“Design ist unsichtbar“, Design is invisible/unseen proclaimed the Swiss sociologist Lucius Burckhardt in 1981.1
Which surprised a great many in 1981.
And may surprise a great many in 2021……
Born in Davos, Switzerland, on March 12th 1925 Lucius Burckhardt enjoyed, as best we can ascertain, information on his early biography being more gleaned than confirmed, a comfortable childhood in the Swiss alps, before studying Economics and Sociology in Basel, culminating with his PhD in 1955. A year which was of fundamental importance for the young Lucius: 1955 being the year which saw him marry Annemarie Wackernagel who would become his most important collaborator2; 1955 being the year which saw him achieve a wider public profile in Switzerland through his contribution to the pamphlet achtung: die schweiz [attention: Switzerland]3 in which he and his co-authors Max Frisch und Markus Kutter demanded that rather than the planned Swiss National Expo in 1964 a new city should be built, a model city for 10,000 residents based on a fundamental rethinking and repositioning of urban planning in Switzerland, a new urban planning which approached contemporary solutions to post-War problems such as, and amongst others, urbanisation, housing shortages or mobility, problems which for Burckhardt et al were in urgent need of urgent attention, but which 1950s Swiss politics, industry and society were, allegedly, ignoring in that they continually looked back to a romanticised Switzerland, and a new urban planning which should, for Burckhardt, provide the visitor with “the impression of a possible Swiss lifestyle” appropriate for the times and thereby lead to “new forms of humane society”4; 1955 being the year which saw him achieve a wider international profile at the conference Der Stadtplan geht uns alle an [Urban planning concerns us all] in Dortmund, an international colloquium which sought to explore how urban planning could?, should?, must? be made more responsive and inclusive, an early attempt at an ongoing discourse, and which saw Lucius Burkhardt present a paper entitled Eine Stadt muß entscheiden [A city has to decide], in which he discussed the so-called Basel Korrektionsplan urban planning concept from 1949, and specifically the campaign against the plan, of which Burckhardt had been an important protagonist. A campaign they lost but which as one of the first organised campaigns, arguments, resistance, to and against a from the authorities advanced urban planning concept was an important milestone in understandings of urban planning as a representation, a manifestation, of democratic processes, certainly in Switzerland. And helped elucidate that Der Stadtplan geht uns alle an.
1955 also being the year in which Lucius Burkhardt was offered a postdoctoral position at the Dortmund based Sozialforschungsstelle, Social Research Center, of the University of Münster, the institution who had organised Der Stadtplan geht uns alle an; a position he accepted and which saw him spend the next three years researching in and around the post-War, but not yet post-industrial, Ruhrgebiet, and in doing so consolidating and expanding his understandings of the sociology of urban planning and architecture in post-War, but not yet post-industrial, communities.
[Here should stand a photo, unfortunately there are, essentially, no appropriate or useful photos available. Which is highly regrettable. Thus this post is sadly devoid of photos…sorry!!]
Following the end of his tenure in Dortmund Lucius Burkhardt began his career as an educator via two semesters as a guest lecturer at the Hochschule für Gestaltung, HfG, Ulm, that official unofficial Bauhaus successor institute, and a position which although but briefly held was, as Martin Schmitz opines, an “important period”5 in Burckhardt’s development, not least on account of the discourses on design undertaken in Ulm and as propagated by the likes of Otl Aicher, Tomás Maldonado or Hans Gugelot. And an education career Burckhardt subsequently continued in Zürich, teaching from 1961 sociology within the architecture department at the Eidgenössischen Technischen Hochschule, before in 1973 he took up the position of Professor for Socioeconomics of Urban Systems at the Gesamthochschule Kassel, the contemporary University of Kassel, a position which didn’t exist before Burkhardt took it on and which is now, in many regards, an institute in its own right, and a Professorship in which context Lucius Burkhardt, in collaboration with Annemarie, arguably, developed many of his most important positions and projects. Certainly his better known. And more outrageous.
Alongside his career as educator Lucius Burkhardt was active as an author and journalist, including serving between 1962 and 1972 as an editor of the Swiss architecture magazine Werk, and was also involved in and with numerous international architecture and design institutions; perhaps most notably being his tenure from 1976 as chairman of the Deutsche Werkbund, that organisation which inter-War had been so influential in promoting the move away from ornament heavy decoration and handcraft production and move towards the industrial production of more rational, functional forms, and which in post-War West Germany was so influential in promoting the gute Form mantra whose formal reduction and rational technical functionality so popularly defines post-War design in West Germany. And a position Lucius Burkhardt held until 1983, and thus just before the widespread public appearance of the Postmodern Neues deutsches Design which so directly challenged the validity of gute Form. And a moment in West German design (hi)story that Lucius Burckhardt may have had an unseen, unsichtbar, hand in.
Following his formal retirement from his Professorship in Kassel in 1987 Lucius Burkhardt remained active as an educator, for all in context of the development of design education in Germany: serving for two years as a founding board member of the Hochschule der Bildenden Künste Saar, and, subsequently, from 1992 to 1994 as Founding Dean of the Design Faculty at the Hochschule für Architektur und Bauwesen Weimar, the contemporary Bauhaus University Weimar, and thus a second association with an official unofficial Bauhaus successor institute. A double association which naturally raises the question of Lucius Burckhardt’s own associations with Bauhaus.
A question we may well come back to.
Limitations of time and space, limitations which stand diametrically juxtaposed to the wealth and richness of Burckhardt’s, Burkhardts’, oeuvre, prevent a full discussion on the myriad projects, positions, proposals and theories Lucius Burckhardt developed, advanced and enacted; however, amongst those which we keep coming back to are, and among many, many, others…..
……….Spaziergangswissenschaft, Strollology, a science, an -ology, which the Burkhardts established, which stands, arguably, as the project for which Lucius Burckhardt is most popularly known, and which, and simplifying more than we are comfortable with, uses the medium of going for a walk as a conduit to adjusting your perception and awareness of the space around you. It isn’t simply going for a walk, but rather employs, co-opts, the processes and practices involved in going for a walk as a methodology to enable differentiated critical reflection on and of the environment in which you find yourself, to create a framework to enable you to question the environment in which you find yourself, to reflect on the manifold relationships between yourself and the environment in which you find yourself, the whos, whys and hows of those relationships and thereby the whos, why and hows of our understandings of the world around us; a practice that Lucius Burckhardt employed over the years in numerous settings, formats and contexts, and which many practitioners still employ today. And which is not unrelated to the question Burkhardt once posed of Warum ist Landschaft schön?6, Why is the landscape beautiful? No spoilers, we’ll leave those who are interested to know to discover for themselves. Ideally via a walk through any given, perceived?, landscape.
……….the seminar in the early 1990s Lucius Burkhardt held in two parking spaces next to the Gesamthochschule Kassel and which deliciously and joyously poses the question why, in our ever more unaffordable cities, why in our cities where affordable accommodation is becoming ever rarer and poorer quality, why in our cities where education, cultural and care institutions can increasingly ill afford meaningful space, why in our cities do we reserve, 24/7, space for parking cars? What is the square metre price of a parking space? What is the moral price of a parking space? Is that justifiable? And specifically posed the question, what is more important, space to park a car or space for education? The fact that such questions arise, the fact that all urban spaces provide car parking, and are primarily designed to facilitate cars, has it origins in, and can be considered consequences of, and as we all remember from our Paul Schneider-Esleben birthday post and the debate around the Lichtplatz Car Park in Düsseldorf, planning decisions made in the 1950s: a period when cars were relatively few, but urban planners decided to welcome them into the heart of our cities and where they are now popularly believed to be part of the natural environment and whose removal would somehow be sacrilegious. Imagine if urban planners in the 1950s hadn’t invited cars into our cities. Imagine if in the 1950s more people had listened to the likes of Lucius Burckhardt and their understanding that Der Stadtplan geht uns alle an. Imagine if we decided today against autonomous cars.
……….or l’intervento minimo, der kleinstmögliche Eingriff, the smallest possible intervention. Originating in considerations on urban planning, l’intervento minimo takes the position that “every problem should be combated with the strategy that represents the smallest possible intervention and thus has the fewest unexpected harmful consequences”7, because interventions in urban planning invariably bring with them “unexpected harmful consequences”, not least because, as Lucius Burckhardt argues, not only does the course of their development invariably alter the reality in which they exist in ways that weren’t predicted, and which thus alters the consequences of all further steps in ways that can’t be predicted, but the external realities, for example, the political or the economic realities can, and invariably do, change in the course of the project. And therefore plan via the smallest possible intervention. It’s more likely to be realised. And be successful. For Lucius Burkhardt, in context of urban planning “the smallest intervention is non-construction”.8 Or put another way, the best building is the one you don’t build, rather seek to solve problems within the existing infrastructure and frameworks; and from which it is a relatively short step to the position that in context of product design the best product is the one you don’t produce, but rather that you should seek to solve any given problem via “gentler strategies”. Not least because the product you design is likely to have “unexpected harmful consequences”.
Considerations on the complexity of the networks that exist in our social and cultural systems, considerations on the complex relationships between design and society, on the complex relationships between designers, architects, urban planners and society, considerations on the inevitable consequences of urban planing, architecture and design, which Lucius Burckhardt began in the Basel of the late 1940s, early 1950s, tellingly his 1955 Dortmund paper opens with the position, “we have to start from the hypothesis that all individual urban planning problems are interrelated”9, which although known in 1955 was, arguably, all to easily ignored, and which he continued to develop, expand, recontextualise and broaden over the course of the 1960s and 1970s and which manifested themselves in 1981 in the proclamation that “Design ist unsichtbar“, Design is invisible/unseen.
[This photo is also unsichtbar…..]
Not that design is only unsichtbar, “of course you can see them, the objects of design: it is structures and appliances, up to the building and down to the can opener”, begins Burckhardt’s text Design ist unsichtbar10. However, as Burkhardt continues, such tangible manifestations exist in context of intangible, and invariably inter-linked and interdependent, systems. And whereas traditionally designers, architects and urban planners had only considered the tangible, the object, just as important for Lucius Burckhardt is to consider the intangible systems; not just to be aware of them, but to intervene in the system rather than simply adding new objects to the system. Adding ever new objects which perform existing functions in new formal expressions or with different technology being, to paraphrase Burkhardt, akin to treading water and not contributing to improving the reality, only a re-design of the system itself can bring real change. And for that one must be aware of the system and its complex interdependencies.
Not that objects are unimportant or dispensable, rather, and we’re over simplifying dangerously here, we need to approach their design in new ways, Burckhardt highlighting the need for change in two phases of the design process, “the development phase up to production and the phase from consumption to the end in the trash can or the museum”.11
In a traditional design process, so Burckhardt, an object is designed on the basis of a predefined, limited, functionality, and is understood as being in itself neutral, “its abuse comes from evil people”, a little later he also refers to designers as often being popularly understood as “a supplier of ideas who is essentially freed from responsibility”12, Burkhardt not subscribing to that theory and seeing designers very much as responsible for the consequences of their work. Which, yes, does awaken memories of Victor Papanek’s “there are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a very few of them.”13
Lucius Burckhardt demands changes in the design process, demands that objects should “receive their form through the interactions of the design process”14 and once produced must be understood as active objects which interact directly with society, and that both positively and negatively. And two phases of the design process to which he adds a third, counterproductivity: “each new design causes changes in use, and these changes create the need for new designs”.15 A component of the design process which, as Burkhardt opines, the HfG Ulm “probably as the first instance understood”, however, he continues, “the Ulmer solutions were technocratic”16, for Burkhardt the HfG concentrated too much on improving functionality without considering the wider systems in all their complexities. Whereby we’d add, …discuss…..
The consequences of such a re-imaging of the design process should, for Burckhardt, and again by necessity of limitations of time and space we are summarising more than is advisable, the consequences of such a re-imaging of the design process should, for Burckhardt, lead to an understanding amongst designers that design must “open to a socio-design: to considering solutions to problems that arise from coordinated, integrated, changes to both functions and objects”17, and that as consumers we “should avoid those objects that force us to buy additional objects. We should distrust goods that contain one-way information channels and lead us to become dependent upon them. We should be cautious about buying and using goods that isolate.”18 That there were no smartphones in 1981 Lucius Burckhardt uses cars as a specific example of just such a consumer good that one should avoid, distrust and be cautious about. But feel free to extrapolate that thought.
In addition to such formal design and consumption considerations Lucius Burckhardt also reflects on what we’re going to refer to as counter culture: exchange as an alternative form of consumption, self-production as an alternative form of consumption, the flea-market as an alternative form of consumption, and thereby highlighting that we’re not reliant on formal, externally controlled, systems alone; “if that is all good and positive” asks Burckhardt, before answering himself, “remains to be seen, there is also a risk of it becoming bourgeoisie, of isolation”.19 Counterproductivity lurks everywhere, one needs must be aware of its presence. And aware that it is avoidable.
In the above we can but only very briefly summarise an essence of Burckhardt’s text; however, and most fortuitously, Lucius Burckhardt ends Design ist unsichtbar with a very succinct double definition: “Invisible/Unseen design. This means today: conventional design that is not aware of its social functions. But could also mean: a design of tomorrow that is able to consciously take into account invisible systems consisting of objects and interpersonal relationships.”20
In how far, forty years later, we still find ourselves in a position in which design is “not aware of its social functions” and are still awaiting a “design of tomorrow”; in how far, forty years later, design remains the object, the building, the space, the room, the Instagram post, etc… and not the systems in which such exist and the external conditions which define the possibilities of their function and interaction: in how far, forty years later, design remains for many purely visible, purely visual and tangible, is a matter for discussion. We’re inarguably further, but how much further? Such however are subjects for another day.
As is the question of how, why, the chairman of the gute Form obsessed Deutsche Werkbund came to lead ideas of design way from the visible, tangible, object. And also the question of Luicius Burkhardt and Neues deutsches Design.
For today the subject is the reflection that while one doesn’t have to agree wholeheartedly and completely with everything Lucius Burckhardt defines, opines and proposes, the ideas and positions he advances in Design ist unsichtbar are compelling, and not easily rejectable, arguments, demands, for deeper, differentiated, urgent, considerations on the realities of architecture, design and urban planning. For a collective questioning of what design is and for all what it could, should, must?, be. Were so in 1981, are so in 2021.
And also help underscore how far thinking on architecture and design had evolved throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s, how far design and architecture theory had moved away from inter-War Modernism before in the course of the 1980s Postmodernism reared its brightly coloured geometric head.
¿And reflections on inter-War Modernism and Postmodernism which bring us back to Lucius Burckhardt’s associations with Bauhaus?
…………if only to say that it is also a subject for another day.
Save here to note Lucius Burkhardt’s words at the opening of the Design Faculty in Weimar on November 19th 1993: “What can we learn from Bauhaus? … that you have to be innovative in the given situation, that is today! Learning from Bauhaus does not mean repeating Bauhaus. Rather, learning from Bauhaus means thinking about what is needed today, just as the Bauhäusler thought about what reforms were necessary seventy years ago.”21
And exactly as Lucius Burkhardt thought about what is needed, thought about what reforms were necessary, was innovative. And that in context of the realities of the given period rather than in context of a general, inflexible, time non-specific, ideology.
Lucius Burckhardt wasn’t the only individual considering, re-imaging, approaches to and understandings of design, architecture and urban planning in the post-War decades, wasn’t the only one applying sociology in context of architecture, urban planning and design in post-War realities, and not only can many of Burckhardt’s positions and theories be found in the work of others, if often in varying contexts, but Lucius Burckhardt was always open and honest about naming the works and positions on which he had built his own theories and positions; Design ist unsichtbar, for example, owing an acknowledged debt of gratitude to the likes of Christopher Alexander’s 1977 book Pattern Language, Ivan Illich’s 1973 work Tools for Conviviality, or Anne Cauquelin’s 1977 La Ville la nuit, and the position therein, as Burckhardt paraphrases, that “the night is made”22, the night, as experienced in any city, is an institution based on systems of interactions which are interdependent on other interactions, is something which is designed and thus can be re-designed, and indeed continually is, if not always consciously or favourably.
However, through not only his own research, his reflections on existing understandings, his questioning of the accepted and conventional, and his development of the work of others, but also through his energy, his passion, his teaching methods, his activism, his application of art practice, his guerilla tactics, the scope of his work, and the wide variety of outlets he employed to promote and initiate discussion and discourse, Lucius Burkhardt was and is inarguably one of the more important protagonists in the development of understandings that design, urban planning and architecture decisions, or more often non-decisions, have direct and indirect consequences for society, for the individual, for the environment, for the economy, for democracy; was and is inarguably one of the more important protagonists in the development of understandings that an object isn’t just an object but a component of a wider system, a system whose complexity we should never underestimate or attempt to simplify. Yet which we can’t help ourselves from doing.
Or put another way, much of the the contemporary debate and discourse on the roles, functions and responsibilities of not only designers, architects and urban planners in, to and for our societies, but also the responsibilities of us all, individually and collectively for our societies, is influenced and informed by Lucius Burckhardt and the path he took from the Basel of the late 1940s; is influenced and informed by the Spaziergang, the stroll, Lucius Burckhardt took through the visible and invisible components and systems of our societies, the Spaziergang, the stroll, Lucius Burckhardt took away from the object, and the understandings he developed along the way.
A Spaziergang that is very much ongoing and which we are all invited to join and contribute to…..
Happy Birthday Lucius Burckhardt!!
1. Lucius Burckhardt, Design ist unsichtbar, in Helmuth Gsöllpointner, Angela Hareiter, Laurids Ortner, Design ist unsichtbar, Österreichisches Institut für visuelle Gestaltung, 1981 reprinted in Silvan Blumenthal & Martin Schmitz [Eds.], Lucius Burckhardt. Design is unsichtbar. Entwurf, Gesellschaft & Pädagogik, Martin Schmitz Verlag, Berlin, 2012 The text was written in 1980, however because it was first published in 1981, that’s the year we are going with, others go with 1980.
2. Most all texts and works are officially listed as by Lucius Burckhardt alone. Annemarie was however important to the development of the positions and theories therein, was a key collaborator and contributor, Lucius and Annemarie were very much a team, if a male/female team in which, as so oft, the role of the male has passed better through the telling of (hi)story than that of the female. In our focus here on Lucius we don’t aim to reinforce that separation, if we accept we probably are. We will however return to Annemarie Burkhardt on another day….
4. Lucius Burckhardt, achtung: die schweiz – Der Urtext, reprinted in Markus Ritter & Martin Scmitz [Eds]achtung: die Schweiz. Der Urtext von Luicius Burkhardt über die idee einer neue Stadt, Martin Schmitz Verlag, Berlin, 2019. The published version of achtung: die schweiz was formulated by Max Frisch, the “urtext” is Burckhardt alone and thus his words.
5. Martin Schmitz, Von der Urbanismuskritik zur Spaziergangswissenschaft, Deutschlandfunk, accessible via https://www.deutschlandfunk.de/querfeldein-denken-mit-lucius-burckhardt-1-3-von-der.1184.de.html?dram:article_id=319584 (accessed 12.03.2021)
6. see, Markus Ritter & Martin Schmitz [Eds.] Lucius Burckhardt. Warum ist Landschaft schön? Die Spaziergangswissenschaft, Martin Schmitz Verlag, Berlin, 2006
7. Lucius Burckhardt, Der kleinstmögliche Eingriff in Markus Ritter & Martin Scmitz [Eds.] Lucius Burckhardt. Der kleinstmögliche Eingrif oder die Rückführung der Planung auf das Planbare, Martin Schmitz Verlag, Berlin, 2013
9. Lucius Burckhardt, Eine Stadt muß sich entscheiden, reprinted in Markus Ritter & Martin Scmitz [Eds]achtung: die Schweiz. Der Urtext von Luicius Burkhardt über die idee einer neue Stadt, Martin Schmitz Verlag, Berlin, 2019.
10. Lucius Burckhardt, Design ist unsichtbar, in Helmuth Gsöllpointner, Angela Hareiter, Laurids Ortner, Design ist unsichtbar, Österreichisches Institut für visuelle Gestaltung, 1981 reprinted in Silvan Blumenthal & Martin Schmitz [Eds.], Lucius Burckhardt. Design is unsichtbar. Entwurf, Gesellschaft & Pädagogik, Martin Schmitz Verlag, Berlin, 2012
14. Lucius Burckhardt, Design ist unsichtbar, in Helmuth Gsöllpointner, Angela Hareiter, Laurids Ortner, Design ist unsichtbar, Österreichisches Institut für visuelle Gestaltung, 1981 reprinted in Silvan Blumenthal & Martin Schmitz [Eds.], Lucius Burckhardt. Design is unsichtbar. Entwurf, Gesellschaft & Pädagogik, Martin Schmitz Verlag, Berlin, 2012
21. Eröffnungsrede des Gründungsdekans der Fakultät Gestaltung Lucius Burckhardt available via https://www.uni-weimar.de/de/kunst-und-gestaltung/profil/eroeffnungsrede-des-gruendungsdekans/ (accessed 12.03.2021)
22. Lucius Burckhardt, Design ist unsichtbar, in Helmuth Gsöllpointner, Angela Hareiter, Laurids Ortner, Design ist unsichtbar, Österreichisches Institut für visuelle Gestaltung, 1981 reprinted in Silvan Blumenthal & Martin Schmitz [Eds.], Lucius Burckhardt. Design is unsichtbar. Entwurf, Gesellschaft & Pädagogik, Martin Schmitz Verlag, Berlin, 2012