To coincide with the MoMA exhibition in 1972, Ambasz organized a two-day symposium called “Institutions for a Post-technological Society—the Universitas Project.” The discussion included many significant intellectuals from outside the typical world of design. The stated purpose was to establish “a new type of University concerned with the evaluation and design of our man-made milieu.”[i]
In preparation for the event and to provide material for discussion, Ambasz invited select participants to produce and share essays to be read before the symposium. These essays were compiled in a pamphlet called the “black book.” In an essay published in 2018, revisiting the event through this document, the design historian Matthew Holt articulates several still unmet claims by design practice and theory. The contradictions between design’s aspirations toward intervening in the concrete realities of everyday social life and the commodification of aesthetics were called out in the black book—ostensibly in reaction to some proposals in the MoMA exhibition. The German author and activist Hans Magnus Enzensberger, a member of the literary group Gruppe 47, wrote: “Until today, the history of design has remained a series of defeats, suffered by the high-flying aspirations of the designers in their battle against utilization by Das Kapital.”[ii]
Another contributor was the French philosopher, sociologist, and literary theorist Jean-François Lyotard. Lyotard took issue not only with the nature of power in postindustrial economies but also with how the education system had been co-opted by those same interests:
Postindustrialism, furthermore, is a fundamentally global phenomenon. Political economy is no longer tied to the nation-state, and the research produced by universities is to assist and expedite multinational expansion and transactions. In turn the individual a university produces is a knowledge-worker not a citizen. The university today, therefore, is primarily skills-based, not ideals-based. … The legitimation of knowledge is no longer sought in a story of emancipation (from superstition, from authority), but in the success of the ongoing operation of the system. The question driving education is no longer “Is it true?” but “What use is it?” “Is it saleable?” and “Is it efficient?”[iii]
This view of design’s continual failure to overcome the structures and logics of a capitalist political economy may not be eternal, however. Holt believes the central ideas of this proposal are only now becoming understood:
In the socialist tradition, whether the Arts and Crafts movement or the Bauhaus and beyond, design has always been taken to be an intervention in the shaping of artefacts for industry or refining the manner of their consumption. William Morris, for example, believed properly designed artefacts ameliorate and improve existing conditions, but would not have considered design as counterfactual communication or as planning ephemeral and intangible information and communication services and systems. In a very real sense, he could not have. That information characteristic of political economy (post-handicraft, post-product, even post-object)—“the political economy of the sign” as Jean Baudrillard, a contributor and participant of the 1972 conference, calls it—only effectively transpires in postindustrial societies. … Design understood in its diverse meanings and above all not restricted to artefact design is a contemporary phenomenon. If alternatives to capitalism—or alternative forms of capitalism—are to be considered, let alone embraced, an acknowledgment and understanding of this environmental sense of design is essential.[iv]
According to Holt, what this “environmental” sense of design meant to Ambasz was not only the ecological concerns of human cohabitation within a diverse but finite biosystem but also the making of an entire artificial world (echoing Arendt’s language): “Instead of seeing design as the production of commodities, it needs to be understood as inventing, creating and sustaining artificial environments.”[v] This is the original space of political discourse: how to make a shared human world.
Building on the work of Italian radical designers and their refusal to participate in a system they saw as corrupt, these institutional blueprints for a new kind of design university were prescient. It is unfortunate that, half a century after the black book and its corresponding symposium, this “environmental” model of design education embedded in true social transformation still seems so far off—at least outside of a few somewhat isolated examples.
[i] Quoted in Holt, “The Black Book,” 523.
[ii] Quoted in Holt, “The Black Book,” 538.
[iii] Quoted in Holt, “The Black Book,” 540.
[iv] Holt, “The Black Book,” 526–527.
[v] Holt, “The Black Book,” 526.
— — *see also: The Universitas Project* (reprint 2006, MoMA Design Store)
"The Black Book: Emilio Ambasz’s University of Design" by Matthew Holt (Springer, 2018)
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