A New School
Report of a Conference at Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin – 11 May 2019

Suchitra Balasubrahmanyan
publication date: 12.2019

I first visited the Haus de Kulturen der Welt in July 2017 for a workshop to discuss and plan the content of the Moving Away (then called Designing Life) section of the bauhaus imaginista (then called Migrant Bauhaus) exhibit. The next visit was in May 2019 for the concluding conference, A New School against the impressive backdrop of the completed exhibit. What is education; what are its means and ends; and when is it time to re-examine and re-imagine current educational practices? These are questions which the Bauhaus asked in its time and the exhibit prompts us to ask of ourselves.

The conference A New School drew the intersecting contours of these questions and challenges through perspectives from Brazil, China, India, Germany, Great Britain, Nigeria, Rwanda and the USA. In some presentations the Bauhaus was a central starting point giving way to contextual refashioning; in others, it was a shadowy presence posing the challenge: How does an examination of the past really help us as we struggle to comprehend and respond to the present? In the following pages I have tried to pick out the themes that stood out for me through the deliberations over the three panels of the conference, connecting them to the rich provocations in the exhibit.


The “centre” and “periphery” in art and design

The notions of centre and periphery, introduced by Partha Mitter in the first panel in the context of the conversations between the Bauhaus and Tagore’s Kala Bhavan in Bengal, reverberated in varying registers through the deliberations. The invitation to Arieh Sharon to build in Nigeria and to Gropius-Pei in Shanghai and Taiwan or the presence of Le Corbusier and Eames in India after independence suggest a transmission of expertise in one direction, from Euro-American centres towards African-Asian peripheries. The question of cultural appropriation and asymmetries of power relations are central to any discussion of centre and periphery. The Learning From and Moving Away sections of the exhibit touched upon this when inviting us to consider how Bauhaus members were drawn to the non-western cultures and folk traditions. Ana Carolina Bierrenbach’s session on Lina Bo Bardi’s efforts to use the craft paradigms in Brazil to create a modern school of relevance to the local point to yet another form of conversation between the “centre” and the “periphery”.

But could the asymmetries and antagonisms become blurred if we think of centres and peripheries as mutually constitutive and historically contingent? Bayo Amole and Eduard Kögel’s presentations suggested that Sharon and Gropius-Pei tried to learn from and respond to local cultures and climates. Demas Nwoko demonstrated how he looked to Greek amphitheatres to design a stage for his own performing arts school and Christian Benimana saw fit to collaborate with European medical experts to create his country’s health infrastructure. My own contribution in the exhibit explored how, in India, modernism was appropriated and metamorphosed to confer legitimacy on postcolonial forms of nation building, leading to the creation of elite centres in the so-called peripheries. Both the centre and the periphery have the potential to become the other or be appropriated by the other to, in turn, produce new asymmetries and antagonisms. In the Otolith group’s film actors read aloud and discuss Tagore’s arcane writings in high literary Bengali against the backdrop of the heat and dust of a rural Shantiniketan landscape reminding us that this is indeed a possibility.


How might young people shape their educational institutions and themselves?

The accounts of how institutions shape young people who in turn transform themselves and their institutions were of great interest, preoccupied as I am these days with the questions: Who is the learner today; what is worth teaching; and why. Regina Bittner sketched the Bauhaus’s scepticism towards conventional learning modes and its pedagogical accent on unlearning. Unlearning was the leitmotif of India’s first design school but, ironically, it was achieved by importing modernist pedagogies to counter colonial curricula. Sandra Benitas chose, instead, to fall back on tradition as she recounted the Brazilian Guarani community’s knowledge worlds. For the Guarani, being a healthy male or a female was predicated on affect, emotion and environment and Benitas’ made a case for education systems making place for traditional practices around human maturation. These examples prompt us to consider how competing forms of knowledge and processes of knowledge formation play out in the landscape of education.

Robert Weisenberger showed us how Muriel Cooper kept the Bauhaus alive and well at MIT and inspired a generation of students to extend its modernist approaches into new technologies of communication in inventive ways. Gavin Butt introduced us to “the most influential art school in Europe since the Bauhaus”, the Leeds Polytechnic, and the work of the avant-garde, non-conformist students of the 1970s. His narrative touched the teacher in me, who is always exhilarated when students take charge of opportunities and experiences provided at school to exceed the school itself, to conjure up the improbable, or even impossible, out of the available. What did the teachers at Leeds think of what their students were doing? Exhilaration often goes hand in hand with teachers feeling challenged, slighted or exasperated by the excesses of their students. An intergenerational space opens up which could rapidly become a yawning chasm or, if the teacher could recognise it as a baton-handing moment, a dawning relief of knowing the world is going to be in the safe hands of the courageous young. Juxtaposed with the Still Undead section of the bauhaus imaginista exhibit, one can ponder over the past as a series of presents, with each generation looking to shape their educational institutions, themselves and their times.


Globalised forms of entrepreneurship and new sites for learning

Nudging us to think in a completely new way was Christian Benimana’s talk on the approaches and activities of the African Design Centre in Rwanda where practice is pedagogy—learning by doing, the learner as doer—and the sphere of work as the setting for learning. Fashioned as the “new Bauhaus of Africa”, the centre offers interdisciplinary and field-based educational fellowships to transform local youth to become the next generation of creative leaders in Africa. Amid the stunning beauty of the Rwandan landscape, it was impressive to see young men building healthcare infrastructure in central Africa, coming into their own as they acquired skills to meet urgent local needs.

This is a provocative idea in a world of increasing vocationalisation of education and viewed through the lens of the Indian experience after independence, it is clear that such a model serves the interests of a nation looking to rebuild itself. The presence of international NGOs and European experts too was a commonality, arcing back to the earlier discussion on centres and peripheries. Yet, beyond the contextual similarities lay a more intriguing idea: Would the new educational institution merge with the new workplace? Would such an adaptation of the Bauhaus model of teachers and students as masters and apprentices offer fresh epistemologies and settings for learnings appropriate to emerging contemporary globalised forms of entrepreneurship? Benimana emphasised that his Centre was looking not just at creating a profession but a ‘movement’ and herein lies an idea with immense potential for transformation. Perhaps in such a model student-workers would morph not into workers but into a band of change agents.

Change agents is what Konrad Wachsmann hoped his students would be, as we learnt from Mark Wigley’s presentation of a wholly different form of non-institutionalized design education. Wachsmann taught in the New Bauhaus from the early 1950s to the late 1970s where students learned to design and build intricate modular structures through an extreme model of teaching that was meant to subvert the institutions in which it was housed. What would the students at the New Bauhaus in the US and the student workers at the New Bauhaus of Africa have to say to each other if they could shake hands across time?


Blurring boundaries between teachers and learners

The conference, through the many perspectives and provocations it offered, made me think of the blurred boundaries between teachers and students. Who teaches, who learns? While the Bauhaus—old, new and in Africa— imagined the format of masters and apprentices, the Leeds students were almost autodidacts. They appeared to learn from living and living to discover who they were and might like to be. The educational institution, and the phase of life that one spends in such an institution, then becomes a space and time for self-discovery. and the best a teacher can do is to accompany the younger generation and in the process become a learner too. This suggests rhizomatic modes of teaching and learning where learners might move laterally across centres and peripheries in self-directed ways, within hybrid spaces of living, learning and working. How would radicalisation occur in such settings when the boundaries between civil society, states and non-state actors as we know it, might start to get blurred too? What would the manifesto for such future art-design institutions and practices be in such a post-utopaic world?

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