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Gesamtkunstwerk.
The Total Work Of Art Through The Ages.

Living room of the Robie House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Frank Lloyd Wright, Robie House Living Room. Image courtesy of James Caulfield/Frank Lloyd Wright Trust

By Naomi Martin

Introduction

Gesamtkunstwerk, meaning literally ‘total work of art’, was originally intended to mean that all types of art, including painting, music, architecture, literature or performances could be collated into one interrelated subject, project and study, so that an overarching design schema would cover all elements of a creation.

More usually, the term has been applied to architectural projects where the lead designer carries a responsibility not just for the building, but the interiors, landscape and all details, furniture and even fittings, as far down the scale to include minutiae as seemingly inconsequential as door handles.


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Interior of Gaudi's Casa Batlló, an architectural total work of art.
Antoni Gaudí, Casa Batlló, Interior.

Coining the term

To elucidate the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk without confronting the inadequacies of translation might be an arduous task, as the German word knows no direct translation into English. A total work of art, a sumptuous aesthetic journey, a complete artistic creation which, through prodigious efforts, embraces visuals, experience and performance. These are the ideals at the heart of the Gesamtkunstwerk. The term was popularized by the German composer Richard Wagner in 1849.

Having lost faith in the arts, Wagner argued in his essays for a reconciliation of all creative processes which he considered pointlessly inharmonious and dissonant, and thus hoped for a reunion of art, opera and drama in a cohesive environment. Following Wagner’s inspiration, a multitude of artists and craftsmen in the 19th and 20th centuries would also strive to create stupendous works of art, stretching across the fields of various disciplines and thus achieving Gesamtkunstwerk.

“An ideal work of art in which drama, music and other performing arts are integrated and each is subservient to the whole”

Richard Wagner

Gesamtkunstwerk in architecture

Notions of Gesamtkunstwerk in architecture can be observed pre-Wagner, for instance in the Baroque period, most notably with the design of Versailles or the Schönbrunn palace. Architects would have an all-inclusive ownership over the exterior and interior design, creating harmonious works of art by intimately unifying the whole, from the garden to the tableware. Following the Romantic era, various movements appropriated the concept of the total work of art, relating it to the various ideals they espoused at the heart of their aesthetic philosophies and strived to convey in the works they created.

The Arts and Crafts movement adopted the essence of Gesamtkunstwerk by rejecting mass production, the result of industrialisation, and returning to traditions of craftsmanship. The concept was further developed in the Art Nouveau period, with architects imposing a harmonious and unifying design on the totality of their builds, thinking of everything from fittings to furnishings, thus producing complete works of art. While the idea of the total work of art in architecture nearly vanished with the First World War, it resurfaced with the Bauhaus movement, and with De Stijl in the late nineteen tens and early twenties.

Living room of Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater, a total work of art embracing its surrounding nature.
Frank Lloyd Wright, Fallingwater Living Room.

Characteristics

In most instances the architect has a compelling vision of the harmonious whole he is trying to create, often related to the ideals of an artistic movement he or she is most closely allied with. This would include the design of furniture, built-in and decorative elements, but also to include such small-scale details as doorknobs, and in some cases silverware and ceramics, as well as making decisions concerning the artwork that would be displayed.

The accomplishment of a total work of art in architecture could, in some instances, be perceived as the fantasies of an over-controlling designer, but it undoubtedly originated some globally appreciated, iconic examples of design. Such creations have been valued through time, and have continuously influenced the next generation of architects and designers. Here are ten sumptuous instances of architectural Gesamtkunstwerk through the ages.

Robert Adam

Great hall of the Syon House, early example of Gesamtkunstwerk in architecture.
Robert Adam, Syon House, Great Hall, 1762

Scottish architect Robert Adam developed a truly distinctive and individual savoir-faire, which was referred to as the ‘Adam Style’. It consisted of an effort to reach stylistic coherence and harmony in the exteriors and interiors, by co-ordinating and designing all elements in a stringent neo-classical manner. One of the most illustrious and earliest examples of Adam Style is considered to be Syon House, located in West London. Adam created a grandiose pantheon-like hall when he redesigned its interior in 1762, creating one of England’s most significant neo-classical interiors. Syon house perfectly embodies Adam’s effort to design a coherent and harmonising whole. Kenwood House in North London is another excellent instance of Robert Adam’s architectural Gesamtkunstwerk. Adam was given complete freedom in the remodelling of the house in 1764, and its library is recognized today as one of his most celebrated interiors.

William Morris & Philip Webb, The Red House

Exterior of William Morris and Philip Webb's Red House.
William Morris & Philip Webb, The Red House, 1859

Reminiscent of a medieval relic, the Red House was designed in 1859 by Arts and Crafts designer William Morris and architect Philip Webb, in Bexleyheath, England. William Morris was greatly influenced by John Ruskin’s reflections, who believed that the rise of industrialisation induced a qualitative decline in artistically crafted goods. He endeavoured to fashion a home that would nurture harmony as well as infuse its inhabitants with a creative energy. Morris and Webb’s friendship led them to create a house in which architecture and interior design would blend into a cohesive entity, reflecting their ideals in one overarching whole. The house was designed in a simple Tudor Gothic style, and from the unique built-in furniture to the wallpaper, stained-glass windows, and tiles inscribed with Morris’s own motto, the concept of the total work of art was dazzlingly embodied.

Interior of William Morris and Philip Webb's Red House, drawing room.
The Red House, Drawing Room, 1859

Victor Horta, Hôtel Tassel

Staircase of the Tassel House, designed by Victor Horta, considered an Art Nouveau Gesamtkunstwerk.
Victor Horta, Hôtel Tassel, Brussels, 1892-3

The Hôtel Tassel, or Tassel House, is often considered to be one the first architectural illustrations of Art Nouveau. It integrated nature and industrial features in a seamless manner. Victor Horta designed The Tassel House for Émile Tassel, in Brussels, and completed it in 1893. Acting as architect, interior and furniture designer, Horta created a complete chef-d’oeuvre, harmonious in every aspect. Utterly unique in the fluidity of the curved lines and spiralling shapes echoing from the façade to the interior design, the house is renowned for its grandiose multi-directional staircase. Horta’s design was absolute and all-inclusive; furniture, doors and handles, balustrades, house bell. The entirety of the interior and exterior elements reflected his desire to assemble with the purest unity, a total work of art.

Antoni Gaudí, Casa Milà

Gaudi's Casa Milà, a renowned Art Nouveau example of Gesamtkunstwerk.
Antoni Gaudí, Casa Milà, Barcelona, 1906-12

« In order for the ornamentation to be interesting, it must depict objects that bring to mind poetic ideas that constitute motifs. The motifs draw on history, legends, icons, fables concerning man and his life, actions and passion. » 

Antoni Gaudí

Constructed between 1906 and 1912 for Pere Milà and Roser Segimon, Casa Milà is Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí’s most emblematic work of civil architecture. Labelled “La Pedrera”, the quarry, due to its stony visage, Gaudí’s work is incredibly organic and close to nature. Architecturally, the building is split into nine levels, the main floor used to host the Milàs, while the upper floors would be rented out. Each of the apartments have their own unique ceiling, some with relief and waves, others bearing poems, but all intended to reflect the undulating features of the façade. Another exquisite outside space is the Surrealist sculptural roof terrace, with chimneys echoing the wavy rhythm of the building. Gaudí also took ownership of the interior details, from choosing the artwork to fashioning doorknobs and handles.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Willow Tea Rooms

Inside of the Willow Tea Rooms, Mackintosh's most renowned total work of art.
Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Willow Tea Rooms, Glasgow, 1903

The Willow Tea Rooms were established in Glasgow in 1903, designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Mackintosh was a Scottish architect, designer and artist and tagged as “the design dictator” as a result of his desire to always mastermind the entirety of a project. To begin Mackintosh remodelled an 1860s edifice; the exterior façade was modernized, delving into early Art Nouveau ideas. Mackintosh worked with his wife, Margaret Macdonald, to design the interiors. This included the furniture, wall decorations and friezes, as well as the carpets and chandeliers; paying crucial attention to the smallest details such as creating bespoke cutlery and fashioning the staff’s uniforms, resulting in one of the most uncompromising of all Gesamtkunstwerk projects of the early modern, or any, era.

Walter Gropius, Bauhaus Dessau Building

Outside of the Bauhaus Dessau school designed by Walter Gropius.
Walter Gropius, Bauhaus Dessau Building, 1919. Image courtesy of bauhaus-dessau.de

Few movements embraced the philosophy of Gesamtkunstwerk as meticulously as the Bauhaus did under the leadership of Walter Gropius. With the Bauhaus, Gropius aimed to unite all arts, including architecture. He famously reformulated the “total work of art” into “Total Design”, eager to convey this idea into all aspects of modern life. After relocating to the city of Dessau in 1925, Walter Gropius designed the school’s building in total accordance with the movement’s values. All interior fittings and furnishings were designed in the school’s ateliers. The most remarkable features of the Bauhaus Dessau building are the wrapping glass exterior walls, simultaneously supporting the structure and permitting a glimpse into the school’s interiors. This was a further development of the Fagus factory, designed by Gropius pre-World War I.

Gerrit Rietveld, Schröder House

Gerrit Rietveld, Schröder House Interior, Utrecht, 1924.
Gerrit Rietveld, Schröder House Interior, Utrecht, 1924

The De Stijl movement was highly influenced by the principles of Gesamtkunstwerk. Although primarily renowned for producing paintings, members of De Stijl also experimented with furniture design and architecture, including the Schröder House. Designed in 1924 by Gerrit Rietveld, the Schröder House remains the most iconic and emblematic architectural highlight of De Stijl, moulded in total accordance with the movement’s principles. The main characteristics and uniqueness of the Rietveld-Schröder House reside in an overly flexible space, with an open-plan design on the ground floor and a system of sliding panels in the upstairs area, analogous to the rectilinear elements of the De Stijl’s painting archetype. This would permit fluidity and an endless transformation of the space. The sole use of primary colours together with black, grey and white is continuous from the outer walls to the inner elements of the house. This inspired harmony and truthfully espoused the De Stijl aesthetic ideals, making it one the best examples of modern Gesamtkunstwerk.

Le Corbusier, Villa Savoye

Le Corbusier, Villa Savoye Exterior.
Le Corbusier, Villa Savoye, Exterior

The Villa Savoye is often considered as Le Corbusier’s masterpiece, the result of a decade spent defining the substance of modern architecture. Completed in 1929, the house embodies the ideals of Gesamtkunstwerk because it is in its very essence, a total concept. Le Corbusier was granted absolute creative freedom and designed his own Modernist version of a typical French country home, a total epitome of his celebrated Five Points of Architecture. Often referred to as a floating box, Villa Savoye’s most distinctive features are the pilotis supporting the whole structure. The interior is defined by an utterly elegant blend of functionality and minimalism, and a methodically thought out layout. The essence of the total artwork is experienced through a sense of unity, as the characteristics of the outside structure are echoed in the shape of the furniture and staircases, designed by him in collaboration with his brother Pierre and Charlotte Perriand.

Le Corbusier, Villa Savoye, Interior.
Le Corbusier, Villa Savoye, Interior

Frank Loyd Wright

Living room of the Francis W. Little House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Frank Lloyd Wright, Living Room from the Francis W. Little House, Wayzata, Minnesota, 1912–14. Image Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.

“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.” 

Frank Lloyd Wright

Frank Lloyd Wright was one of America’s greatest and most prolific architects, and a fervent advocate of Gesamtkunstwerk. He was notorious for his complete involvement in all aspects of his projects, which was often considered as verging on narcissism, an offshoot of his rather egoistic personality. Wright’s Prairie-style originated most notably with the Robie House, a complete work of art completed in 1910, with its low ceilings and open interior stunningly capturing the landscapes of the Midwest. The architect took ownership of the whole design, including the furniture, light fixtures, as well as the stained-glass windows. Wright strongly believed in a unification of architecture with its natural environment, which he sumptuously achieved with his most acclaimed project, Fallingwater. Stood over a waterfall, the house echoes the organic pattern of the rock ledges, embracing the natural world in a state-of-the-art architecture. Not many designs have succeeded in capturing such a strong sense of harmony between nature and mankind.

Zaha Hadid, Capital Hill Residence

Zaha Hadid, Capital Hill Residence, a contemporary Gesamtkunswerk.
Zaha Hadid, Capital Hill Residence, Moscow, 2018

Few contemporary architects have pioneered such iconic designs as Zaha Hadid. From her magnificent, cutting-edge buildings, to glorious interior design objects and furniture, Hadid’s style has always been inspired by the fluidity of nature. The Capital Hill Residence is a remarkable instance of a complete work of art, and the only private residence Hadid has ever entirely designed and built. Hadid first came up with her eye-catching design in 2006, and the project was completed in 2018. Resembling a futuristic spaceship, the house is composed of two main components. The ground level section unites with the landscape, while the other almost floats above the ground, offering a spectacular view of the surrounding forest. Hadid’s characteristic style and outstanding craftsmanship are also featured throughout the interiors, as the organic, curved elements are echoed in the different rooms and interior design. Both Hadid and her client, Vladislav Doronin, have called the Capital Hill Residence a “Dream house”, as it exists simultaneously in their fantasies and in the tangible world.


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Relevant sources to learn more

Read more about Gesamtkunstwerk on The Art Story
Reflections on architectural Gesamtkunstwerk
Learn more about Zaha Hadid


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