Ladies and gentlemen,
The idea that aesthetics, or formal material design, has a socio-political impact is not (yet) that widespread in civic education. This is the case even though some of the questions that the Bauhaus movement threw up a century ago – and the questions you are asking today in connection with revitalising the Bauhaus – are equally on the agenda of the Federal Agency for Civic Education. We, too, spend a lot of time considering the production and dissemination of knowledge, but we also spend a lot of time thinking about our attitude towards universalism, which parallels the annual question for 2016 of the projekt bauhaus. Some time ago already, Western societies began to undergo a transformation of which many producers and disseminators of knowledge are only slowly gaining awareness. The ideas and ambitions of the “old” Bauhaus left deep and lasting traces. In fact, they are still positive reference points for education today: enlightenment; the consideration of general human needs; the connection between different forms of knowledge. Another aspect that remains significant is the values and theories behind progressive education, which sought to highlight the importance of emotion and design over and above technological and scientific insights. The aim of achieving emancipation through education and knowledge is still valid to this day.
And yet, over the last decade, we have witnessed some profoundly undesirable developments that go hand in hand with social change and which require us, today, to rethink our attitudes to cultures of knowledge. Late modernity offers no parallels to the sense of renewal and the forward-looking attitudes that dominated during the classical modern period. Instead, we struggle to diagnose modern phenomena such as “post-democracy”, “defective democracy”, “crisis of representation” and “anti-politics”. Given that public confidence in institutions, science, the media and politics is waning and the gulf between social groups is widening, how can we continue to generate and disseminate knowledge that uses democracy as its normative point of reference? My theory is that we need to abandon our desire to understand the world in all its complexity. In other words, I believe we need to depart from the fiction of wanting to fully capture and understand reality.
Reality has always been a construct – a product of one’s perspective and place and time in history. More knowledge does not necessarily help to gain a clearer picture. Take universalism, for example. In Western classical modernism, pledging allegiance to universalism and internationalism, to human rights and the comprehensive validity of scientific knowledge, was a plausible act. Today, although Western societies continue to maintain their universalist loyalties, they have produced a situation in which violating the human rights of the populations in the Global South is a prerequisite of their own existence. In addition, the principle that all humans and their needs are equal, which modernity accepted at least in theory, is now being jeopardised by Identitarian movements. And even emancipation-oriented identity politics is centred more around the difference between interests and needs than around their similarities.
How do we deal with all of this? Today, education and knowledge are categories that are defined by the conviction that some contradictions cannot be resolved and that ambiguity is inherent in cultures of knowledge. The way we approach knowledge has to be critical by default. The fact that human rights continue to be violated does not mean we should abandon the concept altogether. The fact that internationalism has been perverted does not imply that we should stop working towards political inter- and transnationalisation. The fact that education has been devalued and instrumentalised for the elites does not mean that it is useless as a path towards emancipation. However, the fact that knowledge is used to literally re-format human beings and facilitate neo-colonial exploitation does challenge us to respond politically. Knowledge has a subjective dimension and calls upon us to occupy a clear position.
Let me close with some remarks about design. Design does not generate knowledge about some random subject. Design does generate knowledge about its socio-political consequences, amongst other things. Allow me to illustrate this thought using the example of functionalism, a phenomenon of industrial modernism. The standardisation and generalisation of architecture, workflows, daily routines, and serial construction led to neutrality on such a level that this inspired a counter-movement to re-inject meaning and values into the social environment. Of course there are still faceless urban districts and uniform suburbs. Above all, there is still plenty of provincial ugliness and ugly provinciality, for instance the architectural aberrations of the 1970s and 80s that the historian Philipp Felsch mentions in his recently published book “BRD Noir”, co-written with Frank Witzel (in which he also mentions the post-war Western German obsession with “washable” façades). In addition, as the sociologists Andreas Reckwitz and Walter Siebel have observed in recent years, the world’s larger cities and metropolises are morphing into environments that are geared towards the needs and interests of the wealthy and the creative classes. Design is understood as a conduit for uniqueness and particularity. Cities are turned into brands. Buildings are showcased as solitaires that are instantly recognisable around the globe. Humans are not perceived as citizens, but as paying clients. They move through staged, immersive spaces that command them to buy and consume – a world in which the “dark side” of society, the negative, is rendered invisible. Against this backdrop, we can afford to claim to be cosmopolitan – after all we want access to international markets. Against this backdrop, the vast range of products and services on offer masquerades as social pluralism. In a world dominated by global lifestyle capitalism, design – which does not sell products, but relevance and cultural capital – has a major role to play.
The design of urban environments and the political architecture of cities are mutually informative. This is a relationship that deserves critical scrutiny. The new urbanism of today directs a harsh spotlight at the impacts that the post-industrial age has had on politics, society, and culture. Now that globalisation has weakened the nation-state and its institutions, a potential new playing field has opened up for the local level. Now, it is not just local policymakers that are weighing in, but also sub-national stakeholders such as companies, organisations, and the creative economy. Most of them are interested in making the up-and-coming cities and metropolises more attractive versus the global competition – however, their efforts rarely extend to social issues. In times of tight budgets, non-urban environments tend to be left up to their own devices. In the culturalisation race, smaller cities and their inhabitants are losing out. Non-urban spaces are undergoing a profound structural change – and not necessarily for the better. However, within metropolitan areas too, spaces and social structures are becoming polarised and the divides between their inhabitants are widening. In my opinion, knowledge producers play a crucial role in taking responsibility for addressing this, given that the role of designers and architects remains as yet undefined.
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