Philip Ursprung

Concluding Remarks on “Making/ Crafting/ Designing”

A couple of days ago, while I was thinking about what to say in my “concluding remarks,”[1] I saw Billy Wilder’s movie The Apartment (1960) on TV. Jack Lemon as C.C. Baxter has just helped to save the life of Fran Kubelik, played by Shirley McLaine. She had tried to commit suicide after being disappointed by her married lover in Baxter’s apartment. Baxter procures the place to various managers in the life insurance company he works for, while hoping to get promoted. He literally prostitutes himself to his superiors who in turn treat their girlfriends like prostitutes during their adulterous trysts. Dr. Dreyfuss, Baxter’s neighbor, treats the young women. He had been complaining for a while about the constant noise in the apartment, believing that it was Baxter who amused himself with ever-new girlfriends. He tells him:

As your neighbor, I’d like to kick your keester clear around the block… I don’t know what you did to that girl in there… but it was bound to happen, the way you carry on. Live now, pay later. Why don’t you grow up, Baxter? Be a mensch! You know what that means? A mensch—a human being!

Dreyfuss uses the Yiddish word mensch for a human being. As viewers of the movie we know that Dreyfuss makes a mistake when he believes that Baxter is the one enjoying himself every night, not his managers such as the cynical Mr. Sheldrake, who betrays his wife with ever-new women. On the other hand, we know that Dreyfuss is also right, since Baxter has betrayed his own moral standards in hope of a promotion. However, towards the end of the film, he re-discovers these values and quits the company. Instead of keeping the new job as Sheldrake’s assistant with an office all of his own, he leaves and tells his boss: “[I’m] just following doctor’s orders. I’ve decided to be a mensch. You don’t know what that means? A human being… The old payola won’t work anymore. Goodbye, Mr. Sheldrake.”

The scenes contain in a nutshell many of the issues, which we have been following during the last two years at Akademie Schloss Solitude. It started with a memorable lecture by Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht in our symposium “Dealing with Fear: What Holds Societies Together” in October 2007.[2] Gumbrecht raised the question that was to become the theme of the jury period of 2009–2011. He asked how the humanistic concept of the human subject in the sense of the Enlightenment had changed after the Wannsee Conference, in other words, after the decision taken in 1942 by National Socialist dictatorship to organize the deportation and murder of the European Jews. The concept of the human, according to Gumbrecht, could never be the same again. We took up and developed Gumbrecht’s question and coined the theme “Design of the In/Human.” Not only was the concept of the human a different one after Wannsee, but this radical change also affected the notion of design. We understand “design,” of course, not in the narrow sense of product design, but in a more general sense of planning the future, shaping society, observing, controlling and manipulating subjects, and even life itself.

What had started as an invitation for a dialogue between Solitude’s fellows rapidly turned into a vivid area of discussion. In November 2009, we organized the symposium “Design of the In/Human” with a keynote address by Peter Weibel. In summer 2010, Württembergischer Kunstverein hosted the exhibition entitled Territories of the In/Human with the works of current and former fellows of Solitude. At my home university in Zurich, we held a seminar on the issue and went deep into the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Martin Heidegger, Franz Kafka, Giorgio Agamben, and Peter Sloterdijk, and into the works of artists such as Hans Bellmer, Cindy Sherman, and Damien Hirst. I consider the project far from being over, and I cannot really make any concluding remarks on an issue that is still open and, in my view, remains as vibrant as it was when we launched the theme three years ago.

Let me just get back to Wilder’s Apartment. All the characters are employed in the firm Consolidated Life. The company makes its living because of the human fear of death and the concept of spreading the risk by insuring oneself against death. Is this life design an inhuman gesture, namely to quantify life, to equal it to a certain amount of money? Or is it on the contrary, a sign of humanity, namely to minimize the financial impact of death on those dependent on the insured person by compensating them with money for their loss? The entire company is about designed lives, about statistics, about networks. Life and work are completely intertwined. Baxter’s key circulates among the managers, he calls his boss at home, he has to stay outside his own apartment because his bosses take longer than planned with their girlfriends, etc. Corporate America and life, one could argue, are identical.

Almost all the scenes of Wilder’s film are shot in interiors, and thus in designed spaces. The contrast between the office space and the private apartment is striking: the apartment is clearly pre-war, Upper East Side, with ornamented wallpaper, decorations, old-fashioned furniture, and a variety of different rooms. The office is postwar, international style. Its large open, evenly lit space with its endless rows of desks is typical of the influence of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe on corporate architecture and thus typical for the change that the Bauhaus-architecture had taken after the war.

Jeff Wall, a former Solitude jury member, formulates one of the most radical criticisms of the Bauhaus in his text Dan Graham’s Kammerspiel.[3] It is aimed primarily at Mies van der Rohe, or rather, at the American Mies. The author maintains that the Bauhaus abandoned its original political motivations in the 1940s and set about joining ranks with the systems of bureaucratic control. Wall sees the epitome of this ambivalent heritage in the glass skyscraper. The office building makes clear that a new phase of oppression—a more complex and subtle oppression, more deeply embedded in the habitual and the subconscious—has matured in capitalism. As Wall argues, the utopists of the age of revolutionary optimism, such as Paul Scheerbart and the young Walter Gropius, declared the glass building a symbol of lucidity and transcendence because of its technology, whereas the masters working after the Second World War, led by Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, recognized the “pure” tower, the glass house, as a perfected mechanism; its cold irony and distance expresses what has actually become of the city: an ugly view.

Wall evokes the “deep historical sadness” and “negativity” of Mies’ buildings. Mies, who had personally experienced the radical changes in Europe firsthand, also—according to Wall—experienced the hopelessness of urban planning in the USA and his buildings show an awareness of this. Wall states that Mies reacted to the historical catastrophe of the period from 1920 to 1950 by abandoning modernity’s implicit utopian urban criticism and leaving the city to its Caesars, speculators, bureaucrats, and “property sharks.” Wall views glass buildings in the countryside as corresponding to corporate architecture in the city. He interprets the glass house in the countryside as a remnant of the rococo pavilion. Nature is turned into an image that can be enjoyed, controlled by the inhabitant. But as soon as night falls, everything changes. The landscape disappears into the black darkness. The spectacle of subordinated nature, on which the residents depend, disappears. The artificial interior lighting transforms the windows into gigantic mirrors and the inhabitants loose their invisibility—from observers they turn into observed and, at night, become comparable to the vampire. The latter stands for the old system’s “not-wanting-to-die” and the fear that the new order has inherited something evil from the old order. It stands for a crisis within modernity and thus, one could argue, for the crisis of the human.

With Wall’s image of the vampire we are back to Wilder’s Apartment. We can read the plot of the film as an illustration of the struggle between the human and the inhuman. Sheldrake embodies the evil forces: during the day, he appears to be the human, open-minded, efficient manager; during the night, he transforms into a monster, which recklessly consumes other human beings. His name, Sheldrake, recalls both Mary Shelly, author of Frankenstein, and of course, the count Dracula. Baxter, on the other hand, is performing this struggle between the human and the non-human within himself. In the end he will leave both the apartment and the office, overcoming the evil forces and aspiring to become a mensch, again.

[1] Symposium “Making/ Crafting/ Designing: Perspectives on Design as a Human Activity” held at Akademie Schloss Solitude, Stuttgart, February 10–12, 2011; for more information:, status: 12/04/2011.

[2] Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht: “Since When and Why Are We Afraid of the Future?”, held at Akademie Schloss Solitude, on October 18, 2007; see the lecture’s manuscript:, status: 12/04/2011.

[3] Jeff Wall: Dan Graham’s Kammerspiel. Toronto 1991.

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