Biology and Educational Models in the Pacific Southern Cone

David Maulen de los Reyes
publication date: 07.2019

The Chilean encounter with second-order cybernetics in the early 1970s was an essential part of the modernization project the state had been promoting since the 1920s, a project which also encompasses the 1945 reform of the architecture school. But if one reviews the history of this project with greater care, one can identify the reform of the new art school of 1928, which was the product of a social movement that began after the First World War, and that was able to implement in the main school of art of the country, a “first year of trial” similar to the methodology of the Bauhaus preliminary course, influenced by the trends of the “Active” or “New” school of the time.

Between 1970 and 1973, Chile experimented with the Stafford Beer’s Viable System Model (VSM) of what is known as second- order cybernetics, what one of its principle theorists Heinz von Foerster called the cybernetics of observing systems, as distinct from first-order cybernetics, which is involved in the study of observed systems. The interdisciplinary approach of VSM places emphasis on management and control systems from a biological and technological perspective, taking into consideration each of the components of the system as capable of making and executing decisions. It does not depend solely on a centralized unidirectional approach. The interactive design set in place for this project, carried out within the Chilean economic development agency of the Allende period known as the Corporation for the Promotion of Production (Corporación de Fomento a la Producción, CORFO), was strategic, and was chiefly the work of Gui Bonsiepe, a designer from the faculty of the Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm (HfG) who had relocated to Chile as a design consultant.

The basis of a VSM can be identified as possessing three elements: a decision-making space, the larger environment, and the technology that acts as the intermediary between the first two elements, but does not constitute the objective.

A VSM also possesses the intrinsic need to perform retrospective analysis to project future strategies. This approach has an analogical antecedent in the study of what was termed “Integral Architecture” in Chile, which became part of the new curriculum of study within the Faculty Architecture at the University of Chile in the 1940s. It too is thought of as possessing a number of variables defining its basis: the human being, nature and material. The work of Tibor Weiner, a former student and collaborator of Hannes Meyer at the Bauhaus Dessau, and in the USSR of the early 1930s, was very important for the development of this curriculum, and with subjects like “Bio Architecture,” it helped consolidate a trend Chilean architects followed during the ensuing decades: the city designed as living organism.

The Chilean encounter with second-order cybernetics in the early 1970s was an essential part of the modernization project the state had been promoting since the 1920s, a project which also encompasses the 1945 reform of the architecture school. But if one reviews the history of this project with greater care, one can identify a third factor – the reform of the new art school of 1928, which was the product of a social movement that began after the First World War, and that in 1928 was able to implement in the main school of art of the country, a “first year of trial” similar to the methodology of the Bauhaus preliminary course, influenced by the trends of the “Active” or “New” school of the time.

In Chile, the moment of cultural transformation that began in the 1920s fed directly and indirectly the events of the 1940s and early 1970s. Using the models of organization of biology as part of the utopian ideals of artists, designers and architects tried to situate the development of human beings as intrinsically linked to their natural and social environment.


The “Active School” and “Vorkurs”

The vanguards of the 1920s proposed to radically reconstruct the comprehensive subject from scratch, as a critique of the nineteenth century brand of modernity which had brought on the First World War. In this context it is impossible to separate the creation of the State Bauhaus in Weimar and the foundation of the Weimar Republic, its constituent assembly and the preferential democratic social orientation of its early years. With regards to education, one of the main questions in this period was: what type of education should artists, artisans, designers and architects receive in order to serve as protagonists in the construction of this new society of the Weimar Republic?

On the one hand, the Deutscher Werkbund (a German association of artists, architects, designers and industrialists formed in 1907 with the intention of integrating the arts and crafts into mass industrial production in order to increase German competitiveness) had already established a precedent, defending the applied arts and making them pertinent for a new era, based on past references, and, on the other, the complementary development of a vanguard movement generically known as the “Active School” or “New School.” This educational model focused on the valorization of the cultural, social and environmental variables inherent in the generation of knowledge rather than the rote regurgitation (hence reproduction) of acquired information. According to this process, the student generates autonomous knowledge, independently analyzing different tendencies; a method which also strengthens teamwork. Several of the theorists of the Active school referenced psychology and biology (Núnez-Prieto, 2013) to bolster their argument for this form of integral learning which was inherently critical of nineteenth-century pedagogical models. Some of the Swiss and German exponents of this movement were extremely important to the Bauhaus (Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi and Friedrich Fröbel, for instance) as well as to Latin American social movements, which proposed education in general and education in the applied arts in particular as a great device for societal transformation.

In the case of Chile, between 1920 and 1924 normal school teachers (the products of secondary schools organized around pedagogical training) and the Workers Federation of Chile (Federación Obrera de Chile – FOCH) organized alternative schools to the already existing state and private schools. These self-managed schools employed pedagogic techniques used by the Active School (developed by Pestalozzi and Fröbel, as well as methods designed by Maria Montessori, Ovide Decroly and Adolphe Ferrière).

After the First World War (even earlier in the case of México), throughout Latin America there were strong social movements demanding paradigmatic change. These movements focused on overcoming the colonialist structures that still defined Latin American economic policy in order to achieve a more just society for the majority of the population. In 1920, a President was elected in Chile – Arturo Alessandri – who promised to make great changes to achieve social justice, but in September 1924 he was forced to resign and enter into European exile, having not fulfilled his promises. He would return in 1925.

In March 1925, the same month as Alessandri’s return from exile to resume his duties as president, the normalist teachers’ movement in Chile, together with the FOCH, students, intellectuals and workers organized a conference in the municipal theater of Santiago de Chile to prepare a constituent assembly. The new constitution project included an educational reform based on the ideas of the New School. President Alessandri did not call for the assembly to be held, as he had promised from exile, but instead created his own constitution, affirmed by plebiscite in September of that year (he would leave office shortly thereafter, returning for a longer third term as President in 1932). In response, the teachers continued protesting and, when General Carlos Ibáñez del Campo assumed power in the spring of 1927, he called on the teachers in the Active School movement to carry out their reform throughout the Chilean educational system, including the transformation of artistic education. There are equivalences of this Chilean reform with the educational reform of Uruguay, carried out in 1927, and with the Brazilian reform movement of 1930 led by Lucio Costa.

In reality, General Ibáñez did not entirely understand the concepts of the Active School and was thinking instead of Mussolini’s corporatist model, whose hierarchical and centralized organization was contrary to Active School theories. The reform was abruptly interrupted eight months after it began. However, in 1928 the most avant-garde educational reform in Chile’s took place. As part of that reform, the old Academy of Fine Arts was integrated into the Ministry of Education, creating a reformed new school of art.

Between 1925 and 1926 the teachers’ movement sent the polymath Carlos Isamitt to research new methodologies used at the applied art schools of the European avant-garde. A very important normalist teacher, Isamitt was also an award-winning student at the Academy of Fine Arts, and the National Conservatory of Music, but also in 1918 he had presented the result of his anthropological research on using the geometric patterns found in indigenous art in the artistic education of children. After returning to Chile in 1928, Isamitt was appointed by President Ibáñez, following instructions from the normalist teachers leaders, to steer the reform of artistic education. That year he created a “first trial year” (Figure 1), similar to the Vorkurs at the Bauhaus or the first year at Vkhutemas in Moscow, having been exposed to the latter course at the Paris International Exposition of 1925. Isamitt also integrated elements from Polish, Hungarian, Austrian and Belgian avant-gardes, as well as the extra-artistic disciplines he had studied – including comparative social and historical anthropology, grammar and civic education – in order to address local and regional realities in South America.

With the implementation of a dictatorial regime in 1929, Isamitt’s reforms were interrupted and the progressive orientation in arts pedagogy he had instituted was eliminated from the local history of art for several decades. Despite this, a group of Chilean teachers continued promoting these ideas, and in 1936 published a book which included a visual projection (Figure 2) of the administrative, organic and self-managed effect of the proposals suggested in the 1920s.


The Integral Architecture Model and the city designed as a living organism

General Ibáñez was forced to cede power in 1931. Soon after, architecture students at the Universidad de Chile organized a series of strike movements in 1932–33, and again in 1938, where they demanded the university change its teaching models to better address the country’s problems. The reform movement of 1932–1933 achieved some successes – such as shared governance between professors and students, incorporation of new contents such as political economy, and the hiring of new professors who dealt with some points of the modern movement – but these modernizations were canceled in 1934 and several of the movement’s leading students were expelled. The student movement of 1938 did not succeed in changing the University, but some student leaders participated with their ideas in the Frente Popular (the left-wing coalition government which lasted from 1937 to 1941). Both the student movement of 1932–1933 and that of 1938 were inspirations to the movement of 1945. In 1942 the university created a professional order of architects, and in 1944 founded a Faculty of Architecture (an objective proposed at the Pan-American Congress of 1923), independent from the Faculty of Engineering. The 1945 generation triumphed where prior student movements had failed in their attempts to change the School of Architecture (in 1933 and 1938). In the following years, from 1946 until 1963, the university altered its study programs to follow the precepts of and inculcate students in Integral Architecture concepts.

In this period, the government’s plans for industrialization were directed by the aforementioned government agency, CORFO. Originally founded in 1939 by President Pedro Aguirre Cerda, the role of CORFO as an incubator of technological modernization created an institutional disposition of a sort that would lead directly to the Cybersyn project in 1970, overseen by CORFO as well. It was also an influence for architecture students of the 1940s, who were searching for an ideology of architecture that would enable them to participate in the new industrialization promoted by the state, whose objectives of material and technological development did not preclude societal improvement.

The role of the architect Tibor Weiner was crucial in this situation (Maulen, 2015). As a student and then assistant to Hannes Meyer at the Bauhaus Dessau (Maulen de los Reyes, 2019), Weiner would in the early 1930s join his teacher and mentor in the Soviet Union after Meyer formed the Bauhaus Brigade after his dismissal from Dessau in 1930. In 1933, Weiner left the USSR, and after living in Switzerland and France, he was able to secure a visa to Chile in 1939 after Pablo Neruda, then Paris consul of the Frente Popular government, managed to obtain asylum for him in Chile (Talesnik, 2019). In 1945 Weiner was included in discussions held by the students of the Universidad de Chile over formulating a new curriculum (Maulen, 2007). In this regard, student leader Abraham Schapira later stated explicitly that the ideas of the Active School (Barrenechea, 1999) should be part of this new approach. The interpretations that Hannes Meyer (Ulriksen, April 1946) had made of Johan Pestalozzi’s ideas to develop cooperative or collectivist methods of design were also implicitly present[1] – both with Weiner (Weiner, April 1946) and the young Chileans (Meyer, 1951).

The Integral Architecture model, which would influence the way in which architecture was taught and practiced in Chile during the following decades, is based on the relationship of human beings to the natural, cultural, social and economic environment (clearly inspired by Hannes Meyer’s functional, scientific approach to architectural design). Within this conception, technology is no longer the goal but solely a mediator of these relationships, with integral architecture projects developed through cycles of analysis and synthesis (Figure 3).

An essential contribution to integral architecture was “Bio Architecture.” Taught by Professor José Garcíatello, architecture students learned concepts of anatomy and biology, the idea being that students with knowledge of biology become capable of drawing an equivalence between the former and the design of architecture. At the same time, and in a complementary way, they investigated the functioning of the anatomy and its possible relation and equivalences within urban planning. This approach was reminiscent of the study of “the basic molecule of living” (the house), included in the Architectural Analysis and Planning course conducted alternately by Tibor Weiner and Abraham Schapira back in the 1940s. During the following 20 to 30 years, this approach contributed to an orientation that conceptualized the city “as a living organism.”[2] One of the best examples of this was the Santiago Inter-Communal Regulatory Plan (PRIS) of 1960 (Figure 4), although this was interrupted midway through the 1970s due to Pinochet’s coup and subsequent reorganization of the economy.

The Inter-Communal Regulatory Plan of 1960 was approved with the aim of guiding the future growth of the city. This instrument established urban-regional planning in Chile. It determined the limits of urban and suburban areas, defined industrial, green, infrastructural and residential areas, as well as addressing the problems of traffic and arterial circulation facing the capital through a system of structuring roads such as Américo Vespucio or the North-South Highway. Formulated by the architects Juan Honold, Pastor Correa and Jorge Martínez, it made a proposal of territorial ordering via horizontal expansion, with the implementation of a zone or strip enclosed by two territorial limits, urban and ex-urban. This territorial belt of agricultural, forestry and natural reserves (river beds, streams, etc.) formed a system of green areas (a green belt) between urban and rural areas. Its objective was to contain urban expansion and prevent conurbation with other neighboring urban centers (San Bernardo, Puente Alto, Maipú, Quilicura), while also creating a natural reserve to meet the recreational, cultural and aesthetic needs of the Greater Santiago area (Honold, 1966).


Organic Neo-Constructivism and Utopian Engineering

In their search for a new humanist paradigm endowed with an analytical and emotional dimension – in balance with the social and natural environment – the members of some avant-garde movements proposed overcoming the concepts of seventeenth century European linear (Newtonian) physics. The energy considerations of El Lissitzky, the organic constructivist stage of Vladimir Tatlin or Max Bill’s Moebius strip could be named as examples of this trend, as could the Neo-Concrete movement in Brazil and other similar artistic orientations that arose in South America after the Second World War. An exceptional case is that of the Chilean engineer Abraham Freifeld. Around the same time, he proposed an organic neo-constructivism based on his reflections on the project of the city designed as a living organism – a conception in which he also integrated elements taken from the martial art aikido, Gestalt therapy and Einsteinian physics (in all its synesthetic variables). From these bases Freifeld developed a position on art integrated into the public space; a poetic structure using “utopian engineering.”[3] 

Coincidentally, in the late 1960s Gui Bonsiepe (until 1968 a professor of design at the Hochschule für Gestaltung of Ulm, HfG Ulm) traveled to Chile, thanks to the support of the International Labor Organization (ILO), to support CORFO’s import substitution program (Medina, 2011). In 1970 he started directing CORFO’s technological innovation arm, Instituto de Investigaciones Tecnológicas (Chilean Production Development Corporation, INTEC-CORFO). At the same time the British management cybernetics specialist and second-order cybernetics theoretician Stafford Beer arrived at CORFO to support the industrial nationalization policy of the socialist government. Beer collaborated directly with Bonsiepe’s team, which was developing the interfaces necessary to aid in managing the national economy via a distributed decision support system – a real time information transmission system known as Project Cybersyn (or Synco – Sistema de INformación y COntrol – in Spanish). The basis of Beer's proposals was a Viable System Model (VSM) consisting of three basic elements – the decision space, the environment, and the technology generating the mediation between the two. In retrospect, this model can be seen as compatible with the of the Integral Architecture model antecedent of 1946, which also possessed three basic elements: the human being, nature and raw material (taking into account the technological possibilities – from the analogical possibilities that emerged after World War Two to the digital possibilities of the computer technology of the early 1970s.

The coup d’état of 1973 ended this organic society project. However, principles such as the recursiveness of autopoiesis – the self-generating, self-maintaining structure in living systems (an idea developed by the biologists Francisco Varela and Humberto Maturana, who also contributed to Beer and Bonsiepe’s work) – achieved a higher profile in 1974 thanks to the engineer Ricardo Uribe, who developed the Protobio computer program (Varela, 1974), anticipating the approaches of digital Bio Architecture. The final point of this process – in a subsequent economic and political context diametrically different from the developmental state in which their predecessors worked – is the Vir Det (Contreras, 2000) and “Oyster” antivirus software (Giacaman, 1994). Based on the workings of the immune system, this software was designed by the Chilean Miguel Giacaman between 1988 and 1994. It is the most recent link in a chain of bio-structural thinking in the Pacific Southern Cone that began in the early twentieth century. Such thinking has involved a specific epistemology, transformed and developed as a change of paradigms enmeshed in the relationships between art, science and technology, and situated within ongoing and evolving processes of social change.

The Bio Architecture of the second postwar period, the Active School of the 1920s, and the second order cybernetics of the early 1970s are similar in that each raises the question of the difference between modular structures and nodal structures. In a modular system, each element has a function, and the system operates through their interconnection. But if a module is missing, the structure does not work. In a nodal system, the model is that of a biological structure such as a cell or DNA. It is an ideal (utopian) system in which each node possesses all the functions of the system in power, and in case one node is missing, others supply their function. This biological schema, transferred to social, design and production structures, is based on a decentralized, independent and collaborative definition of operation. This same principle was summarized by Francisco Varela to explain the functioning of the immune system, as a model of the theory of autopoiesis. This same model informed Miguel Giacaman’s antivirus software, used in a practical rather than illustrative manner while designing the information architecture of the Vir Det, and the Oyster.

The retrospective lesson of this Chilean story is that there is a great difference between using technology and producing it.



Barrenechea, Ana: A 53 años de la Reforma de 1946. Facultad de Arquitectura de la Universidad de Chile, Santiago de Chile: Unpublished, report presented at the 150th anniversary of the teaching of architecture at the University of Chile, year 1999.

Contreras, Cindy: “Sistema de Control de Tráfico. El emprendedor Miguel Giacaman patenta su último invento.” Retrieved 10 June 2019,

Giacaman, Miguel: National Television of Chile (TVN), “Enlaces,” 24 hour news/Imago Comunicaciones. Retrieved 10 June 2019,

Guttenberger, Anja: “The ‘School in the Woods’ as a Socio-pedagogical Ideal - Functional Analyses and Photographs by Peterhans.” Retrieved 18 June 2019,

Honold, Juan: “El Plan Regulador de Santiago,” in: AUCA n.2, 1966. pp. 31–40.

Maulen de los Reyes, David: “Bauhaus Networks in Latin America,” in: Georg Leidenberger and Bernd Hüttner (eds.), 100 Jahre Bauhaus. Vielfalt, Konflikt und Wirkung Metropol, Berlin 2019, pp. 117–31.

Maulen de los Reyes, David: “Necesidades sociales en vez de lujo. La influencia de la Bauhaus en la Escuela de Arquitectura de la Universidad de Chile y el rol decisivo de Tibor Weiner en el nuevo plan de estudios y la metodología de análisis arquitectural,” in: Humboldt n.146, 2007, pp. 66–69.

Maulen de los Reyes, David: “Integral Architecture: Coop Design in Chile,” in: Bauhaus Magazine no. 7 (Collective), 2015, pp. 92–100.

Medina, Eden: “Constructing the Liberty Machine,” in: Cybernetic Revolutionaries: Technology and Politics in Allende's Chile, The MIT Press, Cambridge and London 2011, p. 110.

Meyer, Hannes: “La Formación del Arquitecto,” in: Nueva Visión (Juventud Comunista de la Facultad de Arquitectura de la Universidad de Chile), 1951, pp. 3–8.

Núnez-Prieto, Iván: “Biología y educación. Los reformadores funcionalistas. Chile, 1931–1948,” in: Cuadernos Chilenos de Historia de la Educación n.1, 2013, pp. 65–86.

Talesnik, Daniel: “Moving Away to the Other End of the World. Reflections on the Letters Between Tibor Weiner and Hannes Meyer from the DAM Archive”. Retrieved 11 March 2019,

Ulriksen, Guillermo: “Trayectoria del equipo Bauhaus,” in: Arquitectura y Construcción Chile, April 1946, pp. 56–58.

Varela, Francisco, Humberto Maturana & Ricardo Uribe: “Autopoiesis: The organization of living systems, its characterization and a model,” in: Biosystems n.5, 1974, pp. 187–96.

Weiner, Tibor: “Evolución de la Escuela,” in: Arquitectura y Construcción, April 1946, pp. 29–32.





  1. ^ At the University of Chile in 1999, Abraham Schapira and a group of architects who had participated in the reform of 1945–1946, presented a collectively written document explaining the reform with a conference and lecture in celebration of 150 years of architectural teaching at the university. Within that explanation they pointed out that one of their fundamental references was the methodology of the Active School. This topic was further elaborated upon by Schapira in an interview with the author in 2006. Concurrent with the reforms in the School of Architecture, in 1946 Guillermo Ulriksen, a professor of architecture at the University of Chile, published an article in the Chilean magazine Architecture and Construction in which he detailed the Active School methodology used by Hannes Meyer in Dessau; in the same magazine Tibor Weiner published an article on the evolution of the school, referencing the ADGB Trade Union School in Bernau designed by Meyer and a collaborative team of students (Guttenberger, 2018) and the influence of Johann Pestalozzi in Holland. In 1949, University of Chile architecture students published a definition of architecture inspired by Hannes Meyer as a collective work in the magazine Pro Arte, and then the communist youth of the Faculty of Architecture published Meyer’s article, “the formation of the architect” (adhering to Meyer’s Bauhausian affinity for exclusively employing lower case letters), which originally appeared in his newsletter New Vision. During the reform of 1928, Pestalozzi and other theorists of the Active School were mentioned in the magazine of the Chilean Ministry of Education, and this antecedent was a main source for later references to the Active School concept in the Faculty of Architecture reform of 1945. For example, Ventura Galván, professor of plastic composition during the reform of 1946, was a prominent student of Carlos Isamitt’s Vorkurs of 1928. The magazine of the Ministry of Education of 1928 had its office in the School of Art directed by Isamitt. The ideas of the Active School are also mentioned in the magazine ARQuitectura, published in 1935 by Waldo Parraguez and Enrique Gebhard, former student leaders of the School of Architecture of 1932–1933 who became professors in 1946.
  2. ^ In this sense, the influence of the new curriculum combined the knowledge of biology with the economy and the environmental context. In this orientation the young architects had passed to a new stage “post-Le Corbusier.” Their proposals were assimilated within the strategic planning of the Chilean Ministry of Urban Planning (MOP) beginning in the 1950s. The work Patrick Geddes, Patrick Abercrombie, Louis-Joseph Lebret, Lewis Mumford, Gaston Bardet and dialectic materialist philosophy were incorporated into their strategic thinking and institutional planning. In this context, the ideas of Tibor Weiner and José García Tello, in the application of biology to design was, in the broad sense of the concept, complementary.
  3. ^ Abraham Freifeld was an engineering student who in 1954 presented a thesis where he spoke of the need to create “alternative flows of energy” in the city’s circulation. He was subsequently hired by the Regulatory Plan team (PRIS) in the Ministry of Urban Planning and Public Buildings (MOP). In the 1960s he abandoned engineering, devoting himself to “neo-constructivist organic” art. He also proposed a critique of integral architecture, because, according to Freifeld, the concepts of physics, biology and other sciences, did not consider the advances of the “theory of unified fields” that characterized both the new physics of Albert Einstein and Fritz Perls’s Gestalt theory. While being interviewed on the UCV television program Derribando el Muro in 1983 he stated: “… when you do not let a constructivist build the world he begins to dream, at the limit of ‘great engineering,’ poetry and illusion are born, and that he calls ‘utopian engineering.’” Freifeld’s ideas were in fact quite close to the Russian Constructivist figure of the artist-engineer. (Minutes 4:52 – 8:53:

Figure 1. Exercises in the “first trial year” of the new Chilean School of Art in 1928.
To the top