Well made and pleasant
by Thomas Edelmann
Jun 23, 2014
As part of the “Berlin Design Week” then was recently a one-day conference on “elegance” that could well trigger new impulses not only in design. Such an event could all too easily have disintegrated into a round of irked aesthetes who simply bore one another out in saying how much decay and how little elegance there is in today’s world. Jammering in general and specifically in Berlin? No, the organizers had something very different in mind. And the result was a successful, focused, diverse and inspiring presentation that will no doubt soon have an impact elsewhere given the 150 participants it attracted. “Elegance is seductive. Can we trust it? Beauty has something static about it, elegance is in flux. Which is why it eludes one so easily,” commented Hannes Böhringer in his intelligent introduction.
Gliding through space
A video at the beginning makes it clear what the talk here is about: with at time quite acrobatic achievements, the “Urban Idiots” move through the urban space, Freerunners, who playfully and easily overcome all manner of anti-urban obstacles, solely with the power of their own muscles and in direct contact with roofs, building-site pits, barriers and walls. In the background behind their decidedly not linear movements, we can discern typical Berlin locations: the pedestrian bridge at the Bauhaus Archive or the huge load-bearing structures of post-1989 buildings at Alexanderplatz. They serve as the terrain for breath-taking somersaults and unconventional movements across spaces such as inner courtyards in prefab tenement blocks in Mitte district or the underground station at Potsdamer Platz. “We enviously follow the elegance,” Hannes Böhringer explained in his intro, “and it seems to be an exception, as usually we act clumsily and circuitously.” The philosopher drew a line from Cicero’s treatise on the complete orator (“elegance is that which requires no additional ornamentation, because it suffices in itself, is well made and pleasant.”) to the “indispensable symbolism of appropriateness”. In a mass society unsure or robbed of its certainties, elegance is poorly suited to deliver distinction, he asserted. Mass society instead promotes “eccentric, extravagant, not elegant behavior.” The curator also focused on the not solely linguistic linkages of elegance and leisure. For Cicero, the essence of elegance is characterized by care (diligentia) and leisure (neglegentia). Böhringer thus concluded that there are certain similarities here to design: “Elegance is therefore the complex intrinsically self-contradictory movement of an indifferently proceeding and yet circumspectly selective for of attention, one that is both scattered and focused.”
The introduction also touched on “elegant solutions” such as are customary in the science and technology. Later it was exhaustively presented taking the example of digital research projects in building construction and “elegant formula” in mathematics. The highpoint of the conference was initially the discussion of “diplomacy as the elegant solution in difficult dealings between peoples”. Thomas Bagger, diplomat and head of the planning section at the German Foreign Office, talked about clichés on diplomacy (e.g., the notion that diplomatic life is always smooth.) He highlighted the importance of diplomatic protocol as an uncontroversial minimum standard of mutual esteem, as an elegant form for the content of talks. And he also showed that diplomacy, even of the very pragmatic kind, nevertheless requires theoretical foundations: He gave an overview of more recent theories of international relations and the arduous path to juridification of power and interests. He explained in very practical terms taking the example of the “Czech-German Declaration on Mutual Relations and Their Future Development” resolved in 1997, and he participated in authoring it, how “constructive ambivalence” enables diplomacy to avoid negating irreconcilable positions and instead places them on a new footing in which they forfeit their potential to cause political explosions. It is a completely different perspective to that taken at present on issues of the EU or Germany’s relations with Ukraine and Russia as championed by the wanton simplifiers, for whom negotiations, compromises and agreements seem to be “horse-trading” or even conspiracies.
From international relations to the relationship between the elements of building construction: Civil engineer Jan Knippers, Director of the Institute for Load-Bearing Structures and Construction Design at the University of Stuttgart, explained what significance the transition from analog to digital design will have for future edifices. While to date, building components have been optimized with a view to a particular function and then inserted into the building, digital design processes mean that hitherto irreconcilable properties such as fixed or mobile can be united in one and the same structure. In this way, complex structures can be created that emulate nature, and are as stable as they are mobile. Researchers have for some years been impressed by the deep-sea sponge “Euplectella asperillum”; its structure consists of indestructible fibers that meet the highest of stability standards. Knippers joined up with biologists and textile engineers to develop a joint-free flipping mechanism modeled on the bird-of-paradise flower that can be used to create shade on facades. The malleable structure is based precisely on the idea of material failure, buckling, which engineers otherwise seek to avoid at all costs. Far more abstract were the “elegant solutions” outlined by Russian mathematician Olga Holtz. She teaches at the TU Berlin and the University of Berkeley, California, and recapitulated the key interests and insights of Newton, Euler and Gauss, pinpointing in the process the changeable relationship between abstract and applied mathematics. For non-mathematicians, of especial interest was her account of the dispute between the formalists and the constructivists. While David Hilbert (1862 - 1943) sought to eliminate all contradiction and claimed that all mathematical axioms must be either right or wrong, Kurt Gödel (1906 - 1978) proved that even in non-contradictory axioms there are statements that can neither be proved nor disproved on the basis of it.
Clothes to defy poverty
Applied mathematics was something presented by Daniel Mammert, who researches cognition and sports games at the German Sport University Cologne. He demonstrated current ways of digitally evaluating football games. His lectured was spiced with impressive examples on film, of Lionel Messi dribbling artistically or a goalkeeper with dreadlocks, who stopped the ball in the air before it passed the goal line – using his feet; his point was to present contradictory aspects of elegant play characterized by elements of surprise, speed, tactical finesse, and the willingness to adopt new solutions.
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“We enviously follow the elegance”: Conference-curator Axel Kufus (UdK Berlin) with speaker Olga Holtz (TU Berlin), Melinda Crane and Thomas Bagger (German Foreign Office) and a guest from the audience. Photo © Jan Stoerkel
The conference was held at Königliche Porzellan-Manufakturin Berlin. Photo © Jan Stoerkel
Curator and philosopher Hannes Böhringer introduced the conference – and quoted Cicero. Photo © Jan Stoerkel
Jan Knippers (Institute for Load-Bearing Structures and Construction Design at the University of Stuttgart) explained the transition from analog to digital design. Photo © Jan Stoerkel
Knippers developed a joint-free flipping mechanism modeled on the bird-of-paradise flower that can be used to create shade on facades. Photo © Jan Knippers
Charles Didier Gondola (Indiana University, Indianapolis/USA) described the “Sapeurs” in Brazzaville in Congo, whose colorfully select refined European clothes contrast sharply with the poverty. Photo © Charles Didier Gondola
For Cicero, the essence of elegance is characterized by care (diligentia) and leisure (neglegentia): objects by KPM.
Photo © Jan Stoerkel
Elegant setting: the Königliche Porzellan-Manufaktur, saved in 2006 from insolvency by private bankers Jörg Woltmann. Photo © Jan Stoerkel