30 June, 2010


'total work of art'

By Michael A. Vidalis

Greek version

Any study of architecture relative to a particular art form would be incomplete without proper consideration of architecture relative to the totality of the arts, that is, relative to the arts as a whole.

Gesamtkunstwerk, literally meaning 'total work of art', is "the notion that all types of art, including painting, music, architecture, literature, etc can be collated into one interrelated subject, project and study". (1.)

The use of the term in an architectural context signifies the fact that the architect is responsible for the design and/or overseeing of the building's totality: shell, accessories, furnishings, and landscape.

 Rufolf M. Bisanz in 'The Romantic Synthesis of the Arts: Nineteenth-Century German Theories on a Universal Art' writes: "Friedrich Schlegel, Philipp Otto Runge, and Richard Wagner were three principal contributors to the evolution of the Gesamtkunstwerk theory in 19th C. Germany. The first stressed the liberating psychology of subjective poetic creativity thereby "making all things possible to the imagination". The second expanded under the auspices of the visual arts the boundaries of the Gesamtkunstwerk on the basis of the universal constancy of human predisposition and an ecumenical Christianity. The third articulated the grounds of an "inner necessity" of nature one that will sustain a national theater encompassing all the creative and performing arts within the scope of the musical drama. He also invented the term Gesamtkunstwerk itself, a term that now serves as the accepted collective designation for widely disparate efforts of uniting the arts in spirit and deed".

In the aesthetic theory of Richard Wagner (1813-1883) Gesamtkunstwerk is "an ideal work of art in which drama, music and other performing arts are integrated and each is subservient to the whole" (Naturally, evident is the composer's bias). (2.)

 For Richard Wagner "the combining or union of all art in one art form" was perhaps "an artistic festival of representation". (3.) He essentially attempted to arrive at the combined art form - Universal Art - from the essence or soul of the music. (4.)

 Wagner in "Kunst and Revolution" gave birth to the idea of Gesamtkunstwerk. In it he wished for the re-establishment of the Greek Gesamtkunstwerk. This necessitated "revolution", not "restoration", for the Greeks had achieved this "birthright" through "strong roots of popular consciousness and communal interest". On the contrary, art in 19th  C. Europe was thought of as inferior, mercenary, and lamentable for it was selfish (For Aristotle "beauty is symmetry, the analogy (proportion or relation) and an organic order of the parts in a unified whole"). 

 In Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk "each art requires and is inseparable from, the other". (5.)  In Thomas Mann's words "...Wagner's art, starting with his concept of the fusion of all the arts in the so-called Gesamtkunstwerk is dilettantism to the n- th. power, the product of an immense strength of mind and will, dilettantism raised to the status of genius".

 "In its own way Wagner's concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk, the union of the arts, is much an expression of the nineteenth - century cult of grandeur, of size for size's sake, as the "Grand Opera" of Meyerbeer about which Wagner waxed so scornful. So too, again in their own way, are Wagner's works themselves, with their inordinate length and their extraordinary demands on performers and spectators alike. The idea that bigger means better is what Thomas Mann called the "bad mechanistic side" of the nineteenth century. But the greatness of Wagner's operas does not prove the greatness of his theory - it simply proves the greatness of his operas. That this greatness is a greatness in music, not a greatness in some composite dramatic "art of the future", is a reality experienced by anyone who has surrendered to Wagner. (6.)


Gamble residence, Pasadena - Greene and Greene architects


 The concept of Universal Artwork "...was apparently suggested as early as Johann Mattheson, 18th C. composer and theorist, who saw in the OPERA THEATRE an academy of the FINE ARTS where in such a Universal Artwork could be produced". (7.)  The idea of Gesamtkunstwerk is known also as Universality Theory. (8. Whereas, Albert Einstein held the belief that "all the individual arts were supposed to give up something of their own nature in order to create a higher unity". (9.)

 The notion of Gesamtkunstwerk goes back to the Romantic period. It is essentially a synthesis of the arts (Parenthetically, the Germans were the first to treat poetry as music). The idea pops again in the Art Nouveau period, as Art Nouveau does have Gesamtkunstwerk in it. It is the concept of no separation between arts and crafts. An ambition of 19th C. artists was to impose one unifying design on everything, giving all aspects of art form and beauty. Everything should reflect the same style. The idea disappears with the First World War and reemerges with the Bauhaus. (10.) 

The Bauhaus embraced the idea of Gesamtkunstwerk as its "foundation". Hans W. Wingler in "The Bauhaus: Weimar, Dessau, Berlin, Chicago" suggests: "The intense longing for the comprehensive Gesamtkunstwerk came to life again only shortly after it had been relegated to the historical past and was no longer unquestioningly regarded as the highest fulfillment of the great, collectively - supported processes of artistic evolution ...the concept was present in the thought of all important creative personalities around 1850, and it acquired something of a mystical dimension, with a promise of artistic rebirth. Above all, this ardent desire for the Gesamtkunstwerk referred repeatedly to historical precedents. Fighting to the last, Gottfried Semper desperately evoked the past in his own architectural works, and yet he was the very architect who had so sensibly evaluated the beginnings of mass production in the home - building industry...". 

Zurcher R. claims examples of Gesamtkunstwerk as early as the late Baroque period, while Wagner makes reference to the Greek Gesamtkunstwerk as already discussed.  To attempt though for a definite historical pinpointing of the origin of the phenomenon in an architectural context appears futile. 

The work of Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach - architect, sculptor, architectural historian, and the father of the Austrian Baroque - can be considered as Gesamtkunstwerk. "His buildings can be considered total works of art in which architecture and the figurative arts are united to express a predominant idea - the glorification of God or the patron saint in ecclesiastical architecture or the allegorical glorification of the ruler or of the noble patron in secular buildings... All of his works are composed of several different elements or contrasting features that are harmonized in a unified whole and in reference to their natural and artistic environment". (11.)

On a similar note is the work of architect Dominikus Zimmerman. More than the "rhetorical Gesamtkunstwerk of the seventeenth century", his pilgrimage church of Steinhausen (1727-1733) is an attempt. (12.)  The architect's brother painted the great vault fresco, while under the organ gallery the signature of the master architect is found. (13.

Rolf Linneuhamp in "The Castles and Projects of Ludwig II." provides an historical account of the attitude of a great architectural patron: "The construction projects and works of Bavarian King Ludwig II are among the most adventurous accomplishments in the history of European architecture since the French revolution. The royal projects - about one dozen - can almost be viewed as links in a chain: they reveal the growing self-confidence of the patron with each new project. Ludwig's goal, detailed by him with expertise was the Gesamtkunstwerk: a picture of harmony resulting from a blending of fine arts, modern technology and nature, carefully groomed and managed. Louis II. was the exemplary patron of the century at a time when patronage of this kind was frowned upon. Ludwig's projects included, Hobenschwangau, Burg; Munich, Residenz; Berg am Starnberger See, Schloss; Munich, Festspielhaus (project); Neuschwanstein, Burg; Linderhof, Schloss; Herrencheimsee, Schloss; Falkenstein, Burg.".

Later architects intimately related to the idea of Gesamtkunstwerk include Peter Behrens, Michael Graves, Michael de Klerk - romantic founder of the School of Amsterdam - The Greene brothers (Charles and Henry), Joseph Hoffmann, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Joseph Maria Olbrich, Gerrit Rietveld, Henry van de Velde, Frank Lloyd Wright, and others. To a lesser extent C. R. Ashbee, Hendrik Petrus Berlage, and Arthur H. Mackmurdo experimented with the idea. 

The German architect and industrial designer Peter Behrens (1868-1940) during his long term association with AEG had the opportunity to build worker's housing for the company's new factories in the country (Apartment houses at Hennigsdorf, 1910-1911). This project was his first attempt to design housing for the masses. (14.)  In connection with these units Behrens designed furniture exhibited at the Trades Union Headquarters (1912, Berlin). (15.) He went on to design kitchens, living rooms and bedrooms for working class families, as exhibited in various periodicals. 

The Austrian architect and furniture designer Josef Hoffmann (1870-1956) displayed his attention to detail in the magnificent Palais Stoclet (1905, Brussels), where the Wiener Werkstätte designed the cutlery and glassware. 

The Dutch architect Gerrit Rietveld (1888-1964) realized in his Schröder House at Utrecht (1924) an almost de Stijl painting, an abstractionist quality, furniture and all.

The Austrian Henry van de Velde (1863-1957) "made his début as an architect and as a designer in 1895, when he designed and built a house for himself at Uccle near Brussels. This without question was intended to demonstrate the ultimate synthesis of all the arts, for apart from integrating the house with all its furnishings, including the cutlery, Van de Velde attempted to consummate the whole GESAMTKUNSTWERK through the flowing forms of the dresses that he designed for his wife". (16.)

Frank Lloyd Wright (1869-1959), perhaps the greatest American architect (even though he declared it himself), believed in Gesamtkunstwerk wholeheartedly. "His goal, like that of many of his European contemporaries was the achievement of a total environment, embracing and affecting the whole of society". (17.)  His Larkin Building (Buffalo), S.C. Johnson & Son Administration Building (Racine, Wisconsin), Unity Temple (Oak Park), and Fallingwater (Bear Run, Pennsylvania), are some examples of that involvement.  In fact, during his Prairie Style period (1890-1916) Frank Lloyd Wright - as Kenneth Frampton notes - "carefully assembled an atelier of technicians and artist - craftsmen to design and realize his vision of a GESAMTKUNSTWERK, a "total work of art". This team included the engineer Paul Mueller, the landscape architect Wilhelm Miller, the cabinet-maker George Niedecken, the mosaic designer Catherine Ostertag, the sculptors Richard Bock and Alfonso Fanelli, and the talented Orlando Gianni, who served as Wright's fabricator of glass and textiles from 1892". 

Wright writes in "The Natural House" under Furnishings: "He [the architect] not only sees more or less clearly the nature of the materials but, in his own trained imagination and by virtue of his own feeling, he qualifies it all as a whole". 

He was an idealistic and egocentric man. Frampton in "Modern Architecture: A Critical History" comments on "Wright's disappointment when, having designed the Larkin office furniture, was not permitted to restyle the telephones ...The same idealistic spirit is manifest in Wright's disgust at changes made to the Larkin structure during the course of its daily use. "They", he wrote bitterly of the management, "never hesitated to make senseless changes was just one of their factory buildings". 

In the exercise of Gesamtkunstwerk a totality is conceived. The architect dreams of a theme and attempts its realization in a cohesive, consistent and rational manner. While following an overall scheme attention is paid to an incredible amount of detail, but the parts may suffer such that a larger whole may be realized (Perhaps analogous to the concept of Synergy, where the whole is larger than the sum of its individual constituent parts). In Gesamtkunstwerk the resultant is harmony or unity.

One wonders though whether the totality - of a total work of art - can really be conceived, or even captured. And if it can, does its pragmatic existence deny its transcendental existence? If one assumes that a total work of art is indeed possible and realizable doesn't it insulate one from the influence of the exoteric realities, by being sterile or museum-like? (In this limiting condition perhaps the expression of "architecture as art" and "architecture as Gesamtkunstwerk" become synonymous). 

And if art is the ultimate expression of human creativity, a never-ending search, the possession of a total artistic expression denies the incentive for further search, as the realization of a dream reveals the setting of easily attainable limits or of low standards.

A total work of art supposedly constitutes "perfection" throughout. Physically speaking, the assumption of such a condition is fallacious, as peak efficiency can never reach one hundred percent due to the existence of attributable losses (The Second Law of Classical Thermodynamics). Is artistic perfection - a subjective entity - ever realizable?


Robie House interior, Chicago - Frank Lloyd Wright


In the metaphysical realm full expression occurs after "destruction", so perhaps a total work of art assumes perfection when it no longer exists (Proposing a perishable or ephemeral art?). 

Gesamtkunstwerk having the cohesiveness of a chain can easily be offset or broken by a single - however minute - part. As such, it is an architecture of precarious balance, being simultaneously static and dynamic, and an architecture of a potentially high measure of entropy. 

Perhaps the appeal of Gesamtkunstwerk to some designers is because "furniture anticipates architectural futures, experimenting at minimal cost and effort with form and space". (18.

In "The Aesthetics of Architecture" Roger Scrutton remarks: "It is a disheartening feature of much modern architecture that it lacks this flair for detail. Indeed, modern architects have often shown a hostility towards everything that could be conceived under the aspect of "ornament"; out of this hostility arose not only the stripped classicism favoured by totalitarian regimes, but also the ideal of architecture as a kind of GESAMTKUNSTWERK, which can be aesthetically serious only if the total conception remains within the architect's control". 

The idea of control is pivotal to this argument. Perhaps without control a cohesive totality cannot be attained. But total control tends to lean towards despotism (Plato's concept of the Philosopher-King is perhaps transformed here to the concept of the Architect - King!) And total control does not allow for a free or natural growth and evolution. A Gesamtkunstwek house always "is", as it does not really lend itself to alterations.

On similar lines, if one accepts the premise of Heraclitus, "τα πάντα ρει", literally meaning, "everything flows", or that the only constant is change, as everything is in flux and nothing remains fixed, then the idea of Gesamtkunstwerk appears absurd. One might conclude then that Gesamtkunstwerk, as an idea is overly dogmatic or rigid, as it does not really account for change, growth or flexibility.

As a remnant of Romanticism perhaps, great art is equated with individualism and originality. We will agree that Gesamtkunstwerk is individualistic, as seen, but is it original? We may argue that it probably is, for it is difficult to imagine two similar Gesamtkunstwerk, as these are context and culture dependent. 

We suppose it constitutes a manifestation of megalomania. Frank Lloyd Wright in quite a few of his projects demanded total control. In fact, the last point of his nine-point manifesto saw no need for interior decorators! 

Ironically - not unlike the Arts and Crafts movement - while this concept of total design stresses the collective, its realization usually occurs in anti-collective societies, such as despotic or capitalistic.

In the name of total art the architect marches under the banner of "purveyor of culture". But what gives a designer such a right to control, or such "omniscience"? Why does an architect think he or she can instill culture? Does an architect know all we need better than we do? This is doubtful, for even we are unclear, as our needs are constantly shaped. Do we acquire a home and furnish it for life? 

The application of uniformity and consistency ultimately leads to boredom. The application of a single style in an environment is questionable. Let alone that from a psychological point of view such an attempt should not be entertained. As humans we require varying stimuli for our well -being (The extremes, either information underload or information overload, may ultimately lead to mental illness). 

This point is best illustrated perhaps in Adolf Loos parable of "The Poor Little Rich Man": This rich man had everything in life except art. So he commissioned an architect who designed for him a house - a total work of art - and the envy of the world. At first the rich man was ecstatic to have the privilege of living in a showcase, a museum. But discontent quickly set in as he realized his environment was fixed, he could not change anything (even the picture frames were fixed on the walls), he could not even accept a gift from his grandchildren, for the architect who designed everything for him, including his slippers, was there to see everything was in its proper place! 

In its most unadulterated form Gesamtkunstwerk is nothing more than the vernacular of a region. As such, it is perhaps the social apotheosis of arts and crafts where architect is the common man. Testimony to this is the Greek islands (until recently), like Mykonos or Santorini, or European, South American, or African villages. 

The Dutch employ a similar term: "Gemeenschapskunst", literally meaning "people's art". As such, it is a cultural art, a socially responsible art (The English Arts and Crafts movement claimed social accountability but it failed miserably, as it ironically was inaccessible to the class it intended to serve). 

As a philosophical exercise we may ponder, how far do we take design? Do we design incompleteness expecting the evolutionary attainment of completeness (or perfection through imperfection), or do we design completeness, "perfection" frozen in time? The subject of ideal versus real expressed by American architect and educator Douglas Graf is a valid architectural concern. Can something real ever be ideal? Or vice-versa?  Is Gesamtkunstwerk valid only as an ideal, whose real manifestation is a far cry of what it wants to be? Is Gesamtkunstwerk practical? Obviously these questions merit a separate investigation in their own right. 

While perhaps valid as an inherent order versus randomness, at the very least, Gesamtkunstwerk as an idea appears outdated. The nature of today's complex world has led to specialization, rendering a designer incapable of handling the total project. Let alone that as an idea it appears Romantic and out of context in today's accelerated and ephemeral society.

In the application of Gesamtkunstwerk it is difficult to imagine any significant creative input by the client, since the architect most often than not is in total control. Some patrons of course favor such an approach. In the case of the David Gamble residence in Pasadena (1908) for instance, the Gambles left everything up to the Greene Brothers and left for the Orient. The Greenes designed the landscape, the residence, the furniture, and the piano case, even the brass screws on the door handle. An incredible amount of detail was paid attention to, in accord with the arts and crafts ideas and the Greene Brothers' philosophy.

Charles Greene believed "buildings after all are only an extension of man's wardrobe ...quite personal in their appeal". Charles Greene discussing the Gamble residence: "Materials express their inherent qualities of design and beauty. They are brought together and coordinated by the principle of NOTAN, where the value of one tone against another and intervals of tones create harmony of all elements. From the color of the room, the furnishings take their hue toned to each other in varying intensities. Furniture complements the tones of the rugs and in the main rooms costly Oriental rugs set the standard for the color and motif of the other elements, touching every detail from fireplace to fixtures. In some rooms, rugs of muted colors integrate the values of the other designed or chosen materials in total harmony".

The idea of Gesamtkunstwerk is rather polemical, as we have seen... An interesting reminder though of the people-service nature of architecture: "[The Gamble residence] fulfilled a need of the dreaming artist, but what of the client, for whom artistic visions were an unknowable entity... The dreams became folly except to the dreamers, the architects, and in truth the house ultimately belonged to the architects. Greene and Greene sought to make an all-conclusive statement, to create a work of art. No obeisance was made to collections or displays of objects, no allowance for ostentation. It left the client and his expression behind. If there is fault to be found in the major residences that the architects Greene designed, it is that they can never be possessed never really owned. They are never, truly, just a home". (19.)


Robie House interior, Chicago - Frank Lloyd Wright



Michael A. Vidalis,
Registered Architect, MArch.

The above paper was written while the author was attending the graduate program in architecture at the Ohio State University. Later, a lecture was given by him on the subject, at the Hellenic American Union, in Athens, Greece, May 15, 1987.  It was subsequently published in a shorter version in the journal ΑΡΧΙΤΕΚΤΟΝΕΣ (ARCHITECTS), published by the Society of Greek Architects, issue 35, September / October 2002, pp. 50-52. Lastly, it appears in his book "anti·Architecture: Architectural Monologues" (Athens: IWN Publishers, 2005). 



1 Dictionary of the Arts, 1951 ed., s.v. "Gesamtkunstwerk", by Martin L. Wolf.
2 The Oxford English Dictionary, 1972 ed., s.v. "Gesamtkunstwerk".
3 Meyers Enzyklopadisches Lexicon, 1974 ed., s.v. "Gesamtkunstwerk".
4 Brockhaus Enzyklopadie, 1969 ed., s.v. "Gesamtkunstwerk".
5 Ronald Taylor, Richard Wagner: His Life, Art and Thought. (London: Paul Elek Limited, 1979), p. 50.
6 Ibid., p. 109.
7 Dictionary of the Arts, 1951 ed., s.v. "Universal Artwork", by Martin L. Wolf.
8 Ibid.
9 The Oxford English Dictionary, 1972 ed., s.v. "Gesamtkunstwerk".
10 Donald Riechel (Professor of German and Comparative Art), The Ohio State University, Department of German Language, Columbus, Ohio: Interview, 5 November 1984.
11 The New Encyclopaedia Brittanica, 15th. ed., s.v. "Fischer von Erlach, Johann Bernhard".
12 Christian Norberg - Schulz, Late Baroque and Rococo Architecture. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1974), p.40.
13 Ibid., p. 137.
14 Alan Windsor, Peter Behrens: Architect and Designer (London: The Architectural Press Ltd., 1981), p.101.
15 Ibid., p. 102.
16 Kenneth Frampton, Modern Architecture: A Critical History (London: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1980), p.96.
17 Ibid., p. 61.
18 Norval White, The Architecture Book (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976), s.v. "Furniture".
19 Karen Current, Greene & Greene: Architects in the Residential Style (Fort Worth, Texas: Amon Carter Museum of Western Art, 1974), p. 111. 

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