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Aesthetic of the devil

Technology: a central notion and fixed point of perspective in the work of Otl Aicher

Photo: Bayerische Staatsbibliothek München/Bildarchiv/Karsten de Riese

Aicher always protested against the idealisation and fetishisation of the technical. Yet his enthusiasm for the power of the machine and the dynamism of industrial production runs through his entire body of work.

Anybody who immerses themselves in Otl Aicher’s writings will soon realise that “technology” – as both a notion and a concept – is of key importance to the author. Enthusiasm for all things technical and a sure instinct for the function and use of things are evident from an early stage and remain a driving force and source of inspiration to the end. The essayistic nature of his work entails certain terminological fluctuations and inconstancies. Despite or because of that, a review is well worthwhile, even though any such undertaking can of course only be fragmentary in the given context.

The stark revelation of the technical

In view of his close ties to the Scholl family and the fact that he deserted in the last year of the war, there is no doubt as to Otl Aicher’s opposition to national socialism and militarism of any kind. But he too was a child of his times and could not entirely escape the strange attraction of “total” war conducted with all the technical means available – the kind of attraction that surfaces in recollections of the years 1914-18, as in the works of Ernst Jünger. Notes from immediately after 19451 suggest that he was probably familiar with Jünger’s major essay The Worker: Dominion and Form from 1932.

Aicher never denied these influences and occasionally described with unabashed openness how the uncompromising technical perfection of modern military equipment cast a spell on him and literally requisitioned all his senses. In innenseiten des kriegs (Inside the War), he frankly explains his fascination with “the stark revelation of the technical”. By way of example, he invokes the Kübelwagen (a light utility vehicle) and the jerrycan used by the Wehrmacht (“An object like that is only possible when an engineer is allowed to develop it,”)2, as well as metal spring locks and treaded soles made of synthetic rubber. “It was,” he writes, “the aesthetic of the devil, but it was gratifying to experience an aesthetic which, for once, did not seek to be an aesthetic and cared neither for decoration nor style.”3

Kübelwagen, light utility vehicle, 1940-45. © Florian Aicher

In an unpublished text written in the early postwar years (February 1948), he confesses that witnessing the technology of war is a stirring, thrilling experience – not just visually speaking but in an acoustic, tactile and olfactory sense as well: “I once drove up to the front in a tank. That was probably my greatest war experience of all. Because sometimes I could get totally drunk on sounds. The noise an engine like that makes inside a steel housing like that – it’s fantastic. The sound weighs tonnes, it quivers and stinks just like burnt schnapps.”4

Although in other writings (as shown below) Aicher spoke out against the idealisation and fetishisation of the technical, it seems as if a vestige of his original, elemental enthusiasm for the power of the machine and the dynamism of industrial production always remained as an emotional undercurrent in his thinking.

Design nominalism

Another defining factor that is likewise apparent in Aicher’s writings early on is the influence of Catholic theology, or at least of individual theological constructs. In a 1943 letter from the Russian front to Willi Habermann, a friend from youth movement days, Aicher urges him to opt “not for an abstract manner of speaking but for a concrete one that uses everyday imagery”. It is, he says, “one of the world’s most profound peculiarities that everything God wanted to bring into being through the creation only exists for us in concretion and in the first place because we see it with our eyes”. Aicher refers repeatedly to Thomas Aquinas and writes: “If there is one thing we should have learnt from Thomism, it is that our understanding starts with and stems from the senses.”5

His dislike of any form of abstraction and preference for the concrete are a common thread throughout Aicher’s work. Besides Thomas Aquinas, William of Ockham’s nominalism was another key reference. “Ockham put an end to the domination of ideas, of the general over the particular … things became a product of development and a category within their context. They were defined by the balance of their behaviour, and no longer by otherworldly spiritual realities.”6

In Aicher’s view, the contrast between nominalism and realism is the core of the conflict between the artistically oriented Bauhaus adherents, represented by Max Bill, and the new generation of pragmatists in the early years of the Ulm School of Design. The Bauhaus, he says – apart from exceptions like Hannes Meyer and Marcel Breuer – had committed itself entirely to the “geometric style”7, had pursued a kind of design Platonism and only accepted elementary geometry (triangle, circle square) and the primary colours as “elements of a new faith”. According to Aicher at the time, the crucial question was this: “Is design an applied art, i.e. does it manifest itself in the elements of square, triangle, and circle, or is it a discipline that derives its criteria from the task it is meant to perform, from usage, production, and technology?”8 Aicher’s favourite incarnations of the enemy, of the false, “idealistic” understanding of design that had to be defeated, were “Rietveld’s constructivist chairs”, which he described as “the equivalent of Mondrians for sitting on, unfit art objects that are actually supposed to be useful.”9

“For Aicher, technology was a source of inspiration for good design and more than just a means to an end.”

Whereas abstract design à la Rietveld was the product of geometric projections, a “glorification” and “worshipping” of certain universal forms10, the concrete and – in a manner of speaking – nominalist design that Aicher propagated was meant to develop out of an intense examination of state-of-the-art technical processes. Architecture too, he believed, “is always more exciting when it deploys the entire range of technical means … than when it just outwardly pretends to be technical architecture.” Technology, “if you tickle it, unlocks so much that I still expect it to help us build a humane future.”11

Red and Blue Chair – by Gerrit Rietveld. © Cassina

Aicher saw the approach of Charles Eames, the anti-Rietveld, so to speak, as a way for that to succeed in practice, for technology to contribute to the “concretisation” of design. The decisive factor for the groundbreaking functionality and aesthetic of Eames’ designs, he believed, was the fact that “during the war he worked in a factory that shaped plywood into shells for immobilising broken legs. It’s easy to shape plywood two-dimensionally to create gutter shapes. By making cleverly placed incisions, Eames managed to mould it three-dimensionally. He started thinking technologically.”12 By “combing the technology of his day for the best it had to offer”, Eames had demonstrated “how technology and industry can help break through to new design concepts.”13

Eames leg splint, plywood, 1942. Photo: Stefan Ibele

Making and using

For Aicher, then, technology was a key source of inspiration for good design and more than just a means to an end. From this perspective, the design process is only targeted and systematic up to a point. It is only possible to arrive at ideas that equal those of Eames in calibre if you have “the opportunity to rummage around in factories.”14 That is what it was all about: “rummaging around”, letting things sink in, immersing yourself in the technical development. Again and again, Aicher stresses the value of doing, of making, of using as an existential and productive experience. Using Ludwig Wittgenstein as an example, he tries to join the dots between the activity inherent in being human on the one hand and intellectual achievements on the other. In a moment of disarray and emotional crisis, the philosopher had joined his friend Erich Engelmann in designing a house for his sister Margarethe Stonborough in Vienna: between 1926 and 1928, the two of them built her a villa in a modern, objective style.15

Wittgenstein, who had studied engineering in Berlin and Manchester16, flourished in his new profession. The result of his tireless work was not just the truly remarkable Stonborough House, which is today known as the Wittgenstein House and is a popular Vienna attraction, but also – as Aicher puts it – a (linguistic) philosophy that centres on the “use” of words for the first time. It is, he says, hardly surprising that “the notion of ‘use’ is afforded the highest philosophical honours when you consider that Wittgenstein handled machines and gadgets all through his life, and there are numerous anecdotes about all the things he repaired and managed to get working again. Like the architecture of Loos, Wittgenstein’s philosophy relates to the reality of modern technology.”17

Aicher’s conviction that immersing oneself in technical processes can generate unexpected and surprising insights (whether it be in design, architecture or philosophy) was very much in line with the views of youth pastor and theologian Romano Guardini, who influenced an entire generation of young Catholics in the 20th century. The fact that he presided over the marriage of Inge Scholl and Otl Aicher in 1953 indicates just how close his personal connection with Aicher was.

Rather than putting the case for going “back to nature”, as was the norm in the youth movement of the time, Guardini criticised the romantic glorification of the premodern era and advocated a new approach to human existence – which, he believed, had to stem from an intense consideration of technology. “Our place is in what is becoming,” he writes in the 1920s. “We should align ourselves with it, each at his place. Not oppose the new and seek to preserve a beautiful world that must perish … It must be possible to follow the path of technology to an analogous goal, to let the technological forces unfold the full force of their dynamism, even if the old organic order disintegrates in the process. But at the same time, to create a new order, a new cosmos from a humanity that is a match for these forces.”18 Guardini’s model for the (among other things) theologically fruitful idea of everyone taking up their place in the development of technology is modern architecture with its “buildings in which the technical entity has been assimilated into real form.” This form is “not introduced from the outside, but originates from the same source as the technical entity itself.”19

Drawing: Wittgenstein House. © FSB

Humane functionalism

For all his enthusiasm for technology, Aicher – especially in his later years – was very much aware of the dangers associated with being overpowered by technology, by technology that knows no bounds and is desired for its own sake. And so, in 1986 – after the reactor explosion in Chernobyl – he announced his rejection of the peaceful use of nuclear energy in a whole-page ad entitled “They failed”. “They,” however, primarily referred to “human beings” rather than the technical machinery. And in an interview two years before his death he said: “Functionalism sees the relationship between humans and technology as a one-sided one, as the adaptation of humans to technology, as the one-way order of subject to object.” He countered functionalism, which he saw as geared towards the “technical fulfilment of a purpose”, with a humane functionalism that does not lose sight of the “human-centred evaluation of design and technology”.20

Technology as citation and symbol

Aicher saw the purely ornamental use of technology as a problem too. There is technical design, he believed, but also technoid design, which only creates the appearance of technical modernity but in actual fact amounts to nothing more than a symbolic game. Many glass roof structures, for instance, are “decorative and copy technical thinking.” Then, technology is nothing more than a citation – like the columns and arches of historicism.21 In his view, the tendency to use materials and methods from the 19th or early 20th centuries in order to give the products an industrial character likewise reveals a symbolic understanding of technology and seems “helpless”.22

His criticism of specific undesirable developments and false apologists did not grow into technophobia. Aicher did not have much of a taste for the “cult of the handmade”, because in some circumstances manual production can be “very inhumane”, quite apart from the fact that many of the objects and components (for instance in a ball bearing) that are today indispensable simply cannot be produced by hand in the necessary quality.23

Renouncing the notion of technology would hardly have been possible, if only because – as we have seen – it held Aicher’s not always consistent views together like a linchpin over the years, thereby producing constant interaction and friction. As an idea and concept, “technology” dominated Aicher’s thinking and could take on different meanings and nuances, ranging all the way to the sheer fascination of the feasible. It was, then, a living notion which – as Aicher demanded from good design – only demonstrated its potential in use, in application.

Daniel Damler is a lecturer (Privatdozent) at the Faculty of Law, University of Tübingen and an affiliate researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Legal History and Legal Theory in Frankfurt am Main. His publications include Rechtsästhetik: Sinnliche Analogien im juristischen Denken (2008), Der Staat der Klassischen Moderne (2012), Bauhaus Laws: The Modernist Revolution and Modern Thought (2019) and Gotham City: Architekturen des Ausnahmezustands (2022).

Notes

  1. I am indebted to Mr Florian Aicher for this and other important insights.
  2. Otl Aicher, innenseiten des kriegs, Frankfurt am Main 1998, p. 134
  3. Otl Aicher, innenseiten des kriegs, Frankfurt am Main 1998, p. 135
  4. Otl Aicher, beethoven wird von einem lastauto weggefahren…, p. 2 (dated 27.02.1948 – unpublished).
  5. Letter to “Grogo” (i.e. Willi Habermann), Russia, spring/summer 1943, p. 2 (unpublished).
  6. Otl Aicher, ‘universalien und versalien’, in: id., analog und digital, 2nd ed., Berlin 2015, pp. 55-59, here p. 55.
  7. Otl Aicher, ‘bauhaus und ulm’, in: id., die welt als entwurf, 2nd ed., Berlin 2015, pp. 86-94, 91.
  8. Otl Aicher, ‘bauhaus und ulm’, in: id., die welt als entwurf, 2nd ed., Berlin 2015, pp. 86-94, 90.
  9. Otl Aicher, ‘bauhaus und ulm’, in: id., die welt als entwurf, 2nd ed., Berlin 2015, pp. 86-94, 88; id., ‘charles eames’, in: id., die welt als entwurf, 2nd ed., Berlin 2015, pp. 62-65, 64.
  10. Otl Aicher in: Eine andere Moderne. Otl Aicher im Gespräch mit Nikolaus Kuhnert, ARCH+ (March 1989), pp. 22-26, 24.
  11. Otl Aicher in: Eine andere Moderne. Otl Aicher im Gespräch mit Nikolaus Kuhnert, ARCH+ (March 1989), pp. 22-26, 24.
  12. Otl Aicher, ‘charles eames’, in: id., die welt als entwurf, 2nd ed., Berlin 2015, pp. 62-65, 64; id., in: Eine andere Moderne. Otl Aicher im Gespräch mit Nikolaus Kuhnert, ARCH+ (March 1989), pp. 22-26, 24.
  13. Otl Aicher, ‘charles eames’, in: id., die welt als entwurf, 2nd ed., Berlin 2015, pp. 62-65, 65.
  14. Otl Aicher, ‘charles eames’, in: id., die welt als entwurf, 2nd ed., Berlin 2015, pp. 62-65, 64.
  15. Otl Aicher, ‘der gebrauch als philosophie’, in: id., analog und digital, 2nd ed., Berlin 2015, pp. 110-133, 111 f.
  16. Otl Aicher, ‘der gebrauch als philosophie’, in: id., analog und digital, 2nd ed., Berlin 2015, pp. 110-133, 115.
  17. Otl Aicher, ‘der gebrauch als philosophie’, in: id., analog und digital, 2nd ed., Berlin 2015, pp. 110-133, 124.
  18. Romano Guardini, Die Technik und der Mensch, Mainz 1981 (1927), p. 73, 77.
  19. Romano Guardini, Die Technik und der Mensch, Mainz 1981 (1927), p. 82.
  20. Otl Aicher, in: Eine andere Moderne. Otl Aicher im Gespräch mit Nikolaus Kuhnert, ARCH+ (March 1989), pp. 22-26, 24.
  21. Otl Aicher, hans gugelot, in: id., die welt als entwurf, 2nd ed., Berlin 2015, pp.66-77, 72.
  22. Otl Aicher, in: Eine andere Moderne. Otl Aicher im Gespräch mit Nikolaus Kuhnert, ARCH+ (March 1989), pp. 22-26, 24.
  23. otl aicher, hans gugelot, in: id., die welt als entwurf, 2nd ed., Berlin 2015, pp.66-77, 73.