Learning through creativity

If the wall wasn’t plastered with ideas and images you were doing it wrong. It was important that everyone could see their own – and each other’s – ideas and processes

This post, from Kendra Quinn, is the last in series of guest post from students who recently graduated from the program where I teach and participated in the journey interviews for my book. Kendra, who came to Sussex via an Arts Foundation year, has a unique perspective on creative teaching and why it’s so hard to do in the social sciences. Thank you Kendra!

I recently graduated from Sussex with a degree in Geography and International Development, having previously completed an Art foundation course at Kingston University. This is not the most natural of paths into a social science degree, but as with many creative individuals who also enjoy more ‘academic’ subjects, on leaving sixth form I found myself with a predicament: should I pursue design, and take the creative route, or study other subjects of interest? I chose not to choose, and to delay my decision by applying for an Art foundation and settled at Kingston University. In the end, I decided to keep my deferred place at Sussex, so the following year I went ‘academic’, whilst friends went on to study graphics, product design, illustration, design engineering, and architecture. Keeping in touch throughout our degrees, it became clear to me that the overlaps between our different disciplines were not pursed fully, if at all, by either course.

Creative outlets

Whilst the creative degrees excelled at helping students think and design with empathy, as well as think critically around subjects and problems, my degree tended towards thinking in the abstract, about various problems, both on an individual and human level, and with a greater focus on the theoretical side of things. On starting my course in international development, I expected it to encourage me to think more critically about subjects and scenarios in which I was interested; but, being a course very much about people, I was also under the impression that it would be filled too with case studies and projects – creative outlets to allow me to think practically about applying the theory which any academic course naturally contains. Yet, I found that in the current exam/essay based culture of learning, critical discussion around the theories and abstract concepts leaves little room to be creative with how you learn, and makes it harder to still to be creative when it comes to the product of your learning; an essay, at the end of the day, is an essay, and an exam result is just an exam result. Design, often, is about asking questions – without necessarily expecting an answer. The solution is always up for interpretation. Coming from a design background, I certainly struggled with moving away from the idea that the results of my learning would definitely have an impact on a subject or discussion; modules at Sussex, on the other hand, often ended in an essay, which to me always seemed more to be proof that you were present and thinking critically – not that you’re actually adding anything to the debate.

A design course allows the individual time to prototype, to tangent and circle back, to learn from failures and use them to continuously develop a project. At each stage projects are discussed with fellow students openly, and critique is often welcomed over compliment. This is where the learning itself comes from, and the main thing I think the social sciences could learn from a design school is the ability to learn through creativity. Often a creative environment (in no small part as a result of how such courses are presented and promoted by schools and higher educational institutes) is seen as a space to present ideas through colourful images and models, etc. A lot of the modules at Sussex however did promote similar styles of discussion and presentation to those used during my foundation degree. We frequently engaged with group debate, presentation, use of different materials, etc. in order to communicate ideas. But there is a difference here, and it is fundamental: here you are presenting your learning creatively, not learning through creativity. There are a few things that I think social sciences can learn from here. Currently, students are asked to tick boxes with their essay, despite studying topics that don’t endorse the idea of right and wrong answers. Moving away from a linear results-based system might make for a more exciting environment where students can explore ideas more, rather than simply regurgitate and study arguments in the limited framework an essay represents.

Ongoing critique

Another distinguishing feature of a creative degree is the mindset towards criticism that students build and promote, from each other and their tutors. One thing that I feel puts students off speaking and expressing ideas in my degree is the negative association with feedback that essay based environments create. Creative students from day one are almost forced to share their thoughts and processes with fellow students, something which continues throughout a module/project, teaching them to use and take critique; the culture in a social science degree, meanwhile, is not about sharing. Pressure to produce a grade from one or two essays results in a fear of critique, despite this being fundamental to learning effectively. Leaning away from the assessment of a final result and more toward ongoing critique of processes and ideas might help remove the vulnerability and timidness that is often felt in students toward their own work and encourage greater contribution within the classroom.

As an example of the overlap between creative courses and social sciences, here are two examples from my studies. At Sussex we had a module called Disasters, Environment and Development; this module involved an essay and a group project in which we had to design our own ‘serious game’ that helped the players understand risk in the context of disasters and weather phenomena.  For the module my group designed a card-based game. The cards were split into ‘weather’ cards, ‘crop’ cards and ‘Life’ cards, and we used pebbles to represent a player’s assets. Each round, a ‘weather’ card with a hazard, along with its potential cost, is revealed. Each team decides to protect themselves or to take a card from the crop/life pile which has either a positive or negative effect on their assets. If the hazard occurs and the team did not protect themselves, they lose double the initial cost of the card. Essentially as the game goes on the teams learn that they are more likely to ‘survive’ the game if they protect themselves from the weather card every round. As a group most found it was challenging to build a game that educates and reveals something to the players. But the building of a game was useful, in that game building was a great way of learning about and presenting risk. You are, in a sense, studying yourselves in order to learn about the topic; by understanding your own behaviour toward risk and the variables that determine that, you can learn more and apply yourself better to the case studies discussed in the literature.  I think that the creative elements to social sciences courses work better with the students if there is an incentive for building or creating something. So, you are learning through creativity rather than just creatively representing what has been learnt.

A project I did on my foundation course reminds me of the kind of work that I understand creative modules at Sussex to be aiming toward. Tutors gave us a crime profile of a city and the brief was to design housing that would help the reduction of the specific causes of the crime, or the crime itself. I think this premise is obtuse, but it led to a lot of research into the social infrastructure of the city, the socio-economic struggles of its citizens, and the style of policing. I was given the favelas of Maceio, Brazil, and created a sort of modular low-cost housing system which eliminated blind corners and created shared patios to promote community. This aimed to reduce some of the chaos that comes with the building of informal settlements without reducing the appeal. The key aspect of this project was that the research had to be translated into a physical solution. 

Learning from each other

Having studied in two environments, with two very unique approaches to learning, I’m convinced that both can learn a lot from each other. I hope in the future to see more overlap and conversation between creative courses and the social sciences. The similarities between the module and project described above show how both are approaching similar topics and ideas through completely different lenses. What the social sciences can learn from design thinking is an empathetic and individual focus on the journey of a project and its value – not only an end result. I also feel that the sense students get from creating and completing an individual project, the sense that they have contributed and made a real impact on the discourse surrounding a subject, is far more empowering and incentivising than the more rigid student/teacher dynamic that is more common in an ‘academic’ learning environment. Likewise, perhaps creative courses can learn from the depth of theoretical study and critical skills that are more widely applied in a social sciences environment.

Designing Back from the Future

Prototyping Brighton 2050

As I mentioned in my previous post, which is a summary of my book’s design chapter, scenarios – stories about possible futures – are an important tool in the design tool box. Scenarios have an interesting history, having been developed by Herman Kahn for the US RAND Corporation in the 1950s to support US military nuclear war planning. They have also been used by large corporations, foremost among them Shell, to explore possible energy scenarios. More radically, in 1995, the Global Scenario Group started developing multiple planetary scenarios, ranging from Conventional Worlds in which companies or governments continue the status quo, to Barbarization marked by breakdown or retreat to Great Transitions that present visionary alternatives focused on natural preservation, material sufficiency and social justice. Scenarios have also been used in teaching, and in the design chapter I write about an activity called Designing back from the Future, inspired by Anne-Marie Willis and conducted with students at Sussex’s School of Global Studies to imagine and prototype their preferable futures. For Willis, scenarios are the projection of likely futures, opening them up for reflection, including on actions that need to be taken to achieve the visions. The Sussex activity comprised two Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) design workshops ran by design Research Associate Paul Braund and student coordinators and a Big Build exercise I carried out as part of a third year undergraduate course on Urban Futures. In both activities, students explored what Brighton, where most Sussex students live, might look like in 2050.

Students at one of the SDG workshop

For both activities, the space was set up as an invitation for students to play, experiment, build and have fun. Tables for small groups were covered with thinking materials (sticky notes, marker pens, stickers, large sheets of paper, photos, quotes etc), building materials (crafty stuff, play-doh, pipe cleaners, foam sheets, pins, string, LEGO and wooden blocks etc) and of course snacks. In general, multi-use materials are preferable to single-use objects to provide students with base materials that can be manipulated to externalize ideas. To introduce an element of ambiguity, each table also had a random object, including a knight, a small plush animal and a Lego object, which needed to be incorporated into the prototype. Student were excited as they settled into the space and many of them quickly began to explore the materials with their hands, opening cans of Play Doh and often commenting how its distinct smell brought back childhood memories, or grabbing sticks of pipe cleaners and bending them into whimsical shapes. Such making ‘prompts physical, intellectual and emotional responses’ through a form of hand knowledge, where students’ hands become translators between words and materials. According to Tim Ingold, a leading design anthropologist, making involves deep situatedness, active participation and real-time connection, a coming together of mind, body and material that Ingold calls ‘animacy.’ While social science students might not experience this as intensely as art and design students, making can nevertheless open up cracks in which thinking can happen and learning can stick better. Alongside these materials there were questions, prompts and instruction sheets on the tables, as from experiences we knew that informal learning needs clear structures and guidelines to be successful.

Thinking and building materials invite students’ creativity

The overall question was ‘What do you want the world to look like in 2050?’ For the SDG workshop, which ran over 5 hours, the format was more open-ended and the first task was for groups to develop a concrete vision and action plan for their preferred future, which led to some intense negotiations as diverse group members agreed on a collective vision. Several starting questions were posed to help the students: What things will have been achieved? What new institutions, laws, norms and behaviors will have been created? Who would participate in the change project and who would be affected and how? To compensate for the lack of a research phase that usually accompanies scenario exercises to keep them from becoming fantasies (although students did look up some information on their laptops), students were encouraged to localize their scenarios in a place that was familiar to at least one participant in the group. The group working on SDG 11 on cities selected Brighton, which allowed all members to draw on their own experiences of living in or near Brighton. For the in-class Big Build, which was only 2 hours long, I had pre-developed the following scenario in the interest of time: ‘Brighton in 2050 is a self-sustaining, hospitable and generous city. Its environmental footprint is minimal, it is welcoming of diversity and provides all of its residents with a decent quality of life.’  Tables had been set up around three specific topics that corresponded to themes studied throughout the term:  sustainable infrastructures, deep governance and radical conviviality. Each group had their own brief, further specifying their vision through guiding what-if questions and providing examples as starting points for their scenario journey.

Once students had further developed their visions, they were prompted to think about concrete ways through which to realize it, beginning with a brainstorming session. In parallel students started building prototypes of their scenarios with the materials at hand. Their emerging visions included tried and tested ideas, such as taking Brighton’s well-known status as a sanctuary city as a point of departure to create spaces where refugees could obtain homes, food and skills and be integrated with fellow urban residents through living with them and working in cafes and shops. Environmental visions included solar panels, bike stands, community gardens and a public assembly place. More far-reaching proposals were to build a mega-greenhouse and a free tram line. Most radically, one group proposed to repurpose Brighton’s famous Royal Pavilion as a communal food hall. None of these ideas were blue-sky or totally new, but that was not the point of the activities. What was remarkable was how the students brought together different domains in their scenario creations: their own experiences as Brighton residents, theoretical knowledge gained in class discussions, inspirations from other initiatives they knew about as well as practical making. Collectively, they built plausible scenarios that were materializing alternative urban futures that were desirable to them, while considering the rights and needs of diverse groups.

Prototyping an urban alternative future (notice the knight 🙂

Although because of time restrictions the groups did not reach the final stage of the exercise, which would have involved thinking through the specific actors, institutions and measures involved in realizing their alternative futures, they clearly enjoyed the creativity of the workshops and learned from it. This was evident in their comments that were collected in questionnaires and some follow-up interviews. Students wrote about encountering ‘a new way to think (not just words),’ which speaks to ideas of whole-person learning and hand knowledge I am developing in the book. Comments such as ‘how to involve different backgrounds into development’ and ‘a more open way of thinking outside the modules’ showed how spaces for possible actions and connections were opened up. One student wrote that they realized ‘that there are 100 ways to work‘ and another commented that ‘the workshop highlighted the complexities of designing and implementing solutions and the contradictions and huge interlinked challenges,’ which shows that ideas about change itself had broadened. Many students also expressed how they enjoyed engaging with fellow students in a more practical, hands-on and fun way. And for some, the workshops had ‘reestablished hope and encouragement for the future [through] more hands-on learning, not just [learning about] theory not working.’ This comment speaks to the potential of creative learning that incorporates an open-ended, experimental approach based on asking questions, developing possible responses through collaborative learning and then prototyping visions for alternative futures.

Designing Futures

How can we invite students’ creativity into university spaces?

Having just finished a draft of my design chapter, I thought it might be interestig to provide a brief summary here. The chapter argues that design’s future orientation and open-ended methods, together with its use of creative spaces and materials (inspired in part by a visit to the Stanford d.school during which many of the images in this post were taken), are well-placed to inform a critical-creative pedagogy. They can help students to become more confident with experimentation, ambiguity and empathy in their learning, as I show through a detailed presentation of two learning activities that involve the building of future scenarios. The chapter draws mainly in the work of Tony Fry, Arturo Escobar, David Staley as well as Tim Ingold and other design anthropologists. In this post I outline the main arguments of the chapter while in the next one I present one of the learning activities.

In his groundbreaking book Designs for the Pluriverse, Escobar seeks to reclaim design, whose commercial version are often seen to contribute to unsustainable life styles and consumption habits, for the making of alternative worlds. Transition design in particular can help ‘embrace the vital normative questions of the day . . .  from out-of-box perspectives.’ In my chapter, I work with this concept of socially-conscious design, which has developed within the larger discipline since the 1960s and recognizes itself as a fundamentally ethical and political activity. I also conceive of a design as an innate human capability that incorporates both intellectual and material activities and results from our abilities to prefigure and imagine what we want to create. As Karl Marx famously wrote ‘a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality.” Design has also been codified and become a professional field of study and practice. Last but not least, design has been called the art of the possible because of its inherently optimistic orientation, and, like the generative theory I use in my book, ‘transcends the limits of deconstructive and discursive analysis by venturing into the positive project of how the world can be – and be understood – otherwise,’ according to Escobar.

A van stuffed with cushions and drawing materials in the entrance area of the Stanford dschool invites playfulness

So what can design bring to challenge-focused teaching in the social sciences? In the chapter, I show that its open-ended approach and iterative process of continuous testing and adjustment, the practice of prototyping to test assumptions and responses, the posing of what-if questions to disrupt taken-for-granted understandings and understanding the concept of wicked problems (which I already explored in relation to COVID) can make students more comfortable with experimentation, ambiguity and empathy.

  • Experimentation involves students being playful, taking risks and exploring boundaries, which can lead to unexpected outcomes and surprises. Experiments can fail, and reframing failure as learning opportunities involves iteration as a continuous process of reworking. Emphasizing the open-ended and emergent qualities of things can help students keep an open mind and explore different avenues before settling on a specific course of action. This goes together with the ability to use questions in an exploratory way, by wondering whether they are even asking the right question rather than knowing the answer before the question is even posed.
What if teaching embraced rapid experiments?
  • Ambiguity means being open to more than one possible meaning or interpretation. Judith Harding and Lynne Hale show how the ability be comfortable with ambiguity is one of the key markers of creative problem solving processes, when a problem is clarified and different responses are considered. Design methods can help students to embrace ambiguity by enabling them to look at various angles of a problem or situation, suspend judgement and not rush to a solution. Harding and Hale give the example of providing students with purposely puzzling instructions for a learning activity and then resisting demands for clarification, instead explaining that students’ experiences of discomfort or frustration are part of the learning experience.
What if students were encouraged to dwell in ambiguity?
  • Empathy, broadly defined as the ability to imagine other people’s feelings or to emotionally identify with another person – to put ourselves in their shoes – involves cognitive processes of understanding and affective processes of emotional and embodied labor. Steve New and Lucy Kimbell argue for ‘designerly’ rather than managerial empathy that involves taking a ‘creative leap into the experience of another’ through techniques such as visualization, the construction of personas, role-play and co-immersions. In teaching, engaging empathy needs to complemented with research to avoid empathy’s negative potentials. For example, asking students to put themselves into other people’s shoes without understanding their situations can lead to students projecting their own emotions or experiences unto others and to patronizing assumptions or misrecognition. On the other hand, empathy can connect to pedagogies of unlearning and decentering privilege by providing situations where students encounter, learn about and interact with difference. Empathy also connects to Bruno Latour’s writing about design’s humility, which I have written about in the context of COVID.

Another element that design brings to creative teaching is its future orientation. To better understand universities’ overall relationship with the future, Keri Facer’s work on modes of stewardship, modelling, experimentation and critique has been particularly instructive. In his book Design Futuring, Tony Fry argues that ‘design futures or defutures – it rides the line between bringing things into being that sustain the conditions upon which viable futures depend and taking the possibility of such futures away.’ To support the field’s futuring capacity, he proposes the practice of ‘prefigurative criticism,’ whereby emerging products or processes are associated with negative values, for example through placing them into undesirable contexts, which would decrease demand for them. Students could explore such a recoding of the value of things through creative alterations of brands, adverts or billboards, following the path-breaking work of organizations like Adbusters. They could also examine their own consumer habits and the values underlying them and then experiment with recoding.

I want to conclude this post with reference to the ‘Future University’ proposed by David Staley as part of his utopian universities design speculations. Such a university would focus on both pure futuring, through a liberal-arts type education where students explore the future ‘as a possibility space,’ and applied futuring, through more vocationally-oriented teaching where students are ‘making the future happen.’ Teaching would encompass systems thinking, dystopian and utopian science fiction reading and writing, and the incubation of new social forms within universities that become a kind of living laboratory. It would also include the creation of design fictions through the making of prototypes that materialize students’ visions of the future. This future university is a great example of critical-creative learning that fosters students’ curiosity, introspection, imagination, situational awareness and humility. Elements of it already exist in many innovative university programs that have recognized the need to become incubators to foster collaborative learning and interdisciplinary problem solving to help students better address contemporary wicked problems.

What if this was the motto?

Bauhaus Teil II

Haus am Horn in Weimar

This post chronicles further ideas and inspirations from my current visit to the new Bauhaus museums in Germany. I am here to find out what the Bauhaus, as a radical educational experiment aiming to realize a vision of a better future at times of great economic, political and social turmoil, might offer creative teaching for today’s global challenges. In my first post I wrote about the context in which the Bauhaus was formed and its general teaching methods, and in this post I reflect how its attitude towards technology and the role of women at the Bauhaus might be relevant.

In 1923, as one of the conditions for continued funding from the regional government, the Bauhaus organized a major exhibition that brought its achievements to international attention. Its motto – Art and Technology: A New Unity – reflected the relationship that the Bauhaus wanted to establish between new technologies, the arts and crafts and industrial production. The school’s founder, Walter Gropius, had fought at the Somme during WWI and seen first-hand the devastation that technological innovation can bring. He returned with a belief in radical social reform in which creative people played a direct role. Rather than rejecting technology altogether, he and teachers like Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, aimed to bring the art, crafts and industry, machines and humans, together in new ways. At the beginning of the 20th century, increasing industrialization, mass production and standardization raised important questions about the role of the individual, crafts people and artistic elements and about the connections between society and technology more general. I see the same questions being asked today in relation to new digital and bio-technologies and artificial intelligence and their remaking of human life, social relations and capitalist models. (For an insightful but frightening picture, Shoshana Zuboff’s recent take on surveillance capitalism is a good but hefty read). 

One of the main attractions of the Bauhaus exhibit was Das Haus am Horn, a model house that was built on the outskirts of Weimar. Designed by the Bauhaus Masters and furnished entirely by students, including textiles, high fittings and wall paintings, the house gave material form to many of the modern ideas of the school. It showed that the Bauhaus was not only about educating students but about reeducating the public to live more economically and functionally. The use of new materials, open space and room divisions, such as a separate bedrooms for spouses, revealed radical ideas and changing social norms. According to the exhibit, the house stood out like a sore thumb among the villas that adorned the road and critics called it a ‘house for martians.’

The modern kitchen as shown in a catalogue of the time

The house’s modern character was especially evident in the kitchen and its new domestic technologies. Showcasing Germany’s first fitted kitchen, furniture was arranged ergonomically in the taylorism-inspired sequence of cooking tasks to get rid of unnecessary movement, time and energy expenditure. The kitchen containers were in specific logical order and easy to access and clean. The oven and roaster ran on gas, cooking vegetables that were grown behind the house. (The gardens are where the Bauhaus students themselves grew vegetables for the communal canteen). An advertisement video in the main Bauhaus museum had compared more traditional kitchens and their laborious and unhygienic ways to the new kitchen, in which a woman dressed in a 1920s flapper outfit was happily working away. It was the woman though doing the housework, just as open doors to the children and living room enabled her to supervise the children more easily.

This speaks to an interesting tension about the role of women at the Bauhaus, about which many good books have been written. While Gropius welcomed female students, who initially outnumbered men, the master teachers were predominantly male with the exception of women teaching rhythmic dance and weaving. Similarly, female students were initially only allowed to apprentice in the weaving workshop (which incidentally was the only one making commercially viable products that provided a much needed source of income for the school), as it was thought that work in wood, metal or theatre workshops might be too physically demanding for them. Women like Gunda Stoelzl, Annie Albers and Marianna Brandt, who was the first woman allowed in the metal workshop and later became its master, went on to make names for themselves as successful designers but are still much less known than famous male Bauhaus masters and alumni.

In 1924, the Weimar Bauhaus lost political and financial support when a new right-wing nationalist government came to power in Thuringia. It moved to Dessau in 1925 and then to Berlin, where, branded as Bolshevik and degenerate, it was closed in 1933, in one of the first acts after the Nazis came to power. While some of its students were imprisoned, others collaborated with the Nazis in the design of concentration camps, including Buchenwald. Tomorrow I will travel to Dessau to learn more about the continuation of the experiment that was the Bauhaus.

Bauhaus Teil I

A photo in the entrance hall of the Weimar Bauhaus museum captures some of the school’s spirit

I am writing this post from Germany, where I am currently conducting research at the new Bauhaus museums that opened last year in Weimar, where the Bauhaus was established in 1919 by Walter Gropius, and in Dessau, where it moved in 1925. Both museums were opened last year to celebrate the Bauhaus’ 100th anniversary. (While I am here I am also spending some time with my parents; as I wrote in one of my first posts, I grew up in a small town close to Weimar in former East Germany. Since my parents still live there I have had many occasions to visit and see the changes that have happened since 1989, some good, some not so good – most recently Thueringen, the state where Weimar is located, made worldwide headlines when a premier was elected with the help of the far-right AFD party, in the process breaching one of Germany’s political taboos. Comparisons to pictures of Hitler and Bismarck show the worrying historical parallels).

Having been interested in the Bauhaus and in the role of design for development for a while, I always felt that there might be some kind of a connection, also to creative teaching, and this visit is definitely confirming this. The Bauhaus was a fascinating educational experiment with many parallels to today and I am trying to figure out what we might learn from it about creativity, education and the search for alternatives. The information below come from museum displays and a number of informative books about the Bauhaus (Whitford 1984, Forgasc 1991, Dorste 2019); there are also fascinating novels and films in English and German).

The outside of the museum, in modernist style and adjacent to one of Weimar’s more classical buildings

The new museum in Weimar is pretty stunning. It is housed in new building by the German architect Heike Hanada, occupying a square with significant historical interconnections. Throughout its history, Weimar has been home to a great number of progressive artists and thinkers (such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Schiller, Johan Sebastian Bach, Rudolf Steiner and Friedrich Nietzche). However, one can also see the Glockenturm of the former Nazi concentration camp of Buchenwald from one of the museum’s windows. The Bauhaus itself was founded during a time of great social, political and economic upheaval. After WWI, decommissioned German soldiers and sailors returned, many of them deeply scared but also harbouring visions of a different, alternative future. The November 1918 revolution that overthrew the monarchy led to radical left groups, inspired by the Russian revolution, battled with reactionary vigilante groups in the streets of Berlin and other mayor cities. That is one of the reasons why Weimar, a quieter and at the time progressive town, was chosen as the birthplace of Germany’s first democracy, leading to the Weimar Republic. Ongoing conflicts led to hyperinflation, worsened by the 1929 Great Depression and ultimately the rise of Hitler. The increasing polarisation between left and right and the violence that comes with it, the rise of populist rhetoric and leaders and the corresponding rejection of foreign ideas and people have strong resonances to today.

The Bauhaus opened in 1919 through the merging of two already existing schools of Fine Arts and the Art and Crafts. Gropius named it Bauhaus in a modern take on the medieval guilds of craftspeople called Bauhuetten, and the school was marked by a the clash of old and new, tradition and radicalism, from the beginning. At its heart was a utopian vision of the role of education in creating a new society, in which art, design and technology would play central roles. To get things going, Gropius wrote the Bauhaus Manifesto, in which, according to the museum, he developed a vision of ‘a promising future . . . one that invited young people to become part of a community that was unafraid to address the urgent challenges of the time.’ The Manifesto was sent around the world to attract students, who came in the hundreds to join this radical experiment. They were taught by the most avantgarde artists of the time: Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Lyonel Feininger, Oskar Schlemmer, George Muche and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. The latter’s motto, that ‘every person is gifted,’ echoes the ideas of everyday creativity I wrote about in previous post. In addition, they had to pass a rigorous Vorkurs initially taught by Johannes Itten, who incorporated bodily and sensorial exercises to awaken the students’ holistic experiences of colours, shapes and materials. This course is the predecessor of today’s foundation courses that often reshape how art and design students perceive the world.

Amongst much material hardship, Bauhaus students also experimented with new form of communal living, including growing their own food and a community canteen, living together in communal quarters and celebrating student life (the Bauhaus parties were famous and ultimately pushed Weimar’s deeply conservative burghers, who saw the Bauhaus as alien, un-German and Bolshevik, over the edge). Early on, they formed a cooperative and started plans to build their own Bauhaus settlement. Even though the settlement did not materialise for financial reasons, the questions the students asked – how should we dwell and how should we live together in new ways – are as if not more relevant today. The Bauhaus was therefore a living academic and social experiment, aiming to awaken students’ free creativity and collective efforts to build a better future. Most students embraced the Bauhaus ideals, enthusiastically participating in creating a utopian community after the ravages of war that many of them had experienced.

One of the inner halls of the museum, with the famous Bauhaus cradle in the front

Here are some student quotes I have found in a good book by Boris Friedwald that attest to students’ awareness of being part of a history-making educational experiment:

  • we do not want to become artists, but human beings, and intensify our looking, experiencing and sensing’ (Gunta Stoelzl)
  • for me the value is not in what is taught but in how it is taught, that one first trains and educates people who think and act for themselves before one conveys the necessary knowledge to them’ (Vera Meyer-Waldeck)
  • most people come with the genuinely serious intention of entering a community which differs fundamentally from the contradictory world around them, where they can develop new points of view for the systematic creation of a new society’ (Albert Mentzel)

Although the Bauhaus was an art and design school, with artistic creativity at its heart, I do believe that in it social aims and the ways in which it was trying to realize these aims in times of great challenges it can provide ideas and inspiration for creative teaching today. There is still a Bauhaus University in Weimar, in the building where the original teaching took place and which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. I was going to visit its Open Day, but that was unfortunately postponed because of the corona virus. So now I am off to visit the model house that was built for the 1923 exhibit.