The Design Academy Saaleck understands design as a forward-looking and cross-border practice. It thus marks a new beginning for the former Saaleck workshops, where notorious Nazi celebrities once frequented at the invitation of German architect Paul Schultze-Naumburg. Once a year, young creative people from all over the world come to the small town in Saxony-Anhalt as scholarship holders – and in future also doctoral students from the Harvard Graduate School of Design.
By Karianne Fogelberg
The start of renovation has been delayed by the Corona pandemic and increased construction costs, but it will be ready by the end of 2023. The former Saaleck workshops, which the German architect Paul Schultze-Naumburg made into a platform for their hateful ideology as a racial ideologue and convinced National Socialist, will be comprehensively renovated according to a master plan by the Danish architect Dorte Mandrup and expanded through careful structural interventions. Here, a two-and-a-half hour train ride from Berlin, near Naumburg in Sachsen-Anhalt, a learning and documentation centre on the history of the complex and its builder is being created with a special focus on the topics of anti-semitism and racism. According to Arne Cornelius Wasmuth, director of dieDAS – Design Academy Saaleck, the Neue Saalecker Werkstätten will “transform the listed complex with its complicated past into a place for the present and the future”. The ensemble was acquired in 2018 through the support of patron Egidio Marzona, and shortly thereafterDAS was founded, which is part of the non-profit Marzona Foundation Neue Saalecker Werkstätten and is funded by the state of Saxony-Anhalt and the German Federal Ministry of Culture.
Small Academy with a Big Purpose
While the Foundation is dedicated to the difficult historical legacy of the site, the dieDAS has launched an international fellowship programme curated by changing artistic directors that addresses key design issues of the future. The inspiration for this was provided by the Villa Massimo in Rome and the American Academy in Berlin, among others. Once a year, emerging young creatives from the fields of design, arts and crafts and architecture are invited to contribute with their ideas and perspectives to the vision of “an open society with unrestricted freedom of design”, as it says on the website. “They explore the questions that concern us all,” Wasmuth explains. “How do we want to live, what will our built environment look like, who will it be created for, what materials will we use? Complex questions that are also related to the history of the place. But our artistic directors and research fellows come up with completely different answers.”
In this way, the dieDAS brings to light a dark chapter in German design history and subjects it to critical scrutiny. Paul Schultze-Naumburg was an influential cultural voice in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He was one of the co-founders of the Deutscher Werkbund and a supporter of the reform movement. From 1904 onwards, he created the Saalecker Werkstätten, a place that later made a name for itself as a folk-traditionalist counter-design to the Werkbund and Bauhaus: here, an anti-modernist conception of design was combined with racist ideas to form a platform for National Socialist ideology.
Uncomfortable Monument in Focus
After the first dieDAS programme under artistic director Maurizio Montalti was dedicated to biomaterials, his successor, the US architect Germane Barnes, addresses the burden of the listed building with its complicated past. The programme he curated, “Monumental Affairs – Living with Controversial Places”, asks how architecture is canonised, who holds the interpretive sovereignty, how design and the built environment perpetuate existing hierarchies to this day, marginalising the experiences and memories of minorities.
During two weeks in August, the four scholarship holders worked in exchange with Germane Barnes and invited mentors from disciplines, some of which were not related to design, and developed site-specific works that they showed in the historical rooms at the beginning of September in the context of this year’s “dieDAS Walk + Talk Summits” funded by the Federal Cultural Foundation. The Italian architect Silvia Susanna, for example, explores the view of current restoration efforts and the associated patterns of thought and action with her work Diffractive Windows. She uses tape markings on the walls and floor to draw attention to individual materials, details and structural changes, thus opening up insights into the eventful history of the rooms, which were used as a retirement home in GDR times and are now listed as historical monuments. She interweaves the materials marked by restorers with historical events and narratives and asks what criteria are used to validate cultural heritage. To what extent, for example, are the original wooden floorboards or decorative mouldings more worthy of protection than subsequently installed linoleum or television cables?
British-Nigerian architect Antoinette Yetunde Oni has designed a series of objects inspired by the materials and manufacturing techniques of the Saale’s cultural landscape. These include a large bowl that she wrested from the wood of a disease-ridden oak, ebonised and charred, as well as spheres formed from clay and brushes made from animal hair, created with the knowledge of a Naumburg brush-maker. These objects, which emerged from an experimental-ritual manufacturing process, are intended to purify the poisoned ground on which the Saalecker Werkstätten were built, in imitation of the sacred objects of African cultures. Other, no less interesting works come from the designer and artist Yasmine Ben Abdallah, who has created a temporary spatial installation in the former architect’s house that refers to the transience of the building and, beyond that, of all monuments. With his large-scale charcoal drawing executed on the floorboards, architect Adam Maserow recalls the stigmatisation of individual works of art under the Nazis by using the scribble technique as a form of expression used in art therapy.
What this year’s Fellows have in common is that their works and interventions are not limited to the methods of design and architecture, but include the expanded expressive possibilities of the visual arts. It seems as if they consciously transcend those disciplines that Schultze-Naumburg instrumentalised to create a world that corresponded to his racist sentiments and rededicate themselves to a design practice that is not aligned with canons, interpretive sovereignty and boundary-drawing practices.
From Harvard to Saaleck
The list of participants at this year’s Walk + Talk Summit shows that just four years after its founding, dieDAS has already developed international appeal and its programme is not only perceived as a valuable contribution to the discourse in design and architecture, but also in other disciplines such as historic preservation, international law or the social sciences. In addition to dieDAS Board of Trustees members Sarah Whiting from the Harvard Graduate School of Design and Christian Benimana from the non-profit organisation MASS Design Group from Kigali, Rwanda, Tulga Beyerle from MKG Hamburg, Matthias Quent from the Institute for Democracy and Civil Society in Magdeburg and human rights activist Kimberly Morteau Emerson were among those who attended. This development is to be continued in the future.
Balancing on the cliff high above the Saale is the so-called Architect’s House – this building could only recently be integrated back into the overall complex by the foundation. Here, the Harvard Graduate School of Design is planning to set up a research college for its doctoral students. During their future four-month stay, which will become a reality once the renovation is completed, they will be able to serve as mentors for the scholarship holders and, together with them, “develop visions that inspire and transform society”, as designer Maurizio Montalti puts it.
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