiner Seminar, a small anthroposophical college located at the edge of the Baltic Sea, which in this part of Sweden is very gentle, almost like a lake. Between and among the buildings are gardens of all kinds, including shade and shadow gardens, air gardens, medicinal gardens with healing herbs, gardens for butterflies, wind gardens, and gardens themed according to color.
"I noticed an attentiveness to all different kinds of details at the clinic."
The sewage treatment garden is one of the most beautiful aquatic gardens I have ever seen. It comprises seven ponds in which communities of plants and other organisms digest the human wastes of the college. Wastewater in various ponds is aerated, rejuvenated, and run through cascades of flow forms designed by sculptor John Wilkes based on the principles of how water wants to move. (Flow forms are also used as healing elements in therapeutic environments of all sorts.) After about a year in this system, potable water is emptied directly into the Baltic.
Many people have helped over the years since the founding of the Seminar in 1966 to create the places and the gardens. There are nooks and crannies everywhere for people to sit, gaze at the sea, or chat with each other. The larger vision is the idea that Steiner promoted, which is to create a totally integrated work of art comprising all the arts, including landscape design, painting, sculpture, music, drama, and architecture; throughout this garden landscape are sculptures, murals, and garden furniture of all kinds by artists and students of the Rudolf Steiner Seminar.
The care that is lavished on the chickens, who live in beautifully designed wooden houses surrounded by sculptures created by students, gives some sense of the care with which Vidarkliniken itself is designed. Even the plants are thought about and cared for in a way that is most uncommon. Once we saw one of the gardeners planting flowers around a manhole in one of the vegetable fields and asked him why he was doing this, and he said, "Well, I got to thinking about the carrots and the cabbages and how they put so much energy into making food for us that they don't have enough energy left to make flowers, so I thought I should plant flowers for the cabbages and carrots to enjoy."
When this kind of attention is given to all the beings and processes in a landscape, it becomes a living environment that quite literally radiates those same qualities back to people. When we first visited the Seminar, we felt that we were being immersed in a nurturing environment unlike any we had ever been in, which is how we got lured into doing this research for seven years.
At the anthroposophic center in Järna, color is everywhere -- in the landscape as well as the exteriors and interiors of buildings. These colors all relate to the functions, moods, and activities that take place in the buildings and outdoor rooms. In Vidarkliniken, as we shall see later, architectural color is also a vital part of the healing process.
The Järna Community
The anthroposophical presence in Järna began in 1935 with a curative home for children in need of special care. This first home was so successful that they soon needed another one. With two successful curative homes, they realized that they needed some good healthy organic food to support both the children and their caretakers, so farms began to show up. The children of the staff soon needed a place to go to school, so a Waldorf school was started. One thing led to another until this extraordinarily diverse alternative community based on Steiner's ideas developed in and around Järna.
At present there are three Waldorf schools, 15 curative homes for adults and children in need of special care, and a wide variety of businesses that produce everything from organically based paints to musical instruments. There's a biodynamic farming college, as well as the Rudolf Steiner Seminar. Nearly 3,000 people are involved in some way in the various anthroposophical initiatives in and around Järna.
The cultural and educational center of this community comprises the Rudolf Steiner Seminar, Örjanskolan (a K-12 Waldorf school), Vidarkliniken, and a housing community of some 80 dwelling units. All of these institutions are clustered together, and they were all designed by Erik Asmussen in association with architects in his office, which is located in a former barn adjoining the Seminar.
Probably the most sophisticated and complex facility in the area is Vidarkliniken. The design process for the clinic spanned some 20 years. During this time, Asmussen met with doctors, art therapists, eurythmists, painting therapists, sculpture therapists, massage therapists, nurses, potential patrons, and others to explore two questions: (1) How can architecture be an integral part of the healing process and what altogether should the healing process be? (2) How should we govern ourselves as a healing community?
The program for the architecture grew organically out of this extended process of consideration. There was no land or money available when they began. They just knew they wanted to build a holistic healing center, and they had the time to nurture that vision. This is a very important idea for design professionals. How do we as designers begin to focus energy around a vision and, through this process, attract the resources necessary to manifest it?
Susanne will now explain how the clinic is organized, how it works, and how it serves as a nurturing, healing environment.
Siepl-Coates: It was not until I had spent some time in Järna that I began to understand that it is possible for buildings to have a nurturing or healing quality. This understanding occurred through my experiencing calmness in this place, through my sense of ease. After my first visit, I looked forward to going back and spending as much time as I possibly could. As Gary pointed out about the Rudolf Steiner Seminar and its gardens, I noticed an attentiveness to all different kinds of details at the clinic. Also, I noticed a sense of order. Nothing seemed haphazard, and yet everything was quite relaxed.
In addition to spending many summers in Järna systematically and casually exploring all the buildings and gardens, there were two specific approaches that helped me to understand even more about how I felt about the clinic. One was that during one of the summers, I worked as a nurse's aide in the hospital, which allowed me to get onto the patient wing, typically a very private environment and accessible to visitors only during certain hours of the day. I accompanied nurses and doctors on their rounds to meet and interact with some of the patients, trying to understand what their stories were and how they were experiencing the hospital.
In addition to that, I spent a lot of time at home making architectural drawings of these buildings, using as a base drawings that we had been given by the architect's office. In addition to making corrections based on what was actually built, I added information to the drawings -- furniture, light fixtures, trees, paths, etc. -- that is needed to understand something about the feeling quality of the buildings. I tried to communicate through the drawings the kinds of qualities that also exist in the landscape surrounding the architecture.
Gary and I spent quite a bit of time measuring tables, chairs, and light fixtures. If a table or chair had a certain shape to it, I wanted to capture that shape. We also spent hours measuring locations of trees, edges of forests, or rock outcroppings because so much of the architecture makes a gesture to what is on the site.
Vidarkliniken comprises three different buildings organized as a villagelike cluster. The hospital is the largest of the three, but one building also contains eight units of apartments for doctors and nurses. Another building serves as a patient hotel and an outpatient facility.
The hospital itself is organized into three areas. There are patient wings on the south and north ends. A U-shaped element in the center contains all the public functions and/or the shared functions of the Vidarkliniken, including the dining room, café, a performance space, library, and therapy spaces.
This is a nonsurgical hospital with 74 beds. Frequently, patients who have undergone surgery come from other hospitals to Vidarkliniken for recuperation. In addition to storage spaces in the basement, there are rooms for mineral and herbal baths and rhythmic massage, as well as a small chapel. The main floor has the kitchen, dining room, café, entrance foyer, and administrative offices. The second floor has offices for doctors, a library, art therapy spaces, performance spaces, and so on.
Anthroposophic medicine was developed out of the indications of Rudolph Steiner at the beginning of the 20th century. In anthroposophy, medicine is seen as occurring in the context of a community of healers, which, in this case, is composed of doctors, nurses, art therapists, and patients, as well as family members, friends, and other members of the community. While anthroposophic medicine includes allopathic medicine, it makes use primarily of homeopathic medicaments, rhythmic massage, mineral baths, proper nutrition, and a range of artistic therapies, such as painting, sculpture, and eurythmy, a highly disciplined form of movement created by Steiner to make tone and speech visible.
An anthroposophic doctor has to go through the same education as any other allopathic doctor, with an additional four years of education that focuses specifically on the anthroposophic aspects of healing. Anthroposophists' care is based on a view of the world in which the human being consists of body, soul, and spirit. Just as the physical body has certain characteristic functions, so do the immaterial soul and spirit bodies. In anthroposophy, illness is not seen as a failing of body parts, but as an imbalance between a person's inner and outer world; between the person's physical body and the nonphysical aspects of the body, soul, and spirit. The goal of anthroposophic medicine is to reestablish this balance by engaging the patient in a conscious process of self-healing and spiritual growth.
Gerald Karnow, M.D., an anthroposophical doctor, said, "The whole point is to enable the patient to find her own healing. Thus, a healing environment must engage the intentionality or the will of the patient. The right milieu, both for the inner and outer well-being of the patient, has to be created to stimulate the patient's will to live. Illness is thus seen as a gift, presenting the patient with an opportunity to uncover and realize the real intentions for one's life and to regain one's health by bringing body, soul, and spirit back into a balanced relationship. For this kind of healing to take place, a patient must be immersed in a therapeutic climate of care."
In her book Taking Care of Patients at Home, Ermengarde de la Houssaye describes three activities that play a most important role in the relationship between the patient and a caring nurse: "First," she writes, "to provide the correct environment for the patient; second, to mediate between the patient and those aspects of life that are less accessible to the patient during her illness, such as family relationships, daily cultural life, and being in nature; and third, to accompany the patient on her path through the experience of illness."
I would like to address these three particular aspects and see how they contribute to creating a sense of care in the built environment because my argument is that these particular characteristics don't necessarily have to come just from people, but they can also come from the building.
Creating a Sense of Care
The first characteristic, that of providing patients with what they cannot secure for themselves for the time being -- such as breath, warmth, sleep, comfortable position, movement, and so on -- is similar to a gardener who prepares the soil to create the optimum condition for the seed to develop into a plant of its own accord. A caring environment sets up the conditions for the processes of recuperation to become active, thus positively influencing the patient's will to live. Taking into consideration that a seriously sick person experiences feelings of fear, helplessness, insecurity, and dependence on others, it is most important to instill in the patient a sense of stability, a mood of support, and an atmosphere of ease. The building should be experienced as nurturing, responsive, and alive so that the patient's will to regain health can be engaged and developed.
Newly arriving patients first see the Vidarkliniken from a distance. The buildings are low to the ground and painted in a nonintimidating warm rose pink, creating a complementary color relationship with the shades of green of the surrounding agricultural fields, meadows, and clumps of trees. Upon arrival at the hospital, patients are welcomed by a nurse who helps them to the floor and the room where they will stay.
The interior of the clinic is designed to avoid any threat of patients' losing their personal identities. Some of the patient rooms have rectangular plans, but there are also some irregular, pentagonal geometries. While some spaces are for single occupants, several rooms are also designed for two or three patients and allow for a variety of bed arrangements.
Occasionally, exterior walls inflect outward, creating asymmetrical window bases and alcoves that bring light into the room from two sides. Windows are designed with great care to allow views from each bed location, and the windows also come down far enough so that the patient lying in bed can actually look outdoors and see more than the sky.
Thick walls allow for the creation of small alcove-like niches and deep sills on which to place flowers or potted plants. Rooms on the upper floor have shaped ceilings to provide visual and spatial interest for the patients as they lie looking upward from their beds.
Color is soothing and provides comfort to the patient. The surfaces are painted by the lazure method, in which several thin, transparent layers of paint are applied to create an effect of soft luminosity. These layers of color can be either the same chroma or different chromas, but the effect is that within the color, you begin to see shapes. Many of the patients with whom I spoke imagined them to be animals or other kinds of images, so it's a very different experience from the opaque color typical of our environments.
The choice of color in the patient rooms is an obvious example in which the building contributes directly to the healing of the patient. In anthroposophy, illnesses are in principle divided into two kinds: sclerotic, or illnesses that are considered to be cold in nature, and then inflammatory illnesses, such as fevers. Depending on the type of illness, doctors prescribe either warm rose-colored or cool blue-violet-colored rooms for their patients. Color is never used for merely symbolic or decorative purposes; rather, it is intended to serve the process of healing and to support the functions occurring in the spaces in which it is applied.
While being seriously ill in an unfamiliar environment, a patient easily loses contact with the familiar world of everyday life. The second characteristic of a caring environment is to provide for appropriate experiences for the patient while at the same time being aware of the "healthy" others and their life circumstances, and acting as a mediator or translator between them. At Vidarkliniken, the quality of mediating is architecturally expressed in a variety of ways. As Anatole Broyard points out in his book Intoxicated by My Illness, "The sick person's best medicine is desire -- the desire to live, to be with other people, to do things, to get back to ... life." Family members are encouraged to stay nearby and aid in caring for the patient. The building to the north of Vidarkliniken provides rooms for overnight stays of family members wanting to lend emotional and psychological support to the patient.
To further enhance the social world in the hospital, a richly textured day room and adjacent kitchen are located roughly in the middle of each patient wing. Activities inside are visible to people in the middle of each patient wing through a large window. The day room also has another very large window that opens similarly to a barn door, exposing a view out back to the wilder parts of the landscape. The patient kitchen is also important. At certain times of day, a nurse will use the kitchen to prepare a specific dietary meal for some of the patients or a meal for patients who do not feel that they want to go to the dining room quite yet. The kitchen also provides the opportunity for patients or their family members to prepare meals.
The day room comes alive at around 10 a.m. when the smell of freshly baked cookies draws members from the healing community for a midmorning snack. Not just patients come, but also the doctors, nurses, and therapists.
On the ground floor of Vidarkliniken there is a café that is organized and run by the nurses and staff. It's very much in the public realm, situated along the main corridor that surrounds the central courtyard.
The café, which is open every day from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m., serves not only the members of the hospital, but also people like Gary and me, who were there just to hang out and enjoy being there. The outdoor terrace has movable furniture and umbrellas because the sun can get very intense at times. Of course, it's accessible for wheelchairs.
On the upper floor is a large assembly hall, an exuberant soaring space for artistic performances or lectures. One can see sky and clouds through the clerestories high up or glance out at eye level through small, deeply framed windows over the agriculture fields toward the Baltic. The room appears filled by an invisible energy that cannot be contained. The walls swell outward slightly in the middle of the room, and the ceiling pushes upward at its edges, letting daylight stream in through large, clerestory windows. It's a sculptural and containing space, a soothing space.
"The room appears filled by an invisible energy that cannot be contained."
The room itself seems to be filled with joy as befits a space designed for community celebrations. Ermengarde de la Houssaye said, "The experience of being in the middle of it all is often felt as an objective force that can help the patient on the way to recuperation." The assembly hall and the day rooms certainly are spaces in which patients can experience themselves as members of a larger community and participate in life-giving activities.
The third characteristic of a caring and healing environment, that of accompanying the patient on her daily experiences on the way back to recuperation, may be understood in terms of the building's being a companion in the patient's suffering, preparing the patient for the experiences ahead that are yet unknown. At Vidarkliniken, the building aids and accompanies patients through the different stages of healing. The first stage is when patients first enter the clinic, when they probably experience a turning inward of the life energies and a desire for isolation. In response to this condition of the soul, each patient room is designed as a world in itself, a world as safe and full of ease as possible.
The patient rooms are organized in such a way that they have a little anteroom that provides access to a bathroom, and a built-in cabinet for equipment. Some of the rooms share these things. These clustered configurations create a larger social world beyond the boundary of the patient room itself. When patients have begun to open up and express interest in the larger world, this is one way to draw them out and probably could be considered as stage two in this process of healing.
Corridors in most hospitals are very straight. In Vidarkliniken they are almost straight, but not quite. When you first enter, you have a place to sit with a view out into the courtyard. The corridor, which rings the courtyard, is broken visually into segments by means of subtle changes in direction that arouse a sense of anticipation to see what might be coming up next. At the same time, light is coming in from the side as well as other places where there are alcoves, widenings in the corridor with places to sit or use the telephone that add an attractive point to the corridor. This type of corridor strongly suggests the character of a pedestrian street.
As the healing process continues, patients are ready to leave the ward, or just to participate in life more fully. As the patient's desire to leave the patient wing and explore the world beyond grows, the central wing of the clinic, with its two floors of interior spaces and the two-story gallery surrounding the open courtyard, provides opportunity for a variety of new experiences within the building and also in the gallery, which is an exterior space that is still protected.
The main floor of the public building is quite public in character. The circulation space has marble floors, warm colors, and views out into the courtyard. The upstairs corridor is quite different in character -- expressing the sense that you're under the roof because of the shape of the ceilings. The materials have also changed to make it more private: Soft pine floors, for example, are used rather than the marble used on the first floor.
There's also a dining room on the first floor, which patients can use when they're ready. Patients, nurses, staff, therapists all dine together at tables that are always nicely set.
The two-story open gallery to the west of the courtyard is designed to provide wind-protected, sunny, outdoor places for patients and others visiting the hospital and café. Again, ledges and movable furniture allow each person or group to find the combination of sun, wind, and light that's appropriate for the season. By connecting the two patient wings, the gallery completes the indoor corridor that circles the courtyard on the east so patients have many options for exploring the building and getting around.
The gallery sets the stage for the fourth stage of the healing process, which involves the patient's leaving the hospital on his or her own. From my point of view, Vidarkliniken serves as an example of how architects can contribute to designing nurturing and therapeutic environments to nourish not only our physical bodies, but also the nonmaterial aspects of our human condition. Gary will explain some of the principles on which Asmussen's architecture is based.
Coates: Now that we have become familiar with Asmussen's architecture in Järna and the design of Vidarkliniken, I'd like to look at seven principles of healing architecture. In doing so, however, it's important to point out that Asmussen never designs merely to illustrate principles, concepts, ideas, etc., which, of course, is quite fashionable today. He is much more of an artist. He works intuitively. Most of his architecture is designed with models. He works intimately with client groups, especially in the buildings in Järna, and he is quite familiar with the sites because he walks the land and uses on a daily basis the buildings he has designed for the community.
I don't want to suggest that, if you just have this laundry list of principles, you, too, can design buildings like Asmussen. The total way of working -- the process, the community-supported and supportive architecture that he creates -- comprises an organic whole. I do believe, however, that these principles can serve as lenses through which we can focus our vision and understanding of what Asmussen has accomplished and how specifically he has created these very nurturing, responsive, and healing environments.
As design professionals we all talk about doing this, but, typically, we either do something that is cold and rigid and mechanical looking, or we do buildings and interiors that have a homey kind of look. We can't seem to find the middle ground. I believe Asmussen has found that middle ground, and he's done it because he has honored and expressed the principles that I'll run through now.
1. Unity of form and function. We've called this principle, in other contexts, spiritual functionalism. By living into the life the building is to contain, extensive interaction with client and site, by designing with models, living into the forms and generative processes of the natural world, Asmussen is able to create designs that, at every scale of environment, both image and support the activities the building is intended to house. That's really the heart and soul of all that he's doing to make function visible. And, of course, function is defined very broadly -- not the narrow technological functionalism of the Modern Movement. Asmussen's vision very consciously encompasses technological, psychological, social, ecological, human, and cultural/spiritual dimensions of function in an architecture that speaks to the whole human being.
An example of this in Asmussen's work would be wooden door handles that are intended for pushing. Such handles shape and are shaped by the form of the hand in the open pushing mode. You're never in doubt about which way the door opens, or if it will. Similarly, a handle on a cabinet door in Vidarkliniken is shaped to the human hand, in this case communicating the sense that it is a pull handle. Everywhere in Asmussen's buildings, in ever varied forms, hand railings are also contoured to fit the grasping hand. They're a pleasure to touch. In these examples, building elements support and visibly express function and use.
At another scale, chimneys express the movement of hot air and smoke that billow and expand as they rise upward. When one looks at a chimney, one senses something about the spirit of what lives in it. A chimney is not merely an opaque geometric abstraction, but, rather, a living picture of the soul of the process it contains -- even if it's not a human process (even if, as in the case of chimneys, it's a fire process).
In Vidarkliniken there are rooms for the practice of curative eurythmy, the discipline of bodily movement created by Steiner to aid in the process of rebalancing and harmonizing the being. Along with prescriptions for various medicaments, massages, and art therapies, patients get prescriptions for certain movements related to their illness. What we find in all the eurythmy practice rooms, including those intended for artistic rather than curative eurythmy, is that their shapes mirror, in their volumes, the space of the moving body. They are smaller and more vertical at the bottom and larger and more round at the top. Windows in the eurythmy practice rooms typically have the same shape, thereby communicating to the world outside as well as inside the nature of the space and the activity it contains. Lamps in these spaces also take on that same spatial profile.
Asmussen designs nearly all of the lamps and furniture used in his buildings. One could do a whole book about furnishings, lamps, and the like. Each lamp is designed for a specific building, and is intended to support the activity in the room while communicating its specific quality. They're not just clever abstractions; they serve the unity of form and function that is characteristic of Asmussen's design from the smallest element to the overall building form.
The sculpture therapy room in Vidarkliniken is painted in a rose-tinted color, and the windows make visible a sense of structure or support, thereby communicating something about the nature of sculptural processes that take place in the room. Color is used in a similar way. Because sculpting is an active process, the room is painted a warm rose color.
The painting room walls, by contrast, are a kind of pale, neutral gray-violet-blue. All of these colors are found in various layers; the bottom layer is a transparent white, which allows light to be reflected back through the other layers of cool transparent color to give the kind of luminosity that Susanne talked about. The window in the painting room is vertical in proportion and rises higher than the plane of the ceiling, which contributes to its role in connecting this space to the realm of cloud and sky. The painting room is much more calm and serene in its quality, not as angular and muscular as the sculpture room right next door. You can sense the difference in mood and function immediately upon entering each space because everything from the light fixtures to the colors, room shapes, and window proportions has been explicitly designed to image and accommodate what goes on there.
2. Polarity. This implies that differences are not merely oppositions, but that differences are distinctions that are a nondual part of a larger whole. Asmussen articulates and intensifies polarities. In the dormitory Ormen Lange, which means long snake, the railing of the second-floor exterior walkway consists of wooden members that spring from the supporting columns like the branches of a tree. The columns and railings rise and fall rhythmically as they march across the face of the building, imaging the forest against which the building is sited and giving artistic expression to the rhythmical movement of students as they walk along this very public concourse. This same polarity of rising and falling can be seen in the design of the chimneylike bathroom vents that break the ridgeline of Ormen Lange. A vent that is shaped with an expanded, upward-rising top is followed by one with the opposite gesture.
"... polarities are always balanced within the embrace of a larger and often trinitarian whole."
Everywhere in Asmussen's architecture you can see and experience the play of such polarities. The music building, which is a little, round-headed, gnomelike creature set amid a circle of weathered round rocks, is a symphony of contrasts between circle and straight line, sphere and polygon. In the interior of the music room itself, which is the large-volume space on the second floor, is a creaturelike fireplace that is solid, round, and convex. It is set in opposition to the large bay window, a concave element made up of flat planes of glass. The room is energized by this dramatic play of opposites.
We find that polarities are always balanced within the embrace of a larger and often trinitarian whole. Unity is one, duality is two. The return to unity is first achieved in the number three, the trinity. We express this in our theology, East and West; we express it also in our traditional architecture.
Asmussen gives ever new form to this idea of unity in multiplicity. Typically, an elevation will be divided into three parts both vertically and horizontally. We are thus able to see the opposites and that which joins them together to create a larger whole.
The floor plan of the Culture House illustrates another way that polarity shows up in Asmussen's designs. The performance hall itself is a convex shape that seems to focus inward. It is surrounded by the foyer, which is concave and opens out to embrace the surrounding landscape. Whereas the hall is symmetrical, calm and centered, the foyer, by contrast, is a very dynamic, moving, shifting kind of space, filled with shadows and shafts of light, perhaps metaphorically very similar to a Swedish forest. Many of these kinds of organic natural metaphors are present, but there is no attempt to imitate the forms of nature, because Asmussen is trying to design from the principles that generate form in nature rather than merely imitating the products that nature produces.
Polarity is seen again in the angular and the curved stair railing in the Culture House; the poured concrete and soft wood contrast in terms of form, color, texture, and material. All of the polarities that Asmussen works with are brought together in the Culture House, even in its external formal geometries. As you may recall, this principle is also used to great effect in Vidarkliniken, in contrasts between public and private realms, windows for viewing the horizon and windows for viewing the sky, and rooms for active versus passive pursuits.
3. Metamorphosis. This concept is, perhaps, the most important and the most difficult to grasp. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the great German poet, playwright, and scientist of color and the organic world, first discovered the principle of metamorphosis in his studies of the flowering plant, and Steiner was the first to make it the basis for architectural design. One has to go through a shift in perceptual abilities and consciousness itself to begin to see in the way that Rudolf Steiner and Goethe were able to see.
Let us try to understand this principle by looking at Goethe's ideas about metamorphosis in the plant kingdom. Images of leaves taken from a single field poppy show tremendous variety. They even look like they might be leaves from different plants. If they are arranged in a certain sequence according to similarity of form or morphology, however, we begin to see a line of relationship in which one form is progressively, through a development process of changes and transformations, becoming the next form. If we arrange them in the sequence in which they appear on the plant itself, we begin to understand the nature of the generative process in time through which that transformation has occurred.
What Goethe was able to do was to see the archetypal plant, and therefore each individual plant, as the metamorphosis of the archetypal leaf. The archetypal leaf itself contains both the principle of contraction, in the form of the stem, and the principle of expansion, in the form of the blade. According to Goethe, these are the polarities that are the generative basis for the metamorphic processes that give rise to all the varied forms in nature. Through a rhythmical series of expansions and contractions, nature continually transforms itself.
Asmussen uses the principle of metamorphosis throughout his buildings to allow us to experience through art what surrounds us in nature. Metamorphosis is what gives a kind of unity to what, at one level, appear to be very dissimilar buildings and building elements; you feel a kind of connection among them. The unity one senses in Asmussen's architecture is largely the result of an invisible (Steiner would say spiritual) metamorphic process that links all the parts into an organic whole.
There are 12 types of metamorphosis, but a couple of them can illustrate this theme. Developmental metamorphosis is that process which characterizes the transition from one leaf to another in the sequence of leaves that I just described. The south-facing basement entry of Vidarkliniken is analogous to a small seed leaf in that sequence. A more articulated, developed, and expanded version of that same entry, analogous to the larger and more deeply incised stem leaf, is to be found at the main entry. So these two entries are linked, not by repetition of motives and forms, but through the metamorphosis of one form into another.
The buildings of the Rudolf Steiner Seminar that are located around the orchard meadow -- the music house, library, eurythmy house, the dining hall/social center, the dormitory (Ormen Lange) and the Culture House -- are similarly linked to each other by the process of metamorphosis. Each building contains a low contracted part on the first level that houses private dwellings, and a larger volume on the second (and sometimes third) level that houses the public spaces. This pattern is the archetypal leaf, if you will, that is metamorphosed in each building according to its function and placement in the sequence.
Almandinen, the music house, is a small contracted form. The next building in the sequence around the meadow is the library. In contrast to Almandinen, the library is larger (three stories) and more angular and expansive, with projecting alcoves and other elements. The first-story wings of the library are elongated, especially compared to the one-story portion of Almandinen. Everything about the library is more expanded, angular, incised, and articulated than Almandinen. The relationship between Almandinen and the library is analogous to the relationship between the small round seed leaf and the large, incised stem leaf in the flowering plant. Like the two entries at the clinic, the library can thus be experienced as a metamorphosis of Almandinen. So at all scales, one finds metamorphosis going on.
4. Harmony with nature and site. Every building by Asmussen does two things. First, it engages in a very specific dialogue with its site. It is visibly shaped by and in conversation with naturally occurring features such as trees and rock as well as other buildings nearby.
Another way in which Asmussen's architecture is in harmony with nature and site is that his buildings actually take on characteristics that reflect qualities of the surrounding environment. One can see, for example, a kind of metamorphosis of site features into architectural forms in the case of Almandinen. The weathered rocks among which Almandinen sits are architecturally expressed in the rounded roof of the main volume of the building. Vidarkliniken bends to follow the shape of the large rock island that forms its back to the west. The staff housing and outpatient clinic are placed, as you may recall, amid other outcroppings of rock to create a courtyardlike cluster in relationship to the hospital itself. The facades of the Culture House and the dormitory Ormen Lange mirror the qualities of the landscape and buildings toward which they face. Even though Asmussen's buildings are distinct forms set apart from the landscape, they are intimately related to their surroundings in these ways. They would not make sense if they were built anywhere else.
5. The living wall. Most walls are substantial fillers between structurally repeating elements of a grid; they have neither identity nor character nor anything that attracts us to them. Asmussen's walls, by contrast, are organic and alive; they express the generative forces by which they are shaped. They are living membranes that reveal the play between the polarities of up and down, inside and outside. In the elevations of Vidarkliniken, as we have seen, the sculptural surfaces reveal the weight of downward, falling loads and the muscular resistance of upward, rising supports. These walls tell us something about the nature of gravity and what it takes to stand between earth and sky.
If we look at the floorplan of Vidarkliniken, it's almost as if the building itself, in plan, is breathing in and breathing out, contracting and expanding, reaching outward and turning inward. The rhythmic alternation of opposites gives life to walls that would otherwise follow the logic of T square and straightedge rather than the organic logic of the living being. The thick walls and carefully shaped windows that we saw in Vidarkliniken create a strong sense of protected enclosure, yet, as Susanne indicated, they simultaneously intensify awareness of the natural features of the surrounding landscape. Asmussen's handling of the building envelope is one reason that his buildings feel like living creatures that nurture and protect the life they contain.
6. The dynamic equilibrium of spatial experience. Asmussen has two primary kinds of spaces -- those for movement and those for rest. In the movement spaces, there are places for rest, and in the spaces for rest, which are typically rooms for specific activities like sculpture or painting, there is also a sense of movement. He uses contrasts between up and down, in and out, front and back, near and far to create spaces that are dynamically polarized and alive. Susanne discussed the way in which the corridors of Vidarkliniken, for example, swell and contract, open up and reach for light or cup themselves into small alcoves of more sheltered enclosure in an uninterrupted flow of dynamically moving space. In these halls constancy and change, symmetry and asymmetry, sheltered intimacy and expansive openness are held in a delicate and shifting balance through alternating experiences of movement and rest. Yet whether one is in motion or at rest, there is always a sense of equilibrium in which the seed of the opposite possibility is already contained in the present moment. This rhythmic kind of process is always at work in the spaces within and between Asmussen's buildings.
7. Color luminosity and color perspective. For the first-time visitor to Asmussen's architecture, the most striking impression is created by his strong and pervasive use of nontraditional colors. Upon entering any structure, one is immersed in a world of light-filled, transparent color. The interior paints are made by Färbygge, an anthroposophical business in Järna, from vegetable and mineral dyes in a casein and beeswax medium. With the paint applied in several thin transparent layers according to the lazure method that was described, surfaces take on qualities of luminosity and aliveness similar to the qualities of color found in nature. One of the things about the lazure wall paintings is that the materials are not masked by paint, as they are when opaque color is used. You can still see that the material is wood, concrete, plaster, whatever. By comparison, opaque color, which does not exist anywhere in nature, hides the materials it covers and can seem by comparison to be dispirited and lifeless. The color on and in Asmussen's buildings enlivens and reveals the nature of the materials, which always remain visible beneath its glow.
Taken as a whole, the seven principles of organic functionalism that I have described define an approach to design that is capable of creating, as in the case of Asmussen's buildings, an architecture that is nurturing, healing, and alive. This remarkable building and community remain an inexhaustible source of inspiration and instruction.
Jaerna Bridge - Järnabron antroposofi.org