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Teaching Form Through Practice

(Werklicher formunterricht)

Ours is an economically oriented age. In earlier times, world-view was more important. Today, nobody can exist without considering economics: we are concerned with economic form. Also because the need for rational design necessarily follows the previous overemphasis on emotion or historical forms. (Because, like clothes, forms also wear out.)

Economic form arises out of function and material. Study of material naturally precedes understanding of function. Thus our attempt to come to terms with form begins with study of the material.

In many cases, the productive handling of materials has been determined by techniques with a long tradition. This is why education in the crafts consists mostly of the transmission and acceptance of established methods of working.

This narrow training leads to a loss of creative freedom; it stifles invention. But invention—and also reinvention—is the essence of creativity. Once experienced, invention becomes a lasting spiritual possession, and gaining this experience for oneself is the training one needs to create form; to work at the language, the expression of the time.

Learning and practicing techniques develops insight and dexterity, but not creative energies.

Inventive construction and an attentiveness that leads to discoveries are developed—at least initially—through experimentation that is undisturbed, independent, and thus without preconceptions. This experimentation is (initially) a playful tinkering with the material for its own sake. That is to say, through experimentation that is amateurish (i.e. not burdened by training).

Many of the most important discoveries have been made by amateurs—innovations are initially rejected by the experts—pioneers are very often non-professionals, or they often begin outside the profession.

Experimentation skips over study and a playful beginning develops courage. Thus we do not begin with a theoretical introduction: at the beginning there is only the material, if possible without tools. This procedure leads naturally to independent thinking and the development of an individual style.

In order to achieve intimate contact with the material through one's own fingertips, the use of tools is initially limited. In the further course of instruction, limitation of the range of possible applications is gradually introduced. The most common ways of working with the material are noted, and, because they already exist, they are forbidden. Example: outside (in handicrafts and industry) paper is employed mostly lying flat and glued, whereby one side of the paper loses its expression, and the edge is almost never used. This is the reason why we use paper standing, uneven, mobile sculpture, both sides, with an emphasis on the edge. Instead of gluing it, we bind it, stick it into things, sew it, rivet it, i.e. fasten it in other ways and test its performance under tension and pressure.

Thus we intentionally handle materials differently from the outside world, but not as a matter of principle. Not to make something different (in which case we would be focused mostly on the norm), but rather to make it in a different way (whereby we stress the method). That is to say: not to imitate, but rather to seek on our own and to learn how to find independently—constructive thinking. (Later we glue paper as well, but not extensively and not initially, and only if other methods have been tried first.)

Preference for materials or constructive elements for which a use or application does not exist, or that we do not know how to handle, leads to an unusual heightening of autonomy. For example: building with corrugated cardboard, wire mesh, cellophane, transparent plastic, labels, newspapers, wallpaper, straw, gum, matchboxes, confetti and paper streamers, gramophone needles, and razor blades.

Looking over the results of these experiments, we often realize afterwards that seeming innovations already exist. But the result is the student's own experience and possession, because it has been learned rather than taught.

Learning is better than teaching because it is more intensive: the more we teach, the less students can learn.

We know that this emphasis on learning is a longer path, one that leads to detours and dead ends. But beginnings are never straightforward. And learning from one's mistakes fosters progress. Deliberate detours and allowing oneself to become lost in a controlled fashion sharpen one's critical faculties, lead by way of mistakes to that which is more intelligent, call forth the will to find the right and better way.

Often it is easier for students to share experience gained through tinkering than for the older remoter teacher to transmit it. Thus we test our results by discussing and defending them as a group. In this way, experiences that seem foreign but turn out to be closely related are assimilated simultaneously. Individual and group critiques require a well-founded justification of the choice of material, procedure and form. The relationship between expenditure and effect is the measure of success. Beyond their sum, one element plus one element must yield at least one interesting relationship. The more various the relationships that arise and the more intensive they are, the more the elements intensify one another, the more valuable the result, the more fruitful the work.

This points to a main feature of our curriculum: economy. Economy in the sense of parsimony in relation to expenditure (material and labor) and the best possible exploitation with regard to the effect.

Economy becomes practical in that students plan as much as possible before execution. (Thinking things over is the cheapest way to avoid waste). Consent to the use of new materials depends upon the students' remaining true to the objectives of the project. As much as possible, materials are to be used without waste, without cutting. Preliminary experiments are made in the smallest possible form, and in the case of valuable materials, using cheaper substitutes.

Economy leads to a stressing of lightness: surface trumps volume in its efficiency (solid body—hollow body), and likewise we are more interested in linear (graphic) construction (half-timbering—transparent scaffold); the use of the point is most interesting of all (emphasizing and connecting points).

If such mathematical elements are achieved negatively, i.e. as empty or volumetric relationships, then heightened interest, stronger effect, and greater unity are generated.

The activation of negativa (of remainders, intermediate, and negative values) is perhaps the only entirely new, perhaps the most important aspect of contemporary interest in forms. But few have noticed this yet—the word has yet to get around—because the sociological parallels have not been noted. (The sociological reasons for seeking these forms today deserve more extensive discussion here and elsewhere). If one gives equal consideration and weight to positive and negative values, then there is no ‘remainder.' Then we no longer draw distinctions between ‘carrying' and ‘being carried'; we no longer admit divisions between ‘serving' and ‘being served,' between ‘decoration' and ‘that which is decorated.' Every element must simultaneously help and be helped by the whole, support and be supported. In this way, base and frame disappear—and thus also the monument, which employs an excess of substructure to support a dearth of superstructure.

Nothing of any kind may remain unused; otherwise, the calculation is wrong. Because chance has played a role. Nobody is responsible for chance, and thus chance is irresponsible, not to mention mindless, because it arises out of habit.

The rigorous monitoring of one's own work I have described carries a justifiably high price: discipline as both precept and outcome. Clean lines and precision are the greatest factors in creating this discipline, and this becomes evident in the clarity of the final product.

We seek to maximize exploitation of the material by experimenting with maximal carrying capacity (highest elevation, broadest distribution of load, heaviest loading), maximal strength (while retaining flexibility), the closest connections, the smallest or weakest state. Examples: drawing paper folded into pleats about 25 – 30 cm long, 1 cm. high, will bear the weight of two people. The ‘drawers' (insides) of matchboxes, inserted into each other in a tight circle, will support more than the weight of a single person.

Stretching the performance of materials to the breaking point makes the limits of the materials clear, lease organically to related or antithetical materials, allows one to attempt mixtures and further intensification of energies. Example: the luster of tin can be heightened through intersection and reflection to the point at which it gives the illusion of transparent glass.

In addition to this economy in the use of materials, there is an economy of labor. Economy of labor can be fostered by recognizing faster and easier methods, addressing multiple tasks simultaneously, the use of finished or easily obtained materials or aids, the right choice of tools, careful replacement of missing equipment, unification of multiple processes, limiting oneself to a single tool or procedure.

Emphasizing economy of labor only seems to contradict the curriculum described above. Shortening the work process happens only at a later stage. Understanding the difference between teaching people how to make things and teaching removes the apparent contradiction. When a student's learning is directed more toward technological and economical concerns than toward traditional forms, they learn to see both statically and dynamically. They learn the connection, and thereby overcome the false dichotomy between the organic and the technological. In addition to constructive thinking, this kind of learning schools a spatial imagination that is rare. It mediates the collective exchange of experiences, and aims to discover laws of form that are both universal and contemporary. It prevents one from overvaluing individualism, without restricting real individuality.

Schools should not promote individualism as such because individualism emphasizes separation. The task of a school is rather to integrate the individual into contemporary life into society (state, profession, economy). Cultivation of individuality is the task of the individual, not the task of a collective enterprise such as a school. Schools should cultivate individuality passively, i.e. by not disturbing personal development. How many real personalities exist anyway? The vast majority of people are types. A sociological economy must reject conventional pedagogy's cult of personality: productive individuality asserts itself without, and despite, education.

Another set of exercises, the so-called materie studies, open up the formal aspects of our work and possibilities for creating forms freely. During the course of the semester, they alternate repeatedly with the exercises using materials already described. This second set of exercises proceeds less from the inner energies of the materials; rather, they make use of the materials' external appearance. The skins of the materials are brought into relationship with each other according to relatedness or contrast (“like seeks like” and “opposites attract”).

Just as colors enter into relationships with each other (timbre—interval—tension, harmony—“disharmony”), the superficial forms we note with our fingertips and with our eyes enter into relationships with each other. In the way that red complements green, and is simultaneously its contrast and balance, materials such as brick and burlap, glass and stearin, wire mesh and wood ‘stand' in the same relationship.

We classify the appearances of the materials' epidermis (outer layer) as essentially different in structure, facture, and texture. Our employment of them is more like painting than construction, so that spatiality, interruption, and interpenetration appear as an illusion. This special interest in the materials is a manifestation of an epoch that is oriented towards construction. The Gothic cultivated this same interest strongly, but it has been badly neglected since: facades and rooms, implements and clothes, have been made of only one material; walls and furniture and floorboards have been completely covered with paint.

This longstanding practice of neglecting the natural surface of materials makes it difficult to take up this multifaceted task of developing the finest possible feeling for the material. In order to concentrate the experience, we not only assemble materials in suites to seek relationships; we also create textures and factures, invent them, and then translate them into materials with different colors or hues; we substitute materials with related appearances for them; and we imitate them in drawings or paintings.

The systematic ordering of materials into suites with rising or falling values between two polarities sensitizes one to the finest gradations and subtlest transitions. (Tactile scales from hard to soft, smooth to rough, warm to cold or hard-edged to amorphous, smoothly polished to sticky-absorbent. optical scales, e.g. finely meshed—coarsely meshed, transparent—translucent—opaque, clear—cloudy—dense).

Group discussions of the results of the exercises with materials and related tasks aim to call forth careful observation and a new seeing. They allow us to recognize which formal needs are most relevant to us: harmony or balance, rhythm or volume, geometrical or arithmetical proportion, symmetry or asymmetry, rosette or series. What interests us even more in this regard: rich or austere, complicated or elementary form, monotony or polyphony, mysticism or hygiene, volume or line, beauty or cleverness, heraldry or the bathroom.

In short, the inductive mode of instruction I am promoting strives for responsibility and discipline vis á vis one's materials, one's work, and oneself, to teach what tasks and materials are most congenial to the student. The ongoing systematization of this mode is intended to provide substantial, lived insight. It tries to be a training in flexibility in the broadest sense, which cannot be isolated by later specialization. It leads to economical form.

This mode of working stands in conscious opposition to that of conventional trade schools, in which manual facility is ‘inculcated.' Where some carpentry, some bookbinding, some tailoring goes on. Also sawing and planing (the most difficult carpentry), also filing and beating, also sticking and gluing, remain unproductive. Because it meets only the drive to be busy, not the need to give form.

Even worse than unproductive: such ‘initial training' can only be called detrimental. The result is a year's supply of nearly finished, standardized components, coverings, and fasteners pre-packaged and marked with numbers, ready for delivery according to a printed schedule. Someone has applied for a patent for just such a system.

As students and teachers, we must once again learn from and with one another (in competition, which elevates); otherwise, teaching is a bitter pill and a bad business.

English translation by Frederick Amrine, Frederick Horowitz, and Nathan Horowitz
Bauhaus, 2 no. 3, 1928.

Concerning Art Instruction

When Rembrandt was asked how one learns to paint, he is said to have answered “One must take a brush and begin.” This is the answer of genius which grows without school and even in spite of schooling. At the same time we know that he had a teacher and became a teacher.

Delacroix went further when he wrote in his diary: “How happy I should have been to learn as a painter that which drives the ordinary musician to despair.” He meant by this the study of harmony and especially the “pure logic” of the fugue: “which is the basis of all reason and consistency in music.”

These two assertions are not contradictory. They merely emphasize different aspects of an artist's work: on the one hand the intuitive search for and discovery of form: on the other hand the knowledge and application of the fundamental laws of form. Thus all rendering of form, in fact all creative work, moves between the two polarities: intuition and intellect, or possibly between subjectivity and objectivity. Their relative importance continually varies and they always more or less overlap.

I do not wish to assert that the practice of art cannot be learned or taught. But we do know that appreciation and understanding of art can grow both through learning (the development of intuitive perception and discrimination) and through teaching (the handing on of authoritative knowledge). And just as every person is endowed with all the physiological senses—even if in varying degrees both in proportion and quality—likewise, I believe, every person has all the senses of the soul (e.g. sensitivity to tone, color, space), though undoubtedly with still greater differences in degree.

It is of course natural for this reason, that the schools should at least begin the development of all incipient faculties. But going further, art is a province in which one finds all the problems of life reflected—not only the problems of form (e.g. proportion and balance) but also spiritual problems (e.g. of philosophy, of religion, of sociology, of economy). For this reason art is an important and rich medium for general education and development.

If we must accept education as life and as preparation for life, we must relate all school work, including work in art, as closely as possible to modern problems. It is not enough to memorize historical interpretations and aesthetic views of the past or merely to encourage a purely individualistic expression. We need not be afraid of losing the connection with tradition if we make the elements of form the basis of our study. And this thorough foundation saves us from imitation and mannerisms, it develops independence, critical ability, and discipline.

From his own experiences the student should first become aware of form problems in general, and thereby become clear as to his own real inclinations and abilities. In short, our art instruction attempts first to teach the student to see in the widest sense: to open his eyes to the phenomena about him, and most important of all, to open to his own living, being, and doing. In this connection we consider class work in art studies necessary because of the common tasks and mutual criticism.

We find this way more successful than starting, without previous study of fundamentals, on studies in special fields with purely individualistic corrections, depending on the taste of the teacher. At first every student should come in contact with the fundamental problems in as many branches of art as possible, instead of beginning, for example, with life painting or animal sculpture.

Many years' experience in teaching have shown that it was often only through experimenting with the elements in various distinct branches of art that students first recognized their real abilities. As a consequence these students had to change their original plans. As an instance, a student of painting discovered his real talent was for metal working. Our first concern is not to turn out artists. We regard our elementary art work primarily as a means of general training for all students. For artistically gifted students it serves as a broad foundation for later special study.

We have three main disciplines in our art instruction: Drawing, Basic Design (Werklehre), and Color-Painting. These are supplemented by exhibitions and discussions of old and modern art, of handicraft and industrial products, of typographic and photographic work. The exhibitions are used to point out special intentions (e.g. art related to nature or remote from nature; the so-called primitivism; monumental form, pure form; and realism or imitation), and conditions due to working material (e.g. wood form, stone form, metal form; silver form in the Baroque, and gold in the Gothic). In addition collections of materials (different woods, stones, metals, textiles, leathers, artificial materials), are shown. By excursions to handicraft and manufacturing plants we seek to develop an understanding of the treatment of material and of working in general (both as matters of technique and as social matters).

Drawing we regard as a graphic language. Just as in studying language it is most important to teach first the commonly understood usage of speech, in drawing we begin with exact observation and pure representation. We cannot communicate graphically what we do not see. That which we see incorrectly we will report incorrectly. We recognize that although our optical vision is correct, our overemphasis on the psychic vision often makes us see incorrectly. For this reason we learn to test our seeing, and systematically study foreshortening [and] overlapping as the main form problems of graphic articulation, and distinction between and the pronunciation of nearness and distance.

Drawing consists of a visual and of a manual act. For the visual act (comparable with thinking which precedes speaking) one must learn to see form as a three-dimensional phenomenon. For the manual act (comparable with speaking) the hand must be sensitized to the direction of the will. With this in mind we begin drawing lessons with general technical exercises: measuring, dividing, estimating; rhythms of measure and form, disposing, modifications of form. At the same time we use the motor sense as an important corrective.

It will be clear that we exclude expressive drawing as a beginning. Experience shows that in young people this encourages artistic conceit but hardly results in a solid capability which alone can give the foundation and freedom for more personal work.

For this reason our elementary drawing instruction is a handicraft instruction, strictly objective, unadorned through style or mannerism. As soon as capability in handicraft has been fully developed, more individual work may follow. As artistic performance it will develop best afterwards and outside the school.

We repeat, our drawing is the study of objective representation.

In Basic Design (Werklehre)—design with material—we cultivate particularly feeling for material and space. It stands in contrast to a pure manual training in various handicrafts, which only applies [to] traditionally fixed methods of work. We do not aim at “a little bookbinding”, “a little carpentry”, but rather a general constructive thinking, especially a building thinking, which must be the basis of every work with any material. Basic Design is a forming out of material (e.g. paper, cardboard, metal sheets, wire), which demonstrates the possibilities and limits of materials. This method emphasizes learning, a personal experience, rather than teaching. And so it is important to make inventions and discoveries. The idea is not to copy a book or a table, but to attain a finger-tip feeling for material. Therefore we work with as few tools as possible and prefer material that has been infrequently used, such as corrugated paper, wire, wire netting. With well-known materials we seek to find untried possibilities.

Basic Design deals mainly with two subjects, with matière studies on the one hand and material studies on the other.

Matière studies are concerned with the appearance, the surface (epidermis) of material. Here we distinguish structure, facture, texture. We classify the appearances according to optical and tactile perception. We represent them by drawing and other means. In combination exercises we examine the relationship of different surface qualities. Just as color reacts to and influences color—in contrast or affinity—so one matière influences another.

Material studies are concerned with the capacity of materials. We examine firmness, looseness, elasticity; extensibility and compressibility; folding and bending—in short technical properties. These studies in connection with the mathematical inherence of form result in construction exercises. With these we try to develop an understanding and feeling for space, volume, dimension; for balance, static and dynamic; for positive and active, for negative and passive forms. We stress economy of form, that is the ratio of effort to effect.

Comparisons of various examples in architecture, sculpture, paintings, help to make clear the conceptions of proportion, function, constellation, and composition as well as those of construction and combination.

In short, Basic Design is a training in adaptability in the whole field of construction and in constructive thinking in general. Although we do not actually make useful things, Basic Design is not opposed to handicraft work but is its very foundation.

Color we consider first as working material and we study its qualities and activities. Sound production comes before speech, tone before music. And so at first we study systematically the tonal possibilities of colors their relativity, their interaction and influence on each other, cold and warmth, light intensity, color intensity, psychical and spatial effects. We practice translating color combinations into different intensities, and from colorful to colorless colors. We practice color tone scales, color mixtures and interpenetrations. We study the most important color systems, not for the sake of science or to find the harmony of colors in a mechanical way, but to learn to see and feel color; to prepare for a disciplined use of color and to prevent accident, brush, or paint-box from taking authorship.

The studies in painting, from nature or model, are in principle concerned with the relationship between color, form, spaces, and composition. Serious painting demands serious study. Rembrandt, at the age of thirty, is said to have felt the need of twenty years of study for a certain color-space problem.

By making an extended study in the main provinces of form; namely shape, material, and color, we provide a broad foundation for the widest variety of tasks and for later specialization. No problem of form lies outside our field. Thus we do not cultivate dilettantism—just something to do—(Beschaeftigungstrieb) but develop the creative, productive possibilities (Gestaltungstrieb). Class instruction with common tasks and criticisms coming from the students and then from the teacher communicates understanding of different ways of seeing and of representing, and diminishes the tendency to overestimate one's own work.

It will be clear that this method is meant for mature students. For teaching children we should use other methods.

Life is more important than school, the student and the learning more important than the teacher and the teaching. More lasting than having heard and read is to have seen and experienced. The result of the work of a school is difficult to determine while the pupil is in school. The best proofs are the results in later life, not, for example, student exhibitions. Therefore to us the act of drawing is more important than the graphical product; a color correctly seen and understood more important than a mediocre still-life. It is better to be able really to draw a signboard than to be content with unfinished portraits.

Most of our students will not become artists. But if they know, for example, the capacities of color they are prepared not only for painting but also for the practical use of color in interiors, furniture, clothes. These examples also illustrate the need of an understanding of materials.

We are content if our studies of form achieve an understanding vision, clear conceptions, and a productive will.

Black Mountain College Bulletin, 2, June, 1934

Art as Experience

Editor's Note: Two years ago, Mr. Albers came from the Bauhaus in Dessau to Black Mountain College in North Carolina to teach art. At the Bauhaus, it is common practice to coin words and invent phrases to express those meanings for which there seem to be no adequate provision in the German language. Mr. Albers made use of this technique in his article, written in English. The excellent manuscript put the Editor in a quandary. Mr. Albers had something to say. He said it in his own way and he said it forcefully. Attempts to tinker it into more smooth English detracted from meaning and power. The article is therefore presented virtually as Mr. Albers wrote it.

Science and life are not always the best friends. They are sometimes competitors, even as are theory and practice. In school we can see this in teaching the science of nature. We as children had to learn natural history, which tried to classify or dissect the phenomena of nature. But soon we underwent the experience that pressed herbariums are not nature at all and the herbalist is a dry man, like his specimens; or, that anatomy has to do mostly with dead bodies.

After this funereal experience with dried leaves and stuffed owls and squirrels we felt a deep need of going out-of-doors to get, instead of the separated parts, the connection between them; instead of scientific systematizing, the events of life, the vital functions, the conditions essential to life—in short, to get life.

Life is change—day and night, cold and warmth, sun and rain. It is more in-between the facts than the facts themselves. Rules are the result of experience and come later, and discovering the rules is more life-full than their application. Linnaeus, the botanist, built his classifications after many experiences and much investigation. How could we have begun children's botanical studies with his final results!

I believe it is now time to make a similar change of method in our art teaching—that we move from looking at art as a part of historical science to an understanding of art as a part of life. Under the term “art” I include all fields of artistic purposes—the fine arts and applied arts, also music, dramatics, dancing, the theatre, photography, movies, literature, and so on.

If we review what is being done now, what directions our art studies take in relation to the past, the present, also the future, the answer is clear: We over-accentuate the past, and often are more interested in drawing out a continuous line of historical development than in finding out which of certain art problems are related to our own life, or in getting an open mind for the newer and nearer and forward-looking art results of our period.

Do not misunderstand me. I admire the earlier art, particularly the earliest art. But we must not overlook that they do not belong to our time and that the study of them has the purpose of understanding the spirit of their period or, what is more important, to get a standard for comparisons with our own work. What went on is not necessarily more important than what is going on.

I think we have to shift from the data to the spirit, from the person to the situation, or from biography to biology in its real sense. As regards art results, from the content to the sense, from the “what” to the “how”; as regards art purposes, from the representation to the revelation.

To speak in a more practical way: We should try, for instance to see a chair apart from its functional characteristics, as a living creature and, if you wish, perhaps as a person, such as a worker, a servant, a peasant, or an aristocrat; and apart from its stylistic characteristics, as an apparatus willing to hold us, to carry, to surround or embrace us, to give us a rest, or to show or to represent us; that we recognize the different needs of a chair in our living-room, on the porch, at the table, or at the desk.

To speak in general terms: We should discover for instance that music, too, has to do with proportion and the values of line and volume; also that literature can be static and dynamic, and can have staccatos and crescendos, and poems can have color; that the play on the stage has not only dramatic climax but also an optical and an acoustical one; that there are musical qualities in all art—that every art work is built (i.e., composed), has order, consciously or unconsciously.

To say it essentially: Everything has form and every form has meaning. The ability to select this quality is culture. If you agree with me that religion worked out only on Sunday is no religion at all, then we must be united in this opinion, that seeing art only in museums, or using art only as amusement or recreation in lazy hours, shows no understanding of art at all.

If art is an essential part of culture and life, then we must no longer educate our students either to be art historians or to be imitators of antiquities, but for artistic seeing, artistic working, and more, for artistic living. Since artistic seeing and artistic living are a deeper seeing and living—and school has to be life—since we know that culture is more than knowledge, we in the school have the duty to remove all the fields of art from their decorative sideplace into the center of education—as we are trying to do at Black Mountain College.

To intensify this purpose, we have to bring about in school a nearer connection, or better, an interpenetration, of all the art disciplines and artistic purposes in school life, which will show that their problems are very much the same.

Then we will learn through the parallelism of their common problems—for example, the problems of balance or proportion—that they are tasks of our daily life too.

As academic separatism is passing, we in school have to connect as far as possible the scientific fields with the artistic fields. Isn't it true, for instance, that some historical periods are better identified through their architecture or pictures than through their conquerors and wars? And do not some costumes tell us often more than many queens? Generally, history should regard life as more important than death, and culture more serious than politics.

How in school would you value an economist, chemist, geographer who lives only in the nineteenth century? Or a writing class which never shows contemporary problems? And what about an artist, a language teacher or a musician of the same taste! Let us be younger with our students and include in our consideration new architecture and new furniture, modern music and modern pictures. We ought to discuss movies and fashions, make-up and stationery, advertising, shop signs and newspapers, modern songs and jazz. The pupil and his growing into his world are more important than the teacher and his background.

Our aim is a general development of an open-eyed and open-minded youth seeking out the growing spiritual problems of our days, not closed to his environment; and forward-looking, with the experience that interests and needs are changing; a youth with criticism enough to recognize that so-called “good old forms” sometimes can be over-used, that perhaps some great art important to our parents does not say anything to us; one who has reverence for earnest work and working, even though it seems at first new and strange to him, and is able to withhold judgment until clearer perception comes; who knows that one's own experience and discovery and independent judgment are much more than repeated book knowledge.

We know that a short time of school studies cannot produce competent judges of art. Therefore, we at Black Mountain are content when our student, for instance, sees a connection between a modern picture and music by Bach, or a relationship between patterns of textiles and music; or, if he is able to differentiate the form-character of a china pitcher from a glass pitcher, or an aluminum pitcher; or to recognize the difference between an advertisement of 1925 and one of 1935; or, when he finds out that in art we still can experience revelation and wonder.

We want a student who sees art as neither a beauty shop nor imitation of nature, as more than embellishment and entertainment; but as a spiritual documentation of life; one who sees that real art is essential life and essential life is art.

Progressive Education,12, October, 1935

The Educational Value of Manual Work and Handicraft in Relation to Architecture

In an industrial age, when machines dominate production, it seems significant that building, considered as a key industry, depends to a large extent on work by hand. To architects and engineers alike, the prefabricated house, though promoted for decades, remains a problem. Its solution will be related to psychological conditions as well as to technical and economic conditions.

We may consider the dependence on manual work either as unfortunate and antiquated, or as unavoidable, and even fortunate; it will remain a necessity as long as individual needs in housing are recognized. It will continue until building has achieved such final development as has been reached, for example, by the bicycle. As long as we continue to experiment with new materials and new techniques, good craftsmen will be as indispensable as good designers. The more we integrate design with craftsmanship, however, the more we shall save manual effort.

Here we shall confine ourselves to the educational value of manual work and craftsmanship, particularly in architecture.

To see the value of handicraft, which persists despite increasing machine-craft, is to recognize its continuing influence. To this end, let us first compare some hand processes and machine processes of similar functions. Machine weaving has been developed from hand weaving. It follows the same principle of construction. Sewing by machine, however, is based on an entirely different technical principle from sewing by hand.

It is logical, therefore, to learn weaving, as well as textile design, first as hand weaving; for the hand loom is simpler and easier to understand. It permits a greater range of variety than the more complicated power loom. Even in sewing the manual process is the best preparation for a proper use of the machine process. Hand sewing develops more directly a feeling for different materials and different effects.

As to the quality of the products or results, we know that machine woven materials can compete with hand woven textiles, and poor materials are produced not by power looms alone. We know, too, that there are weaving techniques which are possible, thus far, only in hand weaving. It should be known also that the sewing of clothing cannot be done entirely by machine. At least some hand finishing is almost always necessary.

Both of these examples indicate the two possible technical relationships between hand process and machine process. They also show that machine production cannot be entirely substituted for hand work. More important is the fact that, historically and educationally, production by hand normally precedes machine production.

It has been observed, both here and abroad, that beginning students in design like nothing better than to select as their first problem the most complex task, namely, another new chair. We also know of design classes where plastics, as new materials, are considered to be on a higher level. There are schools where bending wood is taught without any previous experience with wood. Such a procedure is justified as a trial-and-error way of learning at the beginning when the encouragement of freedom is needed. It will mean more, however, if student and teacher do not overlook, particularly after unsatisfactory results, the more basic and perennial constructions. With practical experience and honest judgment, not being intoxicated by momentary fashions or slogans, we will agree that, technically and educationally, the old time-tested joints in wood, metal and stone still hold good.

Now we find ourselves surrounded with innumerable new materials, techniques and methods, all waiting to be mastered. Here we seem to be at the crossing of two roads, one old and one new. The old one is narrower and leads to “famous places” and security. The new and broader offers both speed and adventure in unknown lands. As modern architects, we must travel both roads.

Our long dependence upon European ideas must now give way to broader conceptions. We must consider other people and other countries significant, and offering us spiritual and material resources as great as those of Europe. There are as many new tasks as there are new materials.

Modern architecture has recognized the obligation of applying modern material and modern technique, but there still remains a question as to how much it is to the advantage of new structures or to the reputation of new materials.

More than being proud of, or enthusiastic about, new possibilities, is the achievement of better building for better living and working. Of this double task, the aims seem to be clearer than the procedure. Unfortunately new designs have often discredited good ideas. Many new constructions merely demonstrate that new planning or new materials are not, per se, better than traditional ones. Many so-called modern buildings and furniture have fed the belief that the old, or the antique, or the hand-made is better and more beautiful than the new, modern and machine-made. Further, they have spoiled the willingness of the public to try new proposals.

Future architecture, considering utility as well as appearance, will be the more accepted the more its results prove at least as satisfactory as former architectural achievements. To produce something better will be more convincing than to do something merely different. No talk about functionalism will convert people to leaking roofs, and no insulation coefficient will reconcile them to houses too hot and too cold. No economy, for long, can sell poor taste.

Such statements are made not merely to criticize. They aim at better results. Experience teaches us that the less we know about the final effect of new materials and techniques, the more careful we must be in using them. Before assigning failures to material, we should reexamine the planning and execution—or review the education of designers and architects.

In our efforts to promote higher quality and sounder construction, we must commit ourselves anew to better design, to better craftsmanship. To the problem of how to reach such a goal historians and traditionalists continue to offer their remedy—to follow the past. Besides admiring former achievements, however, we must remember that they were not repetitions nor imitations. Important architecture, exterior or interior, past or present, represents self-confidence. It is discovery and invention. It proves awareness of new tasks and the will and the ability to solve them. It looks forward rather than backward. To continue tradition is to create, not to revive.

Students of architecture and design must be trained to study material, old and new, as to capacity and appearance. They must learn, with material, to produce, as well as to understand, space for shelter. Basic studies in construction (related to capacity of materials), as well as studies in combination (concerning appearance), should precede any specialized industrial or architectural design. They should be accompanied by manual work, preferably with simple implements. They should be followed by a thorough, practical experience in handicraft. Fundamental studies in General Design, preceding the study of handicraft, avoid a mechanical taking over of settled methods. They provide critical and creative selection, thus encourage inventiveness.

Unfortunately, the so-called crafts in schools rarely are any preparation for the present and future architectural and industrial tasks. The method of trying first many materials and tools is good for a general orientation. But continuing unlimited exploration in later grades, in colleges or art schools, namely, trying “some” pottery and jewelry, “some” metal work and weaving, wastes time and energy. It spoils respect and taste. One thing done well, one construction understood and applied properly, is educationally far better than many things started or poorly understood and executed.

Laissez-faire learning and premature specialization have led in the latter direction. Both are superficial and inefficient, lacking either aim or foundation. Their results reassure us that the three R's must come before playwriting or banking, as well as before physics and philosophy.

This is often forgotten today, particularly in the learning and the teaching of craft and art. Thus self-expression and mass production appear as the immediate concern. More and more we feel the drawbacks of such trends. Dilettantism, justified and desirable at the beginning, unfortunately continues until it becomes the end. The more we succeed in eliminating the current “arty-crafty” trends in schools and the “modern-istic” and “functional-istic” miscarriages in construction and production, the more we can hope for practical and sound professional education.

Present war needs and those of future reconstruction demand from schools more than scholarship and research. They require practical experience as well as academic standards. Many schools already follow the example of those modern institutions that consider manual work as an essential part of the curriculum; many others will follow. Through obligatory manual work in schools, we shall not only recognize the manual and the visual types of student, but also shall learn that they are just as valuable as the intellectual type. Thus, general education will become not only more just and democratic, but will also break down the European tradition of over-intellectualization. It will demonstrate that practical thinking is as necessary as abstract thinking and good workers as valuable as good administrators. Skillful hands, observing eyes, and taste will count again more than a good memory.

More manual work in all schools and more handicraft for all designers and constructors will give a new impulse to modern planning and construction. It will develop judgment and connect intellectual and manual work as well as workers, and thus improve cultural and social conditions. Even if a student, in manual work, should learn only to do nailing well, it will be worthwhile. He will realize that it develops coordination within himself and with others, and that skill depends on observation and thought. If an architect, in handicraft, learns only to apply the main constructions of cabinet making properly, it will improve all his designing.

As to premature specialization: normally, craft and art teachers are not experts on new plastics. The use of these materials, as inadequate panels for oil paintings, for example, does not prove competence. Moreover, no school workshop can afford much of the equipment which the industry of almost innumerable plastics is continually developing. This, and the fact that sawing, turning, and casting of more common and less expensive materials prepare for plastics, as well as for other materials, show that design in plastics cannot be a first task of schools. This case will also explain that the manipulation of the materials most often applied, wood, metal, and stone, provides the most fundamental study in handicraft.

In order to avoid misunderstanding, it should be made clear that the so-called old materials are emphasized here in discussing handicraft. Serious studies in handicraft will not interfere with the encouragement to try and to study contemporary materials and construction equally. As mentioned above, the interest in new possibilities and inventiveness should be developed in General Design, which precedes the study in handicraft. Handicraft, then, should lead to craftsmanship, as craftsmanship is a requisite for proper application of new materials and new construction. It may seem old-fashioned, in these times, to lay so much stress on manual work and handicraft, particularly in connection with new architecture. It can be expected that some people will consider such emphasis as unprogressive.

Progress depends on recognition of failures as well as of achievements. Mistakes demand correction and change as long as we seek improvement. Change and correction are often uncomfortable; but, as long as criticism means help, we should accept it.

Repeated failures and mistakes force us to look for reasons of basic character. Our previous observations, based on experience in design and building, as well as in teaching, show that a loss of craftsmanship is one of the main reasons for our shortcomings. We concluded that experiments must be guided by experience, and that this calls for a change in educational method. In order to regain lost ground, to gain more practical thinking, general and professional education must turn to more practical work. If these conclusions are correct, we can expect that other fields of study and work will disclose equal needs. There are already many signs of such a change.

One thing seems sure, the more new architecture gains the quality of old handicraft, the more it will fulfill its task, the more it will contribute and lead to better living.

In Paul Zucker, ed., New Architecture and City Planning: A Symposium. (New York: Philosophical Library), 1944

Art at BMC

At Black Mountain College, art is considered as educational as language, mathematics, philosophy. It is accepted here also that practical, manual work is as essential in education as it is in life. To us, education means more than a teaching which merely extends memory and trains mainly intellect. We realize that human development depends on other human faculties equally or more important than those two mentioned.

Academism has coined the stereotype Theory and Practice, but life works in an opposite order. It points first at practice of which theory is a result. Here we may conclude also that application alone is more appropriate to industry and trade than to education.

Creativeness and productivity imply more action and, therefore, more life than mere possession. Therefore, to us, the fulfillment of ability is a higher aim than knowledge. Knowing and understanding do not necessarily result in action, creation, production. Consequently, to realistic education—which is to adjust the individual as a whole to community and society as a whole—the development of the will is the first and last concern. In short, doing something—even if it may prove a failure—counts educationally more than merely knowing something.

As to learning and studying, life confronts us with problems and tasks which cannot be solved by intellectual procedure alone. There are activities and situations we cannot encounter through verbal and oral information and which, therefore, actually cannot be taught.

The ultimate approach is experiment which leads us to the most decisive factor in education—experience. Experience is not the shortest and often not the easiest way of learning, but the broader and most far-reaching way. What we have experienced belongs to us; it will remain with us longer than what we have only read or heard.

All these considerations lead us to the conclusion that in schools, art should be studied as science is being studied, namely, through laboratory work. It appears as a matter of course that we study chemistry through experience, through handling chemicals. In order to make clear what is not as natural, apply the usual way of teaching art to the teaching of science, then in many schools there would be mainly and probably only history of chemistry.

Art does not exist on a material, but on a spiritual level. It rests within us instead of upon a canvas or marble. Seeing art is more than an optical projection, it is a psychological process. Optically different people see alike; emotionally and intellectually they react differently, individually. Someone has said, “We don't judge art; art judges us.”

Art as a creative process is discovery and invention. We consider it a creative rather than productive process, as creation leads to spiritual effect, and production to practical result.

Discovery and invention depend on imagination and vision both of which we probably are unable to teach. What we can teach toward their development is observation and comparison. These both aim at open eyes and flexible minds, both desirable not only for art.

At Black Mountain College, art studies are first a means of general education, second, a foundation for later specialized and individual art work. Basic courses in drawing, painting, design, and color offer studies aiming at disciplined seeing and sensitive reading of form. They exercise syntax and synopsis of visual articulation. So in each course the learning of the principles of the craft of the field is the first objective.

In drawing, we practice graphic formulation; in painting, special relationship of two-dimensional color, composition. In the color course we experience the relativity of color, how color is influenced by color, light, shape, quantity, placement. Basic Design is practicing planning. Here through the use of various materials (voluminous, flat, linear) we study appearance on the one hand and capacity on the other. Through exercises in combination we experience and understand surface qualities of material—of matière (structure, facture, texture). Through construction exercises we study mathematical and structural conditions of form (shape, space, volume).

Besides these basic disciplines, the College offers workshop courses in textile design, woodwork and bookbinding. Architecture and printing are temporarily discontinued. The community work program—and soon the building program again—provides a large variety of practical work experience. Concentrated studies in various fields of design are offered at Black Mountain College Summer Art Institute during July-August. Besides the art faculty of the College, guest artists and scholars of reputation give courses and lectures.

As indicated before, the aim of our art studies is not self-expression but articulation in visual form. Since expression is purposeful, aiming through selected means at definite effects, it is the result of self-control and mastery of medium and tools. Therefore, to consider children's and beginners' work as self-expression is a misunderstanding if not a fundamental psychological error. It is misleading and leads either to strangled creativeness or conceit. Of course, man-made form reveals always qualities of its originator, but we should not confuse self-disclosure with self-expression.

Expression implies communication. In art, it is visualization of our emotional reactions to life and the world, and depends, as in any language on articulation. Articulation is distinctive formulation as it implies decision about purpose and also selection of appropriate means. Therefore in art, as in all communication, precision—as to the effect wanted—and discipline—as to the means used—are decisive. Both can be achieved through experience, through continuous and repeated experimentation.

To study only finished works of art—unfortunately possible mainly through printed reproductions—deprives us of the educationally most important experience of trial and error. It ends too often in factual description and sentimental likes and dislikes instead of in sensitive discrimination.

The danger of studio courses, namely to produce would-be artists, can be eliminated by teaching which is concerned with the process of seeing and formulating instead of producing final results. In schools we can only prepare for later artistic work. Work of significance and lasting value usually is a result of many years if not of a life-time of concentrated study—in art, in science, or in any field.

The more basic our studies are, the less we will be in a hurry for finished results. The more our practical exercises concern fundamental problems, the more we will avoid mechanical application of technique as well as imitative discipleship. The more we develop understanding of and respect for material, the more we can expect that both production and evaluation of form, of art, will be approached with honesty and responsibility.

Such practicing studies mean in the end a study of ourselves, of our handicaps as well as our assets, which is the concern of any serious creative mind.

Unpublished text for an article on Black Mountain College in Junior Bazaar May, 1946. The magazine ran an article written by the editorial department instead.

My Courses at the Hochschule für Gestaltung at Ulm

1. Introduction

From the correspondence which I had before coming to Ulm with both the US Government and the Geschwister-Scholl-Stiftung, Hochschule für Gestaltung, the establishment of which was made possible by a donation of 1 million DM out of the McCloy Fund, I concluded that my main task would be to advise the Hochschule für Gestaltung as to the curriculum organization and teaching methods and to demonstrate teaching in the following specialized fields which are considered here as basic training: basic drawing, basic color, and basic design. The courses were given every weekday morning from 8.15 to 11.30, except Saturdays. Besides these class hours of practical exercises I frequently went to see the students in the afternoons when they did their homework and also visited the workshops of the department of industrial design. Several times I visited the building grounds on the ‘Kuhberg,' until bad weather prevented the continuation of construction.

Shortly after my arrival in Ulm and repeatedly during my stay here I had conferences with members of the Board of Directors, Rechtsanwalt Helmut Becker, Kreebronn, Dr. Roderich Graf Thun, Jettingen, and Oberbürgermeister Pfizer of Ulm, and with future teachers on the program of the school.

Before going into the details of my experience I should like to explain the principles of my teaching method, in particular why my methods differ from the traditional methods in teaching art.

2. Principles underlying my courses at the Hochschule

The longer I teach the more I learn that art cannot be taught, at least not directly. Art—as I see it—is visual formulation of our reaction to the world, the universe, to life. If such definition is acceptable, the two basic aspects we have to deal with in teaching arts and in which we can offer help are seeing and formulating, or vision and articulation. That the development of these faculties provides tasks for more than a lifetime has been repeatedly stated by the masters. Since vision and articulation are the parents of art, self-expression in art, which is to reveal purposely something through visual formulation, is possible only at an advanced level, that is, after vision is developed and articulation is acquired, at least to some extent.

Consequently, self-expression is not the beginning of art studies. I am aware that many art teachers are not sympathetic to such conclusions. I come to my conclusions through the following premises.

As there is no verbal communication before we can produce sounds and words, as there is no writing before having letters or type, for the same reason there is no visual communication as long as there is no visual articulation.

Nobody considers inarticulate sounds of a child a language, and nobody accepts his scribblings as writing. But curiously enough many are inclined to accept such scribblings as self-expression and so—as art. But finally art teachers are beginning to discover that self-expression is something other than self-disclosure.

Following my conclusions, I do not believe in self-expression as the first or the principal objective of art studies. We will understand this better in applying the German educational terms Beschäftigungstrieb (the urge to be occupied), and Gestaltungstrieb (the urge to formulate, to build).

Compare also the usual art teaching with teaching in other fields, imagine the four ‘R's taught without direction, without systematic training; or language, history and music studies consisting only of self-expression without systematic and continuous exercises.

It is a psychological error to believe that art stems from feeling only. Art comes from the conscious as well as from the subconscious—from both heart and mind. If art is order, it is intellectual order as well as initiative or instinctive order. Unfortunately there are people, teachers and students, afraid of the training of the conscious in art, afraid of the understandable in art. For those I should like to say that clear thinking will not and cannot interfere with genuine feeling; but it does interfere with prejudices, so often misinterpreted as feelings—and that's all to the good. As in any other field of human endeavor, so it is worthwhile also in art to see and think clearly in teaching art, particularly basic design. I have tried to organize a method which provides a preparation for all visual art, a practical study of principles underlying and connecting all arts.

Before going into detail it might be interesting to see first how architecture for instance—and in a similar way also typography—have regained a significant and leading cultural position, more, probably, than any other branch of art today.

Since the Beaux-Arts system is abandoned, since retrospective analysis and copying of ancient achievements are no longer the beginning nor the dominating concern of architectural apprentices, since present needs and new as well as old possibilities of construction are the point of departure and the main content of study, a contemporary new architecture is growing again—performed in our own articulation, demonstrating our own mentality.

3. The courses

A. Basic Design has a similar direction, as just pointed out. Our start is not retrospection, nor the ambition to illustrate, to embellish, or to express something. We try to learn, i.e. to see, that every visible thing has form and that every form has meaning—and we learn this by producing form. Therefore our workshops are rather laboratories than ateliers, studies or lecture rooms.

We simply begin with material and try to shape it. We observe how it looks and what we can do with it. We do not think of making useful things right away. We do as music students do, namely we learn to get acquainted with the instruments, that is to get means and hands under control before we care about theory and history. We do exercise before making compositions we rehearse before performing.

In order to open the way for discovery and invention, which are the criteria of creativeness, I prefer materials little known or normally not used for visual formulation. We are using material in a way students have not thought of before. In order to avoid mere application of theory and technique, I prefer the inductive method—that is coming to conclusions after having made exercises, after having gained experience. We choose new problems and attack them in a new way not for the purpose of being new or different, nor for the sake of novelty-craze, but for the purpose of constant observation, and continued self-criticism. In this way we try to counteract habitual application, the strongest enemy of creativeness.

B. Basic Drawing. For practical art studies I consider freehand drawing the most comprehensive training. By drawing I mean a visual formulation achieved by strictly graphical means, that is mainly line. I therefore exclude consciously all techniques which are just in-between painting and drawing, as for instance charcoal drawing. Charcoal drawing, like any type of drawing, aims at the three-dimensional volume, but in addition at a quite superfluous painterly effect, achieved by indication of modeling and shading. I also do not believe in beginning with life-drawing from the nude, as in my opinion this presents one of the most difficult tasks. Instead, particularly in the beginning, we do a number of technical exercises in order to get eye and hand under control and to achieve distinct effects. Also right from the beginning, I make the students aware that we do not see with the eye only. Particularly in relationship to direction our motoric sense is more competent than the eye. We draw a lot in the air, also with closed eyes, and always above the paper before we touch the paper at all. This aims at seeing the shape of form before it appears on the paper. We say: just as thinking is before speaking, so seeing is before drawing. Here are some typical exercises: reversed, repeated and extended shapes (radial and lateral), reversed and distorted curves; a few typical letter constructions, seen forward and backward, downward and upward, then letters—both constructed and script—so that they appear as having volume, in various positions.

Our figure drawing we start with the draped figure. And for the studies of drapery, particularly the folding, we represent first broad paper ribbons mounted on the wall in a flag-like movement. Here we differentiate, first visually, then graphically, the actual line (that is the edge of the paper) from the illusionary transition line. After this we draw details from garments in their plastic movement; how a collar moves over the shoulder downward, how for instance the folding of the trousers is related to the knee, starting there or returning there. Only later, after more training (hats and shoes), will we study heads and hands. In further technical exercises we present three-dimensional illusion in two ways: by gradual increase and/or decrease of the intensities of lines as well as by gradual increase and/or decrease of distance between lines. From here we come organically, easily, to the drawing of plants, and twigs, and flowers. Also to sketches of groups of figures just as the drawing class presents them, saving hereby models.

As to sketching we make a special effort to avoid the commonly used ‘boxing-in' contours. This is to say that our main concern is to present three-dimensional effect with strictly two dimensional means.

C. Basic Color. My color course also presents a learning through experience instead of a learning through application of theory and rules. It is a laboratory study aiming at specific psychic effects. We almost never see in our mind what color physically is, because color is the most relative medium in art. This is the result of both the interdependence of, as well as the interaction between color and color, color and form, color and quantity, color and placement. After having recognized the physiological phenomenon of the after-image (simultaneous contrast), it is always a great excitement for the class to demonstrate that one and the same color with changing conditions can look unbelievably different. In a similar discrepancy between physical fact and psychic effect we make very different colors look alike, we make opaque colors look transparent, change the temperature within one color from warm to cold or vice versa, change dark to light and light to dark, make two colors look like three, or three colors like two, etc.

We produce illusionary mixtures as well as optical mixtures. We study the conditions of mixture through the Weber-Fechner law, which teaches us the interdependence between geometric (physical) and arithmetic (psychic) progression of mixtures. The more we see that color always deceives us, the more we feel able to use its action for visual formulation.

Like students of music our students are encouraged to cultivate a free play of their color fantasy in the so-called free studies, which alternate with the laboratory studies. Both laboratory studies and free studies are done almost exclusively with colored paper instead of paint, because paper, being a homogeneous material, permits us to return to precisely the same tint or shade again and again. It avoids all disturbing accidents like brush strokes and changing mixtures and applications. A brief study of color systems—of Goethe, Munsell, Ostwald—occurs at the end of the course (not as usual at the beginning), because—to say it again—the ability to see color and color relationship is more important than to ‘know about' color.

So in drawing and color we have been able to cover almost the whole range of problems. Whereas in basic design we could concentrate only on a few materials: paper, representing visually a two-dimensional material, and wire, representing a linear material.

4. Final Comments

I am impressed with the pioneer spirit manifested by students and teachers. I admire in particular the intensity with which the two originators of the project, Frau Inge Aicher-Scholl and her husband Otl Aicher, work for this new institute. I have the highest respect for their exceptional human qualities and base my hopes for the Hochschule für Gestaltung particularly on the great artistic abilities which Herr Aicher and Herr Bill, the Rector of the school, possess. Max Bill has been a consultant to the two former for several years, after the original idea of the Hochschule für Gestaltung was brought up.

It was a pleasure for me to work with the group of students at the Hochschule. They were twenty in number and came from six different countries. It was interesting and stimulating for both teacher and students to have people from such different backgrounds as Great Britain and Brazil among the group. It was amazing to see how in spite of the marked differences in background and temperament all pulled toward the same aim: the search for our visual language.

January 20, 1954. Published as “My Courses at the Hochschule für Gestaltung at Ulm,” in Form, April 15, 1967.

Please select an item from the list on the right.

1928 Werklicher Formunterricht (Teaching Form Through Practice)

1934 Concerning Art Instruction

1935 Art as Experience

1944 The Educational Value of Manual Work and Handicraft in Relationship to Architecture

1946 Art at BMC

1954 U.S. Specialist Report: Report on a Course in Basic Drawing, Design, and Color Given at the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Ulm