Bricks • Mortar • Imagination • Words

The Texts - Rosa Ainley

How many senses make five?

You might not describe Orchard House as sensational, but it's a building that has plenty of impact on all five senses - one for each point of its pentagon. Until the mid-nineteenth century sensation meant pertaining to the senses, so it seems only right to resurrect this usage in relation to Orchard House because there is something distinctly premodern about Steiner World, despite the newness of technology employed here.1 The Steiner attitudes to education and the care of people with disabilities are entirely contemporary, enlightened and progressive, as is their - depending on your attitudes - un/fashionable disregard for politically correct terminology.

Controversy still hovers over the Steiner enterprise; whether difference and otherworldliness in Steiner establishments add up to sinisterly cultish and exclusive; whether Steiner himself was involved in leading a lodge in the Ordo Templi Orientis; and whether Nazi arsonists burned down Steiner's first Goetheanum.2 But in a world of sensory overload, where sound means loud and visuals scream, at Orchard House the aim is to engage the senses, gently and quietly, with little fuss or excitement, and the layers of rhythm to soothe rather than stimulate. The building, which smells of beeswax and wood, not institution or brimstone, has been tuned and coloured with this in mind and it has the resonance of any other performance space or place of worship.

The power of colour is not to be underestimated: in antiquity colour was considered to be a drug. It was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), a big influence on Rudolf Steiner, whose then controversial colour theory explored the sensory and moral effects of colours. The entrance space of Orchard House, the small apse, is coloured warm golden orange; the main space, a calming violet. The theory is that the warmer colours 'hold' you, while you move around in the cooler coloured areas. But it isn't only about hue: we're not talking interior Deco-land here. The Lazure colour-washing process used on the walls means the colours are less saturated, and they are shaded to grow lighter further up the walls then darker again to 'encourage the residents' spirits to stay grounded, not soar away'. The aim is to create a restful environment; it's not supposed to be invigorating.

In the theory of eurythmy, a form of rhythmic movement originated by Steiner's first wife, letters have colour and sound. In this way, Orchard House can be said to be a site of synaesthetic experience: giving shape to the silent, making the invisible heard, bringing tactility into view. It's haptic, not hectic and despite all the activity, a space of perception and sensation. Isaac Newton (1642-1727), whose colour theory is still the basis of our knowledge, although overtaken by Goethe's work, associated each colour in the spectrum with a note from the musical scale. It was Goethe again who described architecture as frozen music, a melted physical form of the most ethereal of arts, he thought. While most artforms work on the responses of a single sense, architecture can encompass and transpose them all. Orchard House is a House of Utterance3 and speaks on the level of the sixth sense as well. There's great store set by intuition here, a suggestion that the residents, who have limited intellectual capabilities, always know what you're thinking. Perhaps this is about liminal sensation, beyond the threshold of sensory awareness or articulation. Each sense leaves a trace, an aftereffect: an indentation, a vapour, a belch, an echo, a shadow.

Just as it reaches across different senses, so Orchard House seems to reach beyond the limits of dimension. Lazure colouring, which is built up in layers, moves away from the idea of the solid surface as impenetrable mass. The 1d being can perceive only points, the 2d only one dimension, the 3d reads only two, so since humans can perceive three dimensions, we must be 4d and unable to perceive it.4 Steiner wrote extensively about the fourth dimension, and the whole starship Steiner enterprise seems to have an unreachable 4d element - whatever it might be: time, light, space, inwardness, intangibility.

'We are a curve and you are a line,' she said.

1 The word sensuous is thought to have been coined by John Milton (1608-74) to convey a connection with the senses rather than the intellect, which was what sensual originally meant before it became associated with indulgence and pleasure seeking.

2 The first Goetheanum was destroyed on New Year's Eve 1922, arson suspected. The second Goetheanum also in Dornach, Switzerland, was Rudolf Steiner's Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art), based on interlocking circles and the geometric form of the pentagon. Both were supposed to embody a 'spiritual functionalism', a merging of the world of senses and spirit.

3 Like Orchard House, the Goetheanum is also a timber superstructure on a concrete plinth. Steiner's ideal of eloquent concrete was supposed to be realised in the Goetheanum. Finding the inherent form for the material would lead the building, 'a House of Speech', to 'give utterance'.

4 'A tesseract is a three-dimensional object. A tesseract is also a four-dimensional object - a hypercube unravelled ? A hypercube unravels to a tesseract. Four dimensions unravel to three ? A hypercube is a thing you are not equipped to understand. You can only understand the tesseract.' The Tesseract, Alex Garland, publisher? Date? p205

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