Space for new ideas: „The „Sanaa-cubus" in Essen will be the place for postgraduate studies in the faculty design of the Folkwang University of art. Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
Inside the cube can be fun
by Thomas Wagner
Sep 20, 2013
“There are also, probably in every culture, in every civilization, real places – places that do exist and that are formed in the very founding of society – which are something like counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted. Places of this kind are outside of all places, even though it may be possible to indicate their location in reality. Because these places are absolutely different from all the sites that they reflect and speak about, I shall call them, by way of contrast to utopias, heterotopias.”
Michel Foucault

You read in large letters in black on yellow shuttering boards: “Heterotopia – Summer Workshop 2013”. You’re in Essen, in the so-called “Sanaa Cube” on the grounds of the former Zollverein mine. For many years, the extravagant building in fair-faced concrete with its slick windows spread out across the facade was only used on a temporary basis. Japanese architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of “Sanaa” originally planned the cube for the highly ambitious private “Zollverein School of Management and Design”, which then bellied up. After some to-and-fro, the building, which opened in 2006, now belongs to the “Folkwang Universität der Künste”, which will henceforth use two floors for its Design Department’s newly established Master’s program. For winter semester 2013, designer Ruedi Baur is coming on board as visiting professor; he will set up and act as director of this “Institut für Interdisziplinäre Studien und Projekte”, as the provisional name has it, in the Cube.

How to design a college?

The goal of the communal summer campaign with the programmatic title of “Heterotopia” was, or so Ruedi Baur reports, “not only to think the whole thing through, but to do it.” And that’s exactly what happened: For two whole weeks, the people in the Sanaa Cube thought of things, made things, tried them out, reconsidered them, planned and built, created visions, prototypes and useful installations for the “Graduate Program in Design/Heterotopia”– and pretty much round the clock, too. With the hearts and minds of several professors and about 40 students constantly revolving around one question: How to design a college and the work in it? What interior was required for the Sanaa building if it was to be used as a place of study. Or to be more precise: What interior fittings it requires and tolerates.

Because just as the open spaces that in part cover an entire storey are fascinating, so, too the challenge to outfit them is immense if this is not to impair the sheer sense of space and the charm of simplicity that they exude. However academic the concept of “heterotopia” may initially sound, it certainly fits the Cube well – in the ensemble of buildings on the Zollverein grounds it actually constitutes something like an abutment that reflects the surrounding Modernist architecture, rejects it, and comments on it.

Concerted campaign

The workshop also involved associated institutions and designers in order to be able from the outset to tackle the complex issue of how to find an open, contemporary design for teaching and the requisite rooms from not one, but several perspectives. Alongside faculty from Folkwang University, Axel Kufus and Jörg Höltje from Berlin’s University of Arts, Axel Müller-Schöll, Klaus Michel and Ilja Oelschlägel from “Burg Giebichenstein Kunsthochschule Halle”, as well as Uwe Fischer and Caroline Perret from “Stuttgart State Academy of Art and Design” voiced ideas. The agenda therefore centered on diversity and discursive openness, enabling different approaches to be discussed and prototypical solutions for a café, a plenary venue and variable workstations to be developed.

It would fall short to talk of furnishings

The word “furnishings” almost sounds too static to even halfway describe what has actually been developed in the way of flexible furniture. The proposals are far more extensive. The very idea of using shuttering panels as the material is astonishingly simple – and, moreover, the interior thus responds like an echo to the fair-faced concrete of the architecture. Essentially, the shuttering used to make the building has been turned into the interior furnishings. Then there’s the color highlights created by the bright and sunny yellow “doka” shuttering from which the various tables, presentation systems, room dividers and much more besides have been built – animating the building’s cool simplicity. Moreover, the fact that the furnishings thus seem somewhat improvised is actually to the good of the overall mood: the perfect and imperfect, the processual and the complete are balanced in harmony.

The simple that spawns the complex

The fittings and furniture likewise fit even the metaphor of an open, dialogical form of teaching that seeks to create and use free scope; after all, shuttering panels are simple, standardized panels from which something complex and completely different can arise as can occur when many interact designing. One example of the fact that what is involved is not simply furniture, but a permanent process on various levels can be seen from the long table that now dominates the entrance area. Where previously individual tables and chairs emphasized separation, people now sit together at one long table, without everyone always having to sit together. The same is true of the variable “display” system: On the one hand it fills even the emptiness of the space, and, on the other, embraces and emphasizes an internal space that first and foremost needs to be filled with life.

Platforms and places for withdrawal, bar tables and projection frames, all the items noticeably serve an alternation between closeness and distance. Whether the item is a mobile booth that can be wheeled outside for a chat, or combined to create large debating units, or likewise mobile canopies along with integrated seats that visually and acoustically screen a discussion at a large table, or reading and teaching areas that are given a tranquil feel by transparent, foil-covered room dividers: The furniture always enables public or more private zones to be created as required. Irrespective of what function the respective prototypes fulfill, they comment on the building and contrast with it, too.

Make and test

Essentially, or so Axel Kufus reports, the approach was similar to that used in rapid prototyping. And the results are now being tested. Indeed, the overall impression is that in the future everything here will be clarified in dialog and ignoring conventional hierarchies. Certainly the way people can talk and confer is structured by the “Agora” – which is consciously considered an “Antagonia”, a place for vibrant debate, visualizing the college’s center of thinking. It likewise responds visually and metaphorically to the college’s concept: a luminaire is positioned in the middle, functioning like a camp fire around which people sit. Should the debate get very heated, then the hotheads can simply be placed under a calming cloud of cloth. Whether that actually works in everyday life and teaching remains to be seen.

The results of the two weeks of “Heterotopia” not only tell of the joy of beginning things dreamed up with great zest. They also show what arises if thinking is linked up to practices that make it possible to re-embody the ideas. It’s hard to imagine a more joyful and liberating way of imparting what “design in context” can mean: Working together to do something that makes something. Creating opportunities that open up new opportunities. Learning what it means to found a school of thought.


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How do you design the interior for the new institute? A summer-workshop under the title „Heterotopia“ has given the answers. Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
To hold the airy breadth of the rooms and the charming simplicity... Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
...they voted for a simple system. Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
Office furniture, made out of plywood, Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
Platforms, tables, frames can be used with flexibility. Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
Kurt Mehnert from the Folkwang University and Axel Müller-Schöll from the University for Art and Design Burg Giebichstein. Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
Also an optical partition: the furniture made out of „Doka“-plywood. Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
“Not only to think the whole thing through, but to do it.” Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
That the furniture seems to be impromptu, matches with the atmosphere. Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
Ruedi Baur (in the middle) in the „Agora“, center of the insitute and place for debates. Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
Re-fulfilled with life: the „Sanaa-cubus" in Essen. Photo © Folkwang University