Ours is an economically oriented age. In earlier times, world-view was more important. Today, nobody can exist without considering economics: we are concerned with economic form. Also because the need for rational design necessarily follows the previous overemphasis on emotion or historical forms. (Because, like clothes, forms also wear out.)
Economic form arises out of function and material. Study of material naturally precedes understanding of function. Thus our attempt to come to terms with form begins with study of the material.
In many cases, the productive handling of materials has been determined by techniques with a long tradition. This is why education in the crafts consists mostly of the transmission and acceptance of established methods of working.
This narrow training leads to a loss of creative freedom; it stifles invention. But invention—and also reinvention—is the essence of creativity. Once experienced, invention becomes a lasting spiritual possession, and gaining this experience for oneself is the training one needs to create form; to work at the language, the expression of the time.
Learning and practicing techniques develops insight and dexterity, but not creative energies.
Inventive construction and an attentiveness that leads to discoveries are developed—at least initially—through experimentation that is undisturbed, independent, and thus without preconceptions. This experimentation is (initially) a playful tinkering with the material for its own sake. That is to say, through experimentation that is amateurish (i.e. not burdened by training).
Many of the most important discoveries have been made by amateurs—innovations are initially rejected by the experts—pioneers are very often non-professionals, or they often begin outside the profession.
Experimentation skips over study and a playful beginning develops courage. Thus we do not begin with a theoretical introduction: at the beginning there is only the material, if possible without tools. This procedure leads naturally to independent thinking and the development of an individual style.
In order to achieve intimate contact with the material through one's own fingertips, the use of tools is initially limited. In the further course of instruction, limitation of the range of possible applications is gradually introduced. The most common ways of working with the material are noted, and, because they already exist, they are forbidden. Example: outside (in handicrafts and industry) paper is employed mostly lying flat and glued, whereby one side of the paper loses its expression, and the edge is almost never used. This is the reason why we use paper standing, uneven, mobile sculpture, both sides, with an emphasis on the edge. Instead of gluing it, we bind it, stick it into things, sew it, rivet it, i.e. fasten it in other ways and test its performance under tension and pressure.
Thus we intentionally handle materials differently from the outside world, but not as a matter of principle. Not to make something different (in which case we would be focused mostly on the norm), but rather to make it in a different way (whereby we stress the method). That is to say: not to imitate, but rather to seek on our own and to learn how to find independently—constructive thinking. (Later we glue paper as well, but not extensively and not initially, and only if other methods have been tried first.)
Preference for materials or constructive elements for which a use or application does not exist, or that we do not know how to handle, leads to an unusual heightening of autonomy. For example: building with corrugated cardboard, wire mesh, cellophane, transparent plastic, labels, newspapers, wallpaper, straw, gum, matchboxes, confetti and paper streamers, gramophone needles, and razor blades.
Looking over the results of these experiments, we often realize afterwards that seeming innovations already exist. But the result is the student's own experience and possession, because it has been learned rather than taught.
Learning is better than teaching because it is more intensive: the more we teach, the less students can learn.
We know that this emphasis on learning is a longer path, one that leads to detours and dead ends. But beginnings are never straightforward. And learning from one's mistakes fosters progress. Deliberate detours and allowing oneself to become lost in a controlled fashion sharpen one's critical faculties, lead by way of mistakes to that which is more intelligent, call forth the will to find the right and better way.
Often it is easier for students to share experience gained through tinkering than for the older remoter teacher to transmit it. Thus we test our results by discussing and defending them as a group. In this way, experiences that seem foreign but turn out to be closely related are assimilated simultaneously. Individual and group critiques require a well-founded justification of the choice of material, procedure and form. The relationship between expenditure and effect is the measure of success. Beyond their sum, one element plus one element must yield at least one interesting relationship. The more various the relationships that arise and the more intensive they are, the more the elements intensify one another, the more valuable the result, the more fruitful the work.
This points to a main feature of our curriculum: economy. Economy in the sense of parsimony in relation to expenditure (material and labor) and the best possible exploitation with regard to the effect.
Economy becomes practical in that students plan as much as possible before execution. (Thinking things over is the cheapest way to avoid waste). Consent to the use of new materials depends upon the students' remaining true to the objectives of the project. As much as possible, materials are to be used without waste, without cutting. Preliminary experiments are made in the smallest possible form, and in the case of valuable materials, using cheaper substitutes.
Economy leads to a stressing of lightness: surface trumps volume in its efficiency (solid body—hollow body), and likewise we are more interested in linear (graphic) construction (half-timbering—transparent scaffold); the use of the point is most interesting of all (emphasizing and connecting points).
If such mathematical elements are achieved negatively, i.e. as empty or volumetric relationships, then heightened interest, stronger effect, and greater unity are generated.
The activation of negativa (of remainders, intermediate, and negative values) is perhaps the only entirely new, perhaps the most important aspect of contemporary interest in forms. But few have noticed this yet—the word has yet to get around—because the sociological parallels have not been noted. (The sociological reasons for seeking these forms today deserve more extensive discussion here and elsewhere). If one gives equal consideration and weight to positive and negative values, then there is no ‘remainder.' Then we no longer draw distinctions between ‘carrying' and ‘being carried'; we no longer admit divisions between ‘serving' and ‘being served,' between ‘decoration' and ‘that which is decorated.' Every element must simultaneously help and be helped by the whole, support and be supported. In this way, base and frame disappear—and thus also the monument, which employs an excess of substructure to support a dearth of superstructure.
Nothing of any kind may remain unused; otherwise, the calculation is wrong. Because chance has played a role. Nobody is responsible for chance, and thus chance is irresponsible, not to mention mindless, because it arises out of habit.
The rigorous monitoring of one's own work I have described carries a justifiably high price: discipline as both precept and outcome. Clean lines and precision are the greatest factors in creating this discipline, and this becomes evident in the clarity of the final product.
We seek to maximize exploitation of the material by experimenting with maximal carrying capacity (highest elevation, broadest distribution of load, heaviest loading), maximal strength (while retaining flexibility), the closest connections, the smallest or weakest state. Examples: drawing paper folded into pleats about 25 – 30 cm long, 1 cm. high, will bear the weight of two people. The ‘drawers' (insides) of matchboxes, inserted into each other in a tight circle, will support more than the weight of a single person.
Stretching the performance of materials to the breaking point makes the limits of the materials clear, lease organically to related or antithetical materials, allows one to attempt mixtures and further intensification of energies. Example: the luster of tin can be heightened through intersection and reflection to the point at which it gives the illusion of transparent glass.
In addition to this economy in the use of materials, there is an economy of labor. Economy of labor can be fostered by recognizing faster and easier methods, addressing multiple tasks simultaneously, the use of finished or easily obtained materials or aids, the right choice of tools, careful replacement of missing equipment, unification of multiple processes, limiting oneself to a single tool or procedure.
Emphasizing economy of labor only seems to contradict the curriculum described above. Shortening the work process happens only at a later stage. Understanding the difference between teaching people how to make things and teaching removes the apparent contradiction. When a student's learning is directed more toward technological and economical concerns than toward traditional forms, they learn to see both statically and dynamically. They learn the connection, and thereby overcome the false dichotomy between the organic and the technological. In addition to constructive thinking, this kind of learning schools a spatial imagination that is rare. It mediates the collective exchange of experiences, and aims to discover laws of form that are both universal and contemporary. It prevents one from overvaluing individualism, without restricting real individuality.
Schools should not promote individualism as such because individualism emphasizes separation. The task of a school is rather to integrate the individual into contemporary life into society (state, profession, economy). Cultivation of individuality is the task of the individual, not the task of a collective enterprise such as a school. Schools should cultivate individuality passively, i.e. by not disturbing personal development. How many real personalities exist anyway? The vast majority of people are types. A sociological economy must reject conventional pedagogy's cult of personality: productive individuality asserts itself without, and despite, education.
Another set of exercises, the so-called materie studies, open up the formal aspects of our work and possibilities for creating forms freely. During the course of the semester, they alternate repeatedly with the exercises using materials already described. This second set of exercises proceeds less from the inner energies of the materials; rather, they make use of the materials' external appearance. The skins of the materials are brought into relationship with each other according to relatedness or contrast (“like seeks like” and “opposites attract”).
Just as colors enter into relationships with each other (timbre—interval—tension, harmony—“disharmony”), the superficial forms we note with our fingertips and with our eyes enter into relationships with each other. In the way that red complements green, and is simultaneously its contrast and balance, materials such as brick and burlap, glass and stearin, wire mesh and wood ‘stand' in the same relationship.
We classify the appearances of the materials' epidermis (outer layer) as essentially different in structure, facture, and texture. Our employment of them is more like painting than construction, so that spatiality, interruption, and interpenetration appear as an illusion. This special interest in the materials is a manifestation of an epoch that is oriented towards construction. The Gothic cultivated this same interest strongly, but it has been badly neglected since: facades and rooms, implements and clothes, have been made of only one material; walls and furniture and floorboards have been completely covered with paint.
This longstanding practice of neglecting the natural surface of materials makes it difficult to take up this multifaceted task of developing the finest possible feeling for the material. In order to concentrate the experience, we not only assemble materials in suites to seek relationships; we also create textures and factures, invent them, and then translate them into materials with different colors or hues; we substitute materials with related appearances for them; and we imitate them in drawings or paintings.
The systematic ordering of materials into suites with rising or falling values between two polarities sensitizes one to the finest gradations and subtlest transitions. (Tactile scales from hard to soft, smooth to rough, warm to cold or hard-edged to amorphous, smoothly polished to sticky-absorbent. optical scales, e.g. finely meshed—coarsely meshed, transparent—translucent—opaque, clear—cloudy—dense).
Group discussions of the results of the exercises with materials and related tasks aim to call forth careful observation and a new seeing. They allow us to recognize which formal needs are most relevant to us: harmony or balance, rhythm or volume, geometrical or arithmetical proportion, symmetry or asymmetry, rosette or series. What interests us even more in this regard: rich or austere, complicated or elementary form, monotony or polyphony, mysticism or hygiene, volume or line, beauty or cleverness, heraldry or the bathroom.
In short, the inductive mode of instruction I am promoting strives for responsibility and discipline vis á vis one's materials, one's work, and oneself, to teach what tasks and materials are most congenial to the student. The ongoing systematization of this mode is intended to provide substantial, lived insight. It tries to be a training in flexibility in the broadest sense, which cannot be isolated by later specialization. It leads to economical form.
This mode of working stands in conscious opposition to that of conventional trade schools, in which manual facility is ‘inculcated.' Where some carpentry, some bookbinding, some tailoring goes on. Also sawing and planing (the most difficult carpentry), also filing and beating, also sticking and gluing, remain unproductive. Because it meets only the drive to be busy, not the need to give form.
Even worse than unproductive: such ‘initial training' can only be called detrimental. The result is a year's supply of nearly finished, standardized components, coverings, and fasteners pre-packaged and marked with numbers, ready for delivery according to a printed schedule. Someone has applied for a patent for just such a system.
As students and teachers, we must once again learn from and with one another (in competition, which elevates); otherwise, teaching is a bitter pill and a bad business.
English translation by Frederick Amrine, Frederick Horowitz, and Nathan Horowitz
Bauhaus, 2 no. 3, 1928.