The Bauhaus was inaugurated 100 years ago in Weimar, Germany in April 1919. It was founded in response to the profound sense of disillusionment that the world had experienced after the end of the Great War.
The Bauhaus art school was founded in a society suffering the devastating effects of the First World War and the industrialized economy. Inflation, hunger, unemployment, homelessness and social unrest fuelled the desire for a new social order. In this environment of political and social unrest, a group of artists came together around architect Walter Gropius, who would go on to found the Bauhaus art school in Weimar. Gropius felt direction from a creative designer was the solution to the dire social straits his country was mired in.
Arguably, the modern way of life that many of us experience today owes much to the influence of the Bauhaus. Middle-class urban life represents a realization of the vision of Walter Gropius for the Bauhaus: to reimagine the role of artists as a collective effort to focus on building as the “design of life processes.”
A century later, the world is again facing a profound sense of disillusionment as people recognize the social, economic, political, and ecological crises that we face because of our modern way of life. As designers, we understand how uncertainty, frustration, and anxiety can be turned into opportunities to improve the experience for everyone.
A Living Laboratory
Designlab, as an international network of mentors and students, is a response to the need to train a new generation of designers in the concepts, methods, and skills required to work in the collaborative teams who are building the infrastructure and tools for a digitally connected world.
Technology poses a challenge to the human ability to adapt to the accelerating scope and scale of change. The challenge demands a vast amount of knowledge and a diverse set of skills to understand and address the interconnected and complex problems of the global ecosystem.
The question about how to provide an education suitable for the challenges that designers face leads us back to the innovative approaches to teaching and learning with which the Bauhaus experimented. The school was a living laboratory for creative collaboration and a modern urbanism.
Now that we live in Marshall McLuhan’s global village, thinking about design as a collaborative effort raises the value of empathy, communication, and social organization in the process of exploring how we imagine, design, and build the future together.
The Bauhaus needed to navigate a difficult social, economic, and political landscape in the 14 years of its existence in Weimar, Dessau, and Berlin. Its struggles, successes, and failures were punctuated by changes in philosophy, geography, and leadership.
Navigating the social, economic, and political landscape of the modern world will mean gaining fluency in the vocabulary, syntax, and grammar of the language of synthesizing human experience with working social systems.
Recent debates have been about whether designers need to understand code to be adept at the craft of building digital products and experiences. We may need to ask whether we also need an understanding of culture: history, economics, psychology, and sociology.
The Design Process for the Modern World
To better understand the historical foundations of our work as designers, we look to the genesis of the modern design movement and the major influence of the Bauhaus in the past, to the influences of design on how we are currently shaping our social systems in the present global economic and political context, and how art and technology are influencing the ways in which we conceive of our future. Modernism was about the metanarrative of the progress of ideas, art, and technology that would be realized in modern life by reimagining the form and function of the physical world.
As designers immersed themselves in the design of the physical world, we neglected the world of human experience beyond the physical, that is, the metaphysical.
As designers acknowledge this shift from the physical to the metaphysical, we lack the language to articulate the problems we are trying to solve and the greatest challenges of our time.
We find ourselves in an age where there are competing narratives about how humans can use technology for the good of humanity. The postmodern perspective is one of the failure of modernism to achieve the progressive and utopian ideals of the movement. The moral crises that technology has brought to the surface through the democratization of access to media and technology points to a crisis of leadership because of a lack of vision, imagination, and moral courage to focus on what is most important.
Our greatest challenge is to better understand the raw materials of design to engage the human experience, as Jesse James Garrett describes: perception (senses), cognition (mind), emotion (heart), and action (body).
As Marshall McLuhan understands media, they are extensions of ourselves, enhancing, improving, and amplifying human abilities. Design is the method of inventing technologies that we use to create new media to improve the human experience.
However, we have yet to really agree on what we are collectively trying to accomplish.
Politicians focus on jobs, economics, and growth. It is the realm of corporations, governments, and religions. The metrics are money, power, and control. Their language for the human project is rooted in ancient history and is impoverished by a lack of imagination about a creative vision for the human experience.
Our role as designers is to help all of humanity engage in the process of understanding who we are and who we can become. The human project is not a zero-sum game: a competition driven by the scarcity of time, energy, and resources. It is a collaborative process of exploring how we imagine, design, and build the future together.
That was the project of the Bauhaus. The past 100 years of the Bauhaus have helped us get to this point. Now, we need to understand that legacy and reframe the old design problem of meeting basic human needs, food, clothing, and shelter, which was the focus of the 20th century. We know, theoretically, that we have the physical means to solve these problems.
For the next 100 years of the Bauhaus, we need to shift to the design challenge of our time to metaphysical aspirations and to the human experience that transcends the physical: meaning, purpose, and belonging.
By myopically focusing solely on creating physical artifacts, technology has neglected the metaphysical and created a crisis of disinformation, inequality, and loneliness.
The past century was about building the physical infrastructure of the modern world: architecture. The next century will be about building the metaphysical infrastructure of the postmodern world: social architecture.
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.