With its concept of design, the historic Bauhaus did not address the present, but a future both conceivable and imaginary. It endeavoured to shape a forward-looking transformation from manual to industrial production, from laissez-faire capitalism to the welfare state. Today, we have to deal with the long-term consequences of these processes. The goal is to replace consumer society with forms of co-production and prosumption, to facilitate the shift from a fossil to a post-fossil industrial society and from an expansive to an inclusive modernisation. Capitalism’s capacity to transform itself and to absorb opposing positions favours this transformation and at the same time places limits on it.
In the 1920s, one spoke of the new world, new man and the new city in order to affect the present from the vanishing point of an imagined future. Today, modern industrial society has foisted itself on the whole world. Inventing a new world is no longer the issue. We need another understanding of renewal and the new – one that differs from that of the classical avant-garde. A fundamental critique or radicalisation of modernism is therefore imperative. The perspective of design as a re-form of the present stands out against this background.
We find it essential to consider the whole picture, but have lost the positivist belief in the possibility of a profound and thorough understanding of the world, in the unity of science. Irresolvable contradictions and the fundamental incompleteness of our knowledge yield acts of uncertainty and ignorance.
We are interested in the Bauhaus from the contemporary perspective, rather than in the fetishization and mythologization of a legacy. In our view, many of the objectives of classical modernism also show promise for the present day – be it design’s alignment to utility and function, the belief in the emancipatory possibilities of design, the association of diverse forms of contemporary knowledge with design and the use of modern technologies, or the critique of the present through design. Our focus lies less on actual Bauhaus products than on the school’s ambitions and methods. In the interests of a reflective modernism, it also behoves us to examine and critically reflect on the history of the development and impact of the historic Bauhaus, so that we can also learn from its mistakes and impasses.
A critical inventory is therefore necessary. Which ideas, methods and concepts of the historic Bauhaus can be productively addressed and developed, and which rejected? In no way has everything that the Bauhaus generated proven itself. Many contradictions between aspiration, practice and effect have become evident, and even the intention itself sometimes has to be questioned. Such an inventory will also distinguish between the different versions of the Bauhaus and address the differences between these frequently contradictory and conflicting positions.
The tendency to further develop and advocate design as a tool for the emancipation of society must itself be submitted to criticism. The expansion of design into all realms of life and the world, from landscapes, roads and cities to workplaces, the home and, deeper still, into people and their relationships, nanostructures and the genome, is contemporary reality. In the context of these aetheticisations and subjectivisations of dominance, given the universal profusion of design its absence would perhaps be a liberating moment. The critique of design is essential to re-thinking its potential for emancipation.
While we concede that the historic Bauhaus pursued not only a social concept of design, this is what interests us. Likewise, we concede our uncertainty about whether this aspiration is feasible in a practical sense, and therefore must itself be called into question. In this regard, it is essential that we undertake a critical analysis of the given history and study in more detail the reciprocity between design and society.
Although the Bauhaus institution has now been defunct for 80 years, for us the Bauhaus idea – to overcome the limits of the disciplines and the fragmentation of modernism and to change society and everyday life through design – remains an aspiration that is as relevant as ever.
Today, the Bauhaus has become a common property, to which nobody can claim interpretative sovereignty. With the centenary, activities relating to the Bauhaus will intensify. The Bauhaus institutions will make pivotal contributions to this end. Likewise, projects will be developed and positions embraced by numerous cultural institutions, universities, researchers and designers from all over the world. We wish to contribute to the discourse. Historically, the Bauhaus thrived on heterogeneous approaches born of conflict. Today, this is more pertinent than ever: We want a lively, controversial debate about the Bauhaus.