Art and Design: The Ulm Model | Part 2. Contradictions of Utopia
Peter Kapos

Part 2. Contradictions of Utopia



Positive and Negative Aspects of Utopia


For Germany, the devastation of the war, both architectural and moral, had been so complete that the future could only be thought of as starting from an absolute beginning. An epoch seemed to have commenced marked by its radical discontinuity from the one preceding and, for a time, the future appeared undetermined, an open horizon in which anything at all might be (collectively)

established. In Germany this condition was expressed in the term ‘Stunde Null’, or ‘Zero Hour’. (36) In the event, the German economy developed with unexpected rapidity, and the expansive zone of possibility was soon blocked in by the individuating distractions of consumerism. The HfG’s objection to design as mere product differentiation was rooted in the recognition that novelty, as the unending negation of the previously novel, was fundamentally conservative – a restless variation that resulted in something ultimately unchanging. Against these developing conditions the HfG’s initial idealist utopianism, its ‘instinctive consciousness’ of an ideal future social formation, gained increasing definition as a critique of ‘neo-capitalist’ social relations. The crisis identified by Moles and Schnaidt as a contradiction between the tenets of functionalism and the requirements of the prevailing system could, then, be presented in terms of incompatible concepts of ‘the new’ corresponding to contradictory orientations towards the future. (37) From the general social conditions of ‘neo-capitalism’ arises a consciousness of the future as the extension (to infinity) of the present. The HfG, however, anticipated a future qualitatively different from things as they then existed. (38) Maldonado observed something similar when he had said of the Bauhaus that it ‘moved always in the opposite direction [to the prevailing tendency] because it moved towards the future’. (39) Or, to put the same thing negatively, the existing order was fundamentally and problematically non-futural. But, contra Moles, the actual crisis of functionalism did not consist formally in an antimony of irreconcilable but seemingly necessary principles – the logic of the market vs. the rigors of functionalism. It consisted practically in the ambivalence of a utopian project sustained by conditions it did not regard as legitimate.


Utopian thought, in general, tends towards ambivalence in its relation to time. In their positive aspect, utopian representations contradict the existing state of things and propose other arrangements on qualitatively new principles. In this constitutive role, insofar as they provide a focal point for practical activity, utopian representations belong to the conditions of possibility of a future transformation of the social world. On their negative side, utopian representations generate conservative effects. In this aspect, they exist as a form of social dream, an image of a reconciled world ‘without concern for the real steps necessary for movement in the direction of a new society’. (40) In offering consolation they make a truncated and brittle existence tolerable, and in so doing prolong it. There are not good and bad, constitutive and conservative utopias. Utopias exist as unstable formations in the field of tension between these poles. In the case of the HfG’s functionalism, this temporal ambivalence arose from a contradiction between purpose and circumstance (the crisis of functionalism) and registered, as we shall see, in the distinctive

formal mode of its presentation.



Constitutive Utopianism: Braun SK 4


The Braun SK phonosuper of 1956, a combined record player, radio, amplifier and speaker system, was amongst the first designs undertaken by the HfG for the Braun Company, a commission accepted through the school’s ‘Institute for the Development of Product Form’, which from 1958 onwards would formally house the school’s various Development Groups. The design was the result of a collaboration involving, on the side of the HfG, Hans Gugelot and Otl Aicher, and Dieter Rams in his first year of appointment at Braun. (41) Gugelot provided the design for the housing of the device, which broke decisively with established assumptions about the appearance of audio equipment. Industrialised warfare had instilled a deep-seated mistrust of technology, reflected in the design of domestic appliances in a great variety of nostalgic forms. This phenomenon took a peculiar turn in the case of audio equipment, which had been forced to conceal its technical character beneath folds of varnished wood and panels of fabric. Often the device was smuggled into the living room embedded within a drinks cabinet or sideboard. In stark contrast to this, the constructive principle of the SK 4 aimed at a complete disclosure of its industrial origin. The housing was formed from one piece of sheet steel, bent four times on a tight radius along a single axis to preserve its flatness, painted white and enclosed on either end by plain panels of red elm veneer. Square slotted openings that served as ventilation grills, exposed the sheet’s gauge. Ornamentation was entirely dispensed with. The minor controls, turning knobs, were surface-mounted, whilst the major controls, square press-switches, projected through a letterbox opening. These were rationally set out in an immediately comprehensible operational hierarchy – major controls aligned on the x-axis, minor on the y-axis. Users, for their part, were addressed not as fearful fantasists but as operators whose needs in relation to the object stemmed from their practical engagement with it. All of this proceeded in accordance with functionalist tenets in a mode of material and constructional literalism that radically avoided either figural reference or the arbitrary imposition of external organisational regimes (for example the classical order of symmetry).


The design may be read as utopian for the most obvious reason that it celebrated technology as a human achievement, and posited the conscious organisation of matter, shaping, bending, placing – gestalt – as the self-determination of human beings. But it is important also to note the particular rhetorical register in which these claims were presented. For they were, on the face of it, self-evidently false. The existing state of German society in the mid-1950s did not support the assertion that humanity had broken free from the tyranny of nature and established a world fit for itself to live in – far from it. In this regard, the mood of the SK 4’s utopian functionalism is subjunctive and in factual contradiction with the existing state of things, referring not to things as they were but as they might be. As Theodor Adorno observed of functionalist architecture:


Architecture worthy of human beings thinks better of men than they actually are. It views them in the way they could be according to their own productive energies as embodied in technology. (42)


There is, then, a displacement within the literalism of functionalism. It purports to refer to objects as they are, to the field of concrete uses and needs and their associated facts. (43) But this rhetorical subterfuge allows the ultimate referent to be projected beyond the horizon of facts and existing social relations. This establishes the SK 4 as the formal inversion of the nostalgic pieces of so-called ‘music furniture’ that it challenged. Whereas the latter expressed a longing for a time prior to the development of technological society, the former expressed the anticipation of a state of affairs yet to come, one in which human beings were served by their creations rather than dominated by them – a technological utopia of authentic use.


The systematic aspect of the SK 4 design, supplied by Aicher, is instructive as a model for understanding the particular passage that occurred within the utopianism of HfG functionalism, between literalism and a certain figuralism. Aicher had been charged with the design of the tuning scale and the setting out of controls. The principle governing the distribution of these elements in his design derives from the modernist tradition of graphic design imported to the HfG by Max Bill, although by the mid-1950s the so-called ‘Swiss Style’ or ‘International Graphic Style’ was widely,

if not universally, practiced. (44) Its organising principle is the grid, whose field is populated by blocks of text and image according to a strict hierarchical analysis of content. However, the art, to use a term to which Bill would not have objected, of the use of the grid system lies in the introduction or omission of elements whereby the regime is not so much violated as ‘broken’, interrupted in such a way that the rules, whilst undercut, are nevertheless maintained. In the SK 4, this moment occurs in the unexpected void that opens beneath the Braun logotype and controls aligned beneath. Unlike the ordering of elements, such intrusions are not governed by the consistent application of rules but are solely a matter of judgment on the part of the designer. And, if successful, the effect of the intervention is not the negation of order but the production of a further and rather less calculable scheme of relations by which the factors of rule and its opposite are maintained in tension. In this way the relation of coordinated elements to the intruding factor figures the relation of normative rule, or law, to freedom, or to put it slightly differently, the successful design presents an emblem of the social character of freedom in its dependence upon normative constraint.


The designer’s compositional facility in achieving a compelling formal result is transferred to the utopian representation in which it appears as an apparent self-ordering of elements according to an internal principle. It is not a coincidence that Aicher’s design resembles so strongly certain Constructivist paintings of El Lissitsky and Kazimir Malevich, which give a similarly disembodied aerial viewpoint on the coordination of regular geometric forms (industrial elements) drawn into a unity. (45) In each, the whole that is formed, or whose impending formation is implied, speculatively asserts the industrial reorganisation of social life on rational principles as the result of an inevitable unfolding. The unity of the ‘picture’ both in its inner relations and as a self-contained form, as a whole, figures the end of history, not as catastrophe but as the reconciliation of antagonism. The figure is an emblem of fulfilled history. Thus, Ulm systems design, which consists precisely in the rational coordination of elements in the formation of functional wholes, shares a subterranean connection with art through its figural utopian dimension. To be clear, however, this is not a relation to the putatively expressive performance of the individual artist, which as the social limitation of freedom is merely ideological. Rather it is a connection to the form of appearance of modern art as a self-sufficient whole, a characteristic that Constructivist artworks amplified to a high degree.



Conservative Utopianism: Braun SK 4 and the D 55 Exhibition Stand


The HfG’s utopianism registered contradictions consistent with its entanglement with the social world it sought to correct. This presented itself most immediately in its relation to the market, resulting in the violation of a number of functionalist tenets. Most obvious amongst these was the simple fact that, clarity of operation notwithstanding, the SK 4 design presented no technological advance on its more traditional looking pre-cursor. In other words, it was largely an exercise in modernist styling that located a portion of its significance in a differential relation to other products as a market position. Although the generous scale of the SK 4 was determined in part by the need to allow space within its body for the circulation of air around its valves, it is also possible to detect in the red elm veneered endplates a residual relation to furniture, as though the object were reluctant to step forward as a device on its own account. In this regard, the design’s relation to furniture was at odds with its drive towards technological self-evidence. If the SK 4 remained apologetically with one foot in the category of furniture, albeit modernist furniture, it was in part because those that had set the brief doubted consumers’ readiness to embrace technology wholeheartedly. (46)


Subsequent research undertaken through Gugelot’s Development Group, E 2, for Braun overcame this hesitant relation to technology only to reinstate ambivalence at the higher level of its utopian form. Their work focused on operational metrics, resulting in a complete system of standardised units. Herbert Lindinger, then a student, proposed a system of wall-mountable audio elements consisting of a tuner, amplifier and turntable. ‘A manufacture of standardised units of sets for acoustic and visual storage-information transfer in living quarters’, he called it. (47) In certain respects, this system shared a great deal with the SK 4, particularly in the systematic setting out of operational controls, dials and labels and the severely reduced cubic forms of the units themselves. However, Lindinger’s programme was less compromising in the expression of its underlying technology and significantly more abstract. For the governing principle of the design was not that of internal formal unity, the gathering up of elements within a whole, but of external functional relation. The units of the system were each nodes within an expandable network of relations. Such a system has no palpable edges. Indeed, it has no form as such. Its principle is the extension of fungible relations, rather than totality. This difference brings to light the phenomenological condition of the constitutive aspect of the SK 4’s utopianism. An object may speculatively figure the

culmination of history if it appears as a unitary and self-bounded item. In other words, the object should not be too large; it must be fully present, capable of being received as a whole. Lindinger’s

system suggests something of another order, for its figuration is in principle incomplete. If it figures anything historical, it would be the abstract possibility of infinite extension, a ‘bad infinity’ to use Hegel’s term, of the future rendered in the form of an unending present.


The indecision within HfG systems design between constitutive and conservative modes of utopianism can be detected even in the inaugural presentation of Braun Design following the modernist revision of the company’s visual identity at Ulm. In 1955 a collection of new audio designs were presented at the 1955 Düsseldorf Radio Fair, a trade show housed in a cavernous hall. The Braun exhibition stand, D 55, was designed by Otl Aicher with the assistance of HfG student Hans Conrad. The system consisted in an extensive cellular lattice planned on grid, and responded to the requirements of transportational ease, fast assembly and flexibility, allowing for, in principle, unlimited size and configuration. The interior spaces of the structure, a generically non-specific modern environment, were sparsely populated with pieces of audio equipment. Considered as a piece of architecture, the D 55 had the appearance of a lightweight pavilion. Considered in its

utopian aspect, however, the design reveals a certain tension. As a construction, that is, as an object assembled from parts according to rational plan, the building performs in accordance with the Constructivist aspect of functionalism. This is found in condensed form at the framework’s junction points – emphatic emblems of a social unity under industrial conditions. In this aspect, the gridded plan of the interior space of the D 55 defines a region of organisation as a world – completely and

internally organised.


But the logic of the grid is both intersectional and extensive. Theoretically, the grid spreads out in all directions to infinity; any limitations on its actual extent are contingently imposed. Empirically the difference between the building’s presentation as an unending series or as a whole depends on whether one is standing within it or outside. Poignantly, insofar as the D 55 functioned as a trade stand, it was a matter of indifference whether it was received in either of its utopian aspects. Whether infinitely extending or absolutely self-sufficient, the stand’s ultimate significance was stamped by its differential relation to the chaotic and rebarbative presentations that otherwise filled the hall, and into which, through this difference, the D 55 was ultimately absorbed. The ambivalence was both contained and determined by its position within capitalist modernity, the cavernous space of the exhibition hall itself, whose vaulted ceiling, in Otl Aicher’s documentation of the D 55, can be seen arching above, enclosing all but only partially in view.



Functionalism Today


The practice of functionalism is, of course, no longer possible. As a project it lacked coherence and, in that sense, was always incapable of realising its goals. In the interval separating our present from the febrile atmosphere of the HfG in the 1950s and 60s, conditions have changed sufficiently to render the continuation of even that project impossible. The difficulty identified by Adorno in 1965 as arising from the contradiction between human use and technical instrumentality is no longer a problem for us. Not because it has been resolved but because instrumentality has developed to cover social existence to such an extent that its opposite has dropped from view. The more concrete political expressions of this development can be found in the general absence of critical practices that functionalist design might join to avoid a mere rhetorical posturing. These same conditions find their temporal expression in an inability to think today of a future that is different from the present in any sense other than rather worse. As Frederick Jameson is often quoted as saying, ‘It seems easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; and perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imagination’. (48) ultural imagination has not found much to sustain it in the events of the last 60 years. (49) The modernist projects of the earlier part of the century are now commonly presented as a series of stylistic exemplars, stripped of social content. Under such conditions, it would certainly be useful to reach beyond particular authors and their objects to retrieve a more collective and more critical design practice, such as that embarked upon at Ulm. In doing so, however, we should be wary. The ‘social daydream’ of a nostalgic recollection (and negation) of modernism is only the most obvious risk. For the idea that the HfG should be ‘gauged not by what it achieved but what it was prevented from achieving’ is also misleading unless the limit of the HfG’s social effectiveness is understood to have been self-imposed, and bound up with its own critical operations. (50) The rehabilitation of modernist projects as resources for the present in general demands critical scrutiny. Out of it might emerge historically reflective practices, quite different in form from those proposed at the HfG, but through which its critical content could still be developed.





36 The group formed in 1948 by Inge Scholl and Otl Aicher, out of which the HfG later developed, was named ‘Studio Null’ in punning reference to this term.


37 My commentary here, and in much that follows, is deeply indebted to the work of Peter Osborne, particularly his concept of modernity as a temporal category and modernism as an associated form of time consciousness. See his book The Politics of Time: Modernity and Avant-Garde (London and New York: Verso, 1995), particularly chapters 1, 2, 5. I must also acknowledge the debt to Osborne in my later interpretation of the temporal structure of HfG systems design, which is greatly informed by his analysis of the structure of the contemporary artwork. See his book Anywhere or Not at All (London and New York: Verso, 2013), particularly chapters 1,2,7.


38 Presiding over the closure of the HfG in December 1968, the Premier of Baden-Württemberg Hans Filbinger notoriously announced: “We want to make something new, and for this we need to liquidate the old.” The statement sums up the HfG’s predicament by 1968. What then appeared to Filbinger as ‘old’ was precisely the future as the distinct form of historical novelty derived from the HfG’s criticism of the present. The HfG had not only fallen out of step with the prevailing market function of industrial design but far more dangerous for an institution so dependent upon external support: it had become unfashionable.


39 Ulm 2, 47.


40 Paul Ricoeur, Lectures on Ideology and Utopia (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 2.


41 Wilhelm Wagenfeld also had a hand, supplying the phono module, although he was not

party to the design process.


42 Theodor W. Adorno, ‘Functionalism Today’, in Rethinking Architecture: a Reader in Cultural Theory, Neil Leach, ed. (London: Routledge, 1997), 257.


43 This follows the same general pattern of movement from facts as we saw previously

in Max Bill’s aesthetics, the difference here being that facts are fictionalised, and thereby temporalised. Bill took facts as providing the ontological ground, or

fundamentally real basis, for a transition to morality.


44 Bill’s very fine graphic design exerted a powerful influence upon Aicher. A dramatic change can

be seen in the latter’s work of the 1940s following his introduction to Bill.


45 Given space, it would be possible to develop a genealogy linking Aicher’s graphic procedures directly to the Constructivist tradition through Bill’s connection to the NeuGraphic on the one hand, and his exposure to the influence of Theo Van Doesburg and László Moholy-Nagy at

the Bauhaus on the other.


46 The Braun Company’s approach to the HfG in 1954 had been prompted by the findings of a consumer survey published by the Allensbach Institute, which had identified a developing acceptance of the modern style in home furnishings. Braun saw the implications of this finding for the design of domestic audio equipment but could not themselves move beyond the comforting association with furniture.


47 This design and the programme it belonged to provided the conceptual blueprint for the heroic modular audio system developed by Braun during the 1960s, following its break with the HfG in 1961.


48 Frederick Jameson, The Cultural Turn (London and New York: Verso, 1998), 50.


49 Amongst the numerous setbacks might be counted the historic failure of communism in Europe and Russia (and its extraordinary development in China), the withdrawal of the post-war settlement, the completion of capitalism as a world system, and accompanying all of this the increasing casualisation and atomisation of labour, its integration with capital through debt, and the accelerated further abstraction of social relation of all kinds through informational technologies,

new forms of national introjection and despairing nostalgia.


50 Gui Bonsiepe quoted in Ulm 21, 14.