“projekt bauhaus” “Can Design Change Society?”

The Bauhaus was founded in 1919 and shut down by the National Socialists in 1933. Already four years before the centennial of the founding of this pioneering university of art and design, an initiative is taking an anticipatory look back into history.

It was a surprise coup: while the institutions that traditionally tend the legacy of the Bauhaus at its three historic locations (Bauhaus-Museum Weimar, Stiftung Bauhaus Dessau, Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin) were still busying themselves with plans for museum annexes and new museum buildings for the university’s centennial celebrations in 2019, a new initiative entered the picture. The “projekt bauhaus,” a coalition of international designers, theorists and authors spoke up at the beginning of this year – supported by architecture magazine ARCH+. Their aim is to study Bauhaus ideas in terms of their relevance for the present. Each year until 2019, the initiative intends to pose a question relating to design and have it thematically developed by artists, designers and architects.

Ending change

© Tomás Saraceno, Investigations into the potentials of sky-life. Reykjavic Marathon, 2007 © Tomás Saraceno, Investigations into the potentials of sky-life. Reykjavic Marathon, 2007 Interest was tremendous, and the initiative’s two-day symposium, accompanied by an exhibition in Berlin’s “House of World Cultures” in September 2015 was completely sold out. Arguments revolving around this year’s question “Can Design Change Society?” were ferocious and categorical. While one of the initiators, architect and former director of the Stiftung Bauhaus Philipp Oswalt, still assumed in his introductory words that most of those present would surely respond with “Yes,” philosopher Boris Groys ripped Oswalt’s assurance to shreds. His criticism was that the question was based on a false assumption. The fact is that society is continually undergoing change – a principle that the Bauhaus had also espoused. As a result, though, in the past century artists and designers had migrated from the “ivory tower” to the “control tower” and are now policing design. This entails that change itself is also under the control of design. If one truly intends to change society, one must first break with change as a societal principle. This would amount to a new Enlightenment, tantamount to a revolution, but which according to Groys cannot come from design.

Design and capitalism

Gui Bonsiepe, erstwhile student and lecturer at the Ulm School of Design (Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm), founded in 1953 under the banner of the Bauhaus, did not see things so radically. While design does bring the dimension of the future into play, reactionary and restorative changes also exist. The buzz-word “design thinking” often used in design research frequently awakens high expectations. It almost seems as though what is at stake here is the salvaging of capitalism. But the real question is whether design ought to support the elimination of oppression, thus Bonsiepe.

In the wake of Bonsiepe’s remarks the discussion’s unspoken subtext was the seemingly more realistic question: “Can designers contribute to changing capitalism?” The usual conclusions were set forth with the historical hubris associated with the Bauhaus name towards modernity’s demands on design. The theses of the symposium were thereby far removed from the utopian concept of the Bauhaus, according to which a “New Humanity” could also be created by means of the “New Construction.”

Shaping emancipation

It was projects from design practice, conceived in terms of emancipative self-organisation, that succeeded in bringing the overheated initial question back down to earth: planner Renée Tribble and artist Christoph Schäfer of the Hamburg project “PlanBude” presented their successful endeavour to artistically intervene by means of direct public participation in the planning for construction on a central plot of land in Hamburg’s city centre. Léonore Bonaccini and Xavier Fourt of the “Bureau d´études” (France) presented extensively researched info-graphics with which they exposed for all to see the interrelations of multinational firms.

Borders as design

But it was only in the concluding discussion that the symposium’s blind spot became evident: while only a kilometre away, under utterly inadequately designed conditions, thousands of refugees were seeking to be registered as asylum applicants in a central administrative agency, the initial question of a symposium that was also superfluously “western” in conception, appeared – with unconscious irony in the “House of World Cultures” – to literally antiquate in real-time. It was architecture theorist Reinhold Martin of New York who in the end criticised a design gesture that is as simple as it is fateful. Designing society, as Martin stated with reference to the refugee crisis, always begins where one draws borders – including those between states – with fundamental design elements, used by the Bauhaus as well, such as “points,” “lines” and “surfaces.” Or dispenses with them.