Symposium: “Can the Universal Be Specific?”

Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung e.V.

Schumannstraße 8
10117 Berlin

All presentations will be interpreted simultaneously into English or German.
Limited seating, admission 15 euro, reduced 8 euro, plus booking fee, tickets are available here.

Since the advent of postmodernism people have been questioning the concept of the “universal.” Today, designers, architects and investors make a point of emphasizing the “site specificity” of their projects—although this is often little more than a rhetorical gesture. Local constructions of identity are fashionable again. This is true in the political sphere as well—increasingly, national and regional special interests are being marshaled against the idea of an international world community, and this in a time when the challenges facing us can only be tackled through global cooperation. Yet the design of universal infrastructure, on the other hand, is determined by multinational corporations and media firms. Actors such as Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Amazon, Airbnb, and Uber have concentrated on developing overarching platforms that supply universal structural frameworks for a host of different applications, and in doing so have fundamentally altered the global economic system.

With the question, “Can the Universal Be Specific?,” project bauhaus is reengaging with the ideas of universalism and internationalism posited by classical modernism—and critically reexamining their emancipatory potential. At the event, we’ll present different positions from the fields of political anthropology, sociology, cultural studies, art, architecture, and design, exploring the space for negotiation that lies between the universal and the specific—and in this tension, unearthing contemporary approaches to design.

With Aristide Antonas, Anne-Julchen Bernhardt & Jörg Leeser / BeL Sozietät für Architektur, Christian Benimana / MASS Design Group, Sabine Drewes, Jesko Fezer, Hans Peter Hahn, Christian Hiller, Ina Kerner, Anh-Linh Ngo, Marion von Osten, Philipp Oswalt, Matteo Pasquinelli, Ruben Pater, Ethel Baraona Pohl, Walter Prigge, Stephan Trüby, and Karin Wilhelm.

Program and biographies.


13:00 Why Universalism?

Welcome: Sabine Drewes (Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung). Introduction: Anh-Linh Ngo, Christian Hiller, Philipp Oswalt (Projekt Bauhaus)

13:30 Conflicts of Universalism

The concept of universalism—a core idea behind the Enlightenment and classical modernism, and by extension the Bauhaus as well—has undergone a crisis since the 1970s. Postcolonial discourse came to challenge whether the Western-inflicted notion of universalism was truly universal. Yet before the backdrop of contemporary urban marginalization and the resurgence of nationalist movements, the idea of universalism becomes relevant once again. Is universalism actually desirable? In everyday life, can the opposition between the universal and specific be reconciled and overcome? How can the idea of universalism be developed further?

  1. Universalism: Foundations, Critique, Appropriation Ina Kerner (political scientist, Humboldt-Universität Berlin)
  2. Everyday Wisdom. Dreams of a Good Life Karin Wilhelm (architectural theorist and historian, Berlin)
  3. Right to the City Walter Prigge, (urban sociologist, Leipzig)

Moderator: Philipp Oswalt (architect, curator, and writer, Universität Kassel)

15:15 Break

15:45 Architecture of the Universal

In the wake of World War II, architectural modernism spread across the globe. Universal design principles migrated to a host of different countries, adapted in each case—in different forms and with different dynamics—to the local construction methods, available resources, and specific needs. How are the universal and specific inscribed into architecture? How can the zones of conflict between these two poles be negotiated and harnessed in a positive way?

  1. Who Builds? Marion von Osten (artist, author, and curator, Berlin)
  2. Loaded Anne-Julchen Bernhardt (architect, BeL Sozietät für Architektur, Cologne)
  3. The African Design Center Christian Benimana (architect, MASS program director, Rwanda)

Moderator: Stephan Trüby (architect and curator, Technical University Munich)

17:30 Break

18:00 Universal Products

The design principles developed by the Bauhaus and classical modernism are founded on rationalization, standardization, and norms, making it possible to mass produce consumer goods. With minimal adjustments to the PR and marketing strategies, these goods can be sold across the world. Yet in contrast to the original ambitions of the designers, these universal objects are often appropriated in specific ways in local contexts. Can objects become specific in being used?

  1. The Politics of Design Ruben Pater (designer, Amsterdam)
  2. Appropriation, Hybridization, Bricolage: Improvisation as Aesthetic Practice Hans Peter Hahn (anthropologist, Goethe Universität, Frankfurt am Main)
  3. The Consequences of Withdrawal Aristide Antonas (architect and author, Athens)

Moderator: Ethel Baraona Pohl (critic, author, and curator, Barcelona)

19:45 Break

20:15 Algorithmic Universalism

Universalism today is flourishing in the digital realm. The world is being measured, evaluated, and computed in binary code. Governments, multinational corporations, and online platforms regulate the stream of data and available courses of action. In the face of this “platform capitalism” with its algorithmic power structures, what are possible approaches to design?

  1. On the Genesis of Western Computational Norms Matteo Pasquinelli (philosopher, Hochschule für Gestaltung Karlsruhe)

20:45 Discussion

With Ruben Pater, Matteo Pasquinelli, Karin Wilhelm
Moderators: Ethel Baraona Pohl and Jesko Fezer (designer and author, HFBK Hamburg)

Photos: Timo Baier

Partners projekt bauhaus

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