Exterior view of the HfG Ulm building from the south-west
© Stiftung Hochschule für Gestaltung HfG Ulm / Photo: Martin Rudau

Mirror of pedagogy

»Due to the great shortage of space and housing, no suitable building can be found for the Geschwister-Scholl-Hochschule. It has to construct the most necessary buildings from scratch and at the same time has the opportunity to design according to pedagogical principles«

Draft for an advertising brochure, Geschwister-Scholl-Hochschule, 30 September 1950 (HfG Archive Ulm)

The building complex of the Hochschule für Gestaltung on the Oberer Kuhberg in Ulm, which existed from 1953 to 1968, is one of the most important architectural manifestations in the young Federal Republic of Germany and is an exposed example of »concrete architecture«. Designed by the Swiss architect, artist and designer Max Bill, who was a Bauhaus student and later the founding rector of the HfG, it is also his main architectural work. Since 1979, the entire complex has been designated as a cultural monument of special significance.

Inaugurated on 1 and 2 October 1955, the realisation of the project was preceded by a lengthy planning phase that began in 1950. A multi-part building complex consisting of five wings was realised, nestled into the slope. To appreciate the school's building, you have to walk round it. This is because there is neither a main view nor a hierarchical organisation of the individual parts.

Strict grid

The façades are based on a surface grid measuring three by six metres, which is continued three-dimensionally in the inner structure as a spatial grid (»spatial cell«). These cells, joined together in a serial sequence, create orthogonal wings of high functionality and flexibility.

The architecture is austere, but not monotonous. In keeping with the principles of »concrete art«, diversity and complexity are created through the variation of a few basic elements. One theme that can be clearly observed in the example of the HfG is the possibilities of infilling the façade grid: through window surfaces, through wall surfaces, through window-wall surfaces or not at all, which means empty spaces.

In several places, Bill also deviates from the strict right angle in the building floor plan. This is most clearly emphasised and legible in the central connecting hall (»Säge« = saw), where deliberate, exciting intersections are created.

Lamps in the HfG, 1957
Lamps in the HfG, 1957
Photographer: Wolfgang Siol, © HfG Archive / Museum Ulm, inventory number: HfG-Archiv 56/0239

Making a virtue out of necessity

Bill was not completely free in his choice of materials; rather, due to the tight budget, he had to be guided by the indispensable material donations from the industry. As an alternative to the in-situ concrete skeleton construction, which fitted very well into the concept due to the modernity of concrete as a material, an iron skeleton version was also considered at times.

Bill originally intended to leave the wooden frames of the windows untreated so that they would darken to match the grey of the concrete and thus enhance the uniformity of the façades. He did not see the need to save money as a handicap when he commented: »We are building the school with a minimum of effort. We can only realise what we need if we leave out everything superfluous and limit ourselves to the bare essentials.«

Construction site of the lecturers' residences (2nd row), 1961
Photographer: Wolfgang Siol, © HfG-Archiv / Museum Ulm, inventory number: HfG-Archiv 61/0330

Relationship to the landscape

The complex, which is located outside the built-up city, makes strong reference to the surrounding landscape, whether through its adaptation to the topography of the terrain or through free transitions between »inside« and »outside« in some areas. The changing interplay of light and shadow that can be seen on the interior walls enhances the vibrancy of the spatial impression in a very sensual way.

»Light-filled rooms, the terracing of the cubes and cuboids and their undogmatic swaying down the slope radiate Swiss solidity and pragmatism,« writes architectural historian Wolfgang Pehnt in his standard work»German Architecture since 1900«.

Constitutive of the aesthetics of the HfG's architecture - intertwined with the postulate of material honesty - is the consistent reduction not only of forms, but also of materials. The main materials used were exposed concrete, natural wood and washed brick. Coloured asphalt slabs and – in central circulation areas – terrazzo were laid as flooring.

The concrete-grey structural elements, which create the rhythm and structure of the façades and rooms, are clearly legible. The wooden composite windows sit flush against the outer skin, the roofs are completely flat.

Programme becomes building

The discipline resulted in a purism of construction that was accompanied by a complete renunciation of representative and pathos-laden forms. The complex has an unmistakable workshop character, clearly defying the building conventions of the time; it neither emphasised the status of a university nor was it elegant, glassy, floating and light. Once again, the material limitations do not provide a sufficient explanation for this, but rather this was the programme.

The determining factor here was the search for a contemporary building aesthetic that discards everything metaphorical, traditional and nostalgic, that overcomes traditional building conventions and replaces all of this with the ideals of high utility value and unconditional practicality.

Comparable to the Bauhaus building in Dessau, the HfG building is also to be understood as an architectural manifesto, in which the programmatic foundation of the school materialised.

This reflects a development that the design theorist Gert Selle describes as a »thrust of structural design of everyday industrial life« based on the impact of the HfG. In contrast to the aesthetic excesses of goods and the artificial wear and tear of these goods through rapidly changing stylistic fashions, Ulm functionalism was, on the one hand, an indicator of the level of rationalisation of industrial-technical culture and, on the other, an early and clear commitment to the »principle of responsibility«.

HfG Ulm architecture
Furnishing the Ames Room in the Institute for Optical Perception, 1959
Photographer: Wolfgang Siol, © HfG Archive / Museum Ulm, inventory number: HfG-Archiv 59/0013
HfG Ulm architecture
Students and Tomás Maldonado in Herbert Mäser's typography workshop, 1962
Photographer: Wolfgang Siol, © HfG Archive / Museum Ulm, inventory number: HfG-Archiv 62/0375

The sparseness of a monastery

While contemporary reviews of the HfG buildings were certainly in favour of the »contradiction to the megalomaniacal and ostentatious style of the 20th century«, many critics still found it difficult to acknowledge the decisiveness of the underlying idea. The image of the »monastery« was repeatedly used in reviews with a mildly ironic undertone. The sparseness made many contemporaries helpless in that time of awakening, which was gradually leaving the destruction of war behind and thirsting for new acceptance and new signs of a resurgent prosperity.

As an institution, the HfG was a solitaire. Nowhere else in theory and practice in the young Federal Republic of Germany was the question of the unity of functionality and beauty raised more intensively in order to derive a contemporary social concept of design.