The idea of the ‘total work of art’

Architecture conjures up images of grand-scale constructions and magnificently designed buildings. Yet architects who choose to create a comprehensive artwork, focus not only on the big picture, but rather customise every single detail around a construction, as with an artwork. Such meticulous attention to detail is at the core of ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’, a German term loosely translated as ‘total work of art’. We would like to show you which exceptional buildings this attention to detail has created and where it came from. Furthermore, we explain to you why this end-to-end approach is essential for construction and living.

The influence of 'Gesamtkunstwerk'A unified experience

The notion of ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ was popularised in 1849 by Richard Wagner. The composer aimed to engender an innovative experience at his operas by merging dance, music and drama. His intention was to expertly combine each of these arts into an overall form that transformed into more than the sum of its parts. In short, he wanted to rejuvenate the opera as a more modern and artistic experience.

Wagner’s initial essays on Gesamtkunstwerk did not directly concern architecture. However, his Festspielhaus theatre in Bayreuth was designed specifically to showcase his work to the best effect, with a recessed orchestral pit installed to lend his music a sense of mystery.

Appropriation by designers

Architects soon began to embrace and interpret Wagner’s ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’, hoping to provide a unified aesthetic for their own projects.

An eminent example includes Victor Horta’s Hotel Tassel in Brussels, completed in 1894. The architect designed each aspect of the residence around the theme of nature, right down to the light fixtures, window frames and radiator covers.

Viennese designer Josef Hoffmann also attempted to forge a unified experience through his work. He exerted complete control over the construction of the Stoclet Palace, a mansion in Brussels, on a micro scale. It was alleged that he even advised the owner on which colour he should choose for any flowers brought into the building.

The Bauhaus movement also drew on the concept of ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ as one of its core foundations, in correspondence with the design school’s mission to span all areas of life.

Criticism of Gesamtkunstwerk

According to its critics, Gesamtkunstwerk as a style of architecture emphasises the autocratic nature of the designers who employ it. They argue that the method is too far reaching and does not fulfil the practical need for which an architect is required.

The philosopher Walter Benjamin went a step further, explaining that Wagner’s version of ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ was problematic as its overwhelmingly effective nature could be used as a type of ideological control. 

‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ seems to have primarily influenced what might be described as ‘personal’ architecture, being predominantly used in the inception of hotels, apartment buildings and homes.

Individuals can adopt the concept by overseeing the complete design of their own home, paying particular consideration to minute details such as the colour scheme of soft furnishings and linen in relation to the style of lighting and crockery.

With a selection of exclusive properties from 32 countries, the experts at Engel & Völkers are able to present to you a broad range of ‘total work of art’. We can help you find your matching home and advise you on how to let it become a true work of art. You can find more information on our website.

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