From the Past to the Future
Changing Our Focus to Existential Problems
It is said that hindsight is 20/20.
We look back at the past as a guide for the present. Except that what we discover is that we have merely repeated the mistakes of the past, or completely misunderstood the idealism and creativity of earlier generations because of how they have been reinterpreted in the present. When we consider the Bauhaus, it seems the resurgence of interest in the most influential design school of the past century is primarily focused on the physical artifacts and the aesthetics of the philosophy of form and function.
Perhaps the story of the Bauhaus could be another episode of the Nice Try! podcast, a study in human aspirations for utopia. As Ezra Klein quipped, “Everything begins as free love and ends up as capitalism. That’s the lesson of utopias.”
Consider 100 years of the influence of the Bauhaus on modern life.
A community of artists and architects conceived the modern system of architecture as a scientific synthesis of the industrial mass-production manufacturing process with the art of manipulating the most appropriate building materials. Concrete, steel and glass were the modernist trinity. These materials represented a break from the past focus on the aesthetics of the façade, instead placing the greatest priorities on engineering strength and production efficiency to create neo-plastic forms that exposed the inner life of the architectural structure, the human activities that the spaces afforded.
The Bauhaus was conceived by artists and architects as a means of building a socialist utopia out of the ruins of the Great War. In reaction to the failure of the political structures of the time to achieve peace and economic prosperity, people gathered to design a modern system to replace the hierarchical and aristocratic political systems that had led them to annihilate each other.
Less than 100 years later, the President of the United States of America can broadcast to any country of his choosing the threat of nuclear annihilation in less than 280 characters, to which our hand-held devices will register only a slight vibration.
Regardless of the optimism of Steven Pinker as he reviews the privileges that progress has wrought with the benefits of the Enlightenment and the spread of modern innovations, we are useful idiots if we think that technology is neutral. While we endeavour to create a modern technological utopia, a climate apartheid indicates that the unintended consequences of our designs have created a social, psychological and environmental dystopia for those who do not enjoy the privileges of our innovations.
As people tasked with the design of products that people use on a daily basis, using devices and software that we take for granted as the necessary tools for modern life, we are making assumptions about the value of work and the value of human beings by focusing on technologies that are not available, affordable, or accessible for a great number of the global population.
Radical Visions of the Future
The Bauhaus began by thinking about how to rebuild in the face of existential failure.
Only a century later, and humanity is faced with the prospect of the existential failure of the species, whether it is at the whims of a fascist dictator with access to a nuclear arsenal, or with the toxic legacy of modern industrial progress on the stability of the Earth’s ecological system.
The Bauhaus was about a radical vision for educating a generation tasked with revitalizing a moribund humanity.
The Bauhaus was about a synthesis of art and craft, creativity and technology, faith and science. Its utopian vision was built on a foundation of a modern unity.
In postmodern times, we recognize the failure of that vision to achieve the modern metanarrative and conception of utopia.
We have together built a machine into a form that reflects the fragmented and siloed intellectual disciplines that we model after educational institutions, corporate organizational structures, and political systems that divide our thinking and work into discrete categories and disciplines.
The design challenge of our time is to create a new synthesis that arises out of our growing understanding of the failure of an atomized and individualistic conception of the self that is fuelling the global identity crisis. Belonging and identity have become central to an arms race of propaganda and competing narratives of reality.
Diversity and multidisciplinary work are the best models we have for our survival and for the continued flourishing of the human species.
The concept of the adjacent possible suggests that the opportunities for innovation and the creative possibilities that technology now affords will lead to a new way of building our social architecture that transcends older models of social, political, and economic theory.
The Bauhaus initiated the modernist design and architectural project with a synthesis of art and technology to rebuild society after the Great War.
However, in the service of industrial models of social and political engineering, art and technology have been coopted to participate in a military-industrial complex that is a synthesis of our worst human characteristics: greed and hatred.
We are caught in a dialectic of opposing forces, in the politics of thesis and antithesis, right versus left. We need a new synthesis that transcends the old paradigms. Unity in diversity is the model for both the organism and the planet. University is our best model for learning. Pixar and Apple are our best models for the architecture and social physics that generate the best ideas and economic engines.
The new synthesis is integrating biology and physics. The term biophysics was originally introduced by Karl Pearson in 1892.
The future of design and architecture may be in the integration of the separate disciplines to learn how interconnected systems work and model the built environment to imitate the processes of living organisms.
Whether it is the body of Christ, the nascent biology of the Gaia hypothesis, or the ancient concept of Mother Earth, the metaphor of the body provides an alternative conception of how we can relate to each other.
Individual cells are part of an interconnected body, a complex design that requires every part to function well for the health and well-being of the whole.
Physics and biology are the basis for a new movement in engineering and design called biomimicry. By modelling architecture after biology, we can create living systems that can live in harmony with each other and the natural environment, in a symbiotic relationship with the earth rather than parasitic.
Magdalena Droste’s work to document the legacy and influence of the Bauhaus has been released as an expanded volume, featuring a larger format and a greater selection of images from the Bauhaus Archive in Berlin. The book recognizes the influence of the Bauhaus since it was inaugurated 100 years ago in April of 1919 in Weimar, Germany.
To pay homage to the Bauhaus school of art, design, and architecture, I have created a website to recognize the influence of the designers of the past, but also to look forward to the future of design and the potential power it has to influence the directions we take to realize inspiring, optimistic, and innovative visions of how we could create a better world.
Shoshana Zuboff has written a book that compiles extensive research about what could be considered the greatest challenge of our time. As designers, we have contributed our labour, skill, and creativity to build tools, systems, and organizations which represent the collective aspirations of humans to connect with each other and gather the world’s knowledge and information. However, our technologies are not neutral. Wealth, power, and resources have been consolidated and centralized in a small number of very large and powerful corporations that tend to exclude people from the agency to make major decisions about our common future together.
Having recognized the problems that we ourselves have created with our own labour, designers are taking responsibility to research, ideate, prototype, and test solutions that build on top of new conceptions of value, trust, collaboration, and work that are founded upon the principle of decentralization.
Much of what we have learned about how to create a better world comes from the ways that we have built tools that enhance the human ability to collaborate. Open source software gave us a model for sharing knowledge, effort, and focus to accomplish shared goals. Now, it is possible to combine efforts to create beautiful and complex systems that build upon best practices learned through trial and error to achieve the goal of creating delightful experiences.
However, these innovations have been built with some serious design flaws. The unintended consequences of design can lead to intractable problems that arise from the lack of foresight into the possible issues that might occur when we disrupt old systems with new models. Humans have become Guinea pigs for experiments that are being performed on our societies in real time and at scale.
We have reached a point of crisis that is similar to that of 100 years ago. While wars are not being fought with conventional military machinery, ordinances, and strategies, the struggles are no less fraught with dangers. Economic, social, and political conflicts are impacting vulnerable populations around the world.
Design is Political
The Bauhaus was caught up in the political changes that have formed the modern world of the 20th century. In large part, the machines and devices that define our work are as much the product of the experiments in art, design, and architecture of these early adopters of technology as they are a result of political and social engineering experiments that dispersed technically skilled and creatively innovative artists and craftspeople across the globe.
Fascist powers declared the works of the Bauhaus as degenerate art. The Nazis effectively shut down the Bauhaus in Berlin in 1933. The diaspora spread modern ideas, education methods, and industrial processes that cultivated the conditions for a vast expansion of the tools necessary to build the architecture of a new international society.
As predicted by Walter Gropius, the total work of art, the crystal symbol of a new faith, is the modern city and the businesses, markets, and economies that grow and maintain its infrastructure and architecture. Steel, glass, and concrete are the trinity of modern materials upon which the orthodoxy of our cities’ structures are built. Capitalism is the religion that has captured the imaginations of the world, although it expresses itself in different ways, depending on the political forces that dominate each nation state.
The Ecological Crisis
Some may still debate whether climate change is real. Undeniably, the earth is facing an ecological crisis, manifested by the decline of animal populations, the extinction of species, and the poor quality of water, air, and land.
This is the other existential crisis that we face. One hundred years ago, humans had developed the technologies to destroy each other. Now, we have the means to subject the earth to nuclear annihilation. We have also created an addiction to a modern way of life that is unsustainable, given the scarcity of the resources upon which modern life depends.
Again, the Bauhaus provides a model to think about how to redesign our world according to a vision of a socialist, utopian model of social organization. Again, we face an existential conflict between fascist empires and populations of people who are organizing themselves to resist the expansion of the powers of anti-democratic regimes.
The Bauhaus school was intentionally inclusive, drawing people from various backgrounds to gather, to collaborate, and to imagine a way for all to live together with minimalistic simplicity.
The tiny house movement came to the Bauhaus Archive in Berlin to demonstrate this ethos in an effort to house migrants and refugees.
A recent GDC Connect UX design workshop I attended in Vancouver was led by Rebecca Liggins from Clio. Her definition of design was to improve the experience for all people. I would extend that definition to include all life on Earth. Human-centred design is an important philosophical value, but may also be considered a little too anthropocentric.
I tried my best to translate the Bauhaus curriculum with the intention of addressing ideas of what can be considered requirements for a design education that is necessary to face the conditions of the two major existential crises that we are currently facing: ecological and political. Just as Ken Robinson talks about the failure of education to evolve beyond the industrial model, and Sugata Mitra points to the opportunities of creating self-organizing educational communities, our political systems have failed to evolve and are limiting our ability to organize to define our most important areas of focus for our aspirations and work.
The Bauhaus was focused on social organization that revolved around basic human needs. At the time, the scarcity of resources translated into a focus on the physical spaces and objects that furnished the requirements for daily life: the house and its accessories.
Today, the focus is on the political, the psychological, and the spiritual. The intangible experiences of human existence find their expression in the physical world. Architecture is ideology made manifest. Both physical structures and information architecture are the product of ideas about how we desire to order and organize our lives.
Yet, how often do we really concern ourselves with the philosophies that inform our lives? We have become habituated to lifestyles that are the product of corporate marketing, political propaganda, and religious indoctrination.
To engage in the process of culture change that is required to make a substantial difference in the behaviours of vast populations, we really must explore the taboo subjects that are the foundation of our habits: money, politics, and religion.
The Design Curriculum of the Future
If I could characterize the influence of the Bauhaus in language used by modern ideas about business and innovation, I would refer to ideas expressed by John P. Kotter in his book Accelerate. The central narrative involves the competing power of hierarchies to maintain the stability of the status quo and the collaborative power of networks to create transformational change. If we use the language of money, politics, and religion, this competition is between the corporate, conservative, right and the democratic, liberal, left. Kotter argues that the cooperation of both hierarchies and networks are necessary for the success of an economically thriving and a progressively innovative organization.
Under Hannes Meyer’s direction, the Bauhaus sought to integrate the human experience into an organic whole, based on an integration of art and science. I have done my best as one who does not speak German to translate Meyer’s 1930 illustration of the organization of the Bauhaus.
Schlemmer sought to present Man as a triple unity, teaching his physical nature via proportion and movement, his emotional nature via psychology, and his intellectual existence via philosophy and intellectual history. Technology and politics did not feature in this idealized vision of holistic man. (Droste, 171)
The business argument for the importance of design has been made by the success of Apple as the leading brand of the world, according to Interbrand’s rankings of the top 100 brands. There is a clear connection between the Bauhaus school and the success that Apple achieved with the teamwork of the capitalist, Steve Jobs, and the socialist, Steve Wozniak. Jony Ive is also clearly inspired by Dieter Rams, whose work for Braun with the Ulm School of Design put into practice the legacy of the design principles of the Bauhaus.
HfG pioneered the integration of science and art, thereby creating a teaching of design based on a structured problem-solving approach: reflections on the problems of use by people, knowledge of materials and production processes, methods of analysis and synthesis, choice and founded projective alternatives, the emphasis on scientific and technical disciplines, the consideration of ergonomics, the integration of aesthetics, the understanding of semiotics and a close academic relationship with industry.
Architecture at the Bauhaus
Meyer’s most significant achievements as an architecture teacher at the Bauhaus remain the systematic and scientific bases upon which he placed the design process and its implementation in practical and theoretical teaching. A new breed of architect was to understand the determining of social needs and his own social responsibility as central to his profession. The teamwork model would enable him to better respond to the growing complexity of many building tasks. (Droste, 193)
Life-long Learning as a Designer
After working as a designer for the past 30 years, my education has been largely self-directed. My two years at a local community college gave me the practical skills to find my first studio position as a Junior Graphic Designer in Vancouver. However, those skills became largely obsolete within six months of my work, since the Macintosh computer transformed the design industry.
Ever since, I have been adapting to new technologies and the ever-changing shifts in the business and practice of design.
In the process, I have discovered that I have had to develop my own curriculum in design to maintain my relevance in the industry, and I wouldn’t necessarily consider my path successful by generally accepted standards of success.
Yet, somehow, I have discovered a path that works for me, one that continues to be inspired by the successes and failures of the Bauhaus.
This is what informs my philosophy of a design education. Learning never ends. For myself, Designlab is forging a new path for designers to gather and explore how we reimagine our common life together, integrating art and science into a new conception of the human experience. Except that we now have a deeper understanding of our position as part of the interconnected and interdependent ecosystem of the Earth.
The total work of art of the Bauhaus was the building. In the age of the anthropocene, our work as designers must expand to meet the needs of our greatest challenges. The modern synthesis of art and science has resulted in the age of surveillance capitalism. The machine is self-perpetuating and humans have become redundant. So, the movement to rediscover our humanity and our ability to resist the attention economy has become central to our conversation about what sort of work is meaningful and necessary for the future of team human. For such challenges, we need a much broader design education.
A New Synthesis
The past century has been marked by division. We need a new synthesis.
In the service of industrial models of social and political engineering, art and technology have been co-opted to participate in a military-industrial complex that is a synthesis of our worst human characteristics: greed and hatred.
We are caught in a dialectic of opposing forces, in the politics of thesis and antithesis, right versus left. We need a new synthesis that transcends the old paradigms. Unity in diversity is the model for both the organism and the planet.
The new synthesis is integrating biology and physics. The future of design and architecture may be in the integration of the separate disciplines to learn how interconnected systems work and model the built environment to imitate the processes of living organisms. We are beginning to see these changes happening through the self-organizing principles of biological adaptation.
To move forward will require ways of bringing people together to engage in the education, the social organization, and the work of transforming society, what I would call our social architecture. The intention is not to create more products, but to create the foundations and structures for a sustainable way of life that integrates with our local environments to support the flourishing of all forms of life on this fragile planet.
We recognize the influences of the past, but we have the responsibility to shape our shared future together. This is a challenge that requires all of us to work together for the common good. The design process becomes the model: imagine, design, build.
We have access to a world of resources from which to draw from. We have tested theories about how the world works from observations about the universe and our place in it. Through research into vast areas beyond the limits of our knowledge and understanding, we can discover as yet uncharted paths toward healthier relationships with each other and with our biological and physical neighbours. Out of this wider understanding of our current context, we can conceive of strategies to move us in the direction of physical, emotional, and intellectual growth.
At the heart of the design project must be a focus on our ethical responsibilities in the face of the unintended consequences of design. At the foundation of our work is the basic principles of design that we draw from a comprehensive understanding of human nature and the biological and ecological processes and systems upon which we depend.
People gather to better understand their own unique and personal identities in the context of a complex and interconnected web of relationships to build community, and ultimately reimagine our social architecture to respect and acknowledge how architecture is ideology made manifest. To build a better world begins with a better understanding of ourselves and our neighbours in order to care for each other in a way that improves the experience for every living thing on Earth.
It means redefining design from the aesthetics of physical artifacts to the transformation of living systems.
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