Between the Bauhaus and Bell Labs

Santa Fe Institute
3 min readAug 23, 2023

A BEYOND BORDERS column by David Krakauer, President of the Santa Fe Institute.

Specimens of Fancy Turning (1869)/ Public Domain Review

The employees of Bell Telephone Laboratories described the company as an “institute for creative technology.” According to Jon Gertner, the historian of Bell Labs, “This description aimed to inform the world that the line between the art and science of what Bell scientists did wasn’t always distinct.”

In one of several Bauhaus manifestos written by Walter Gropius in the
nineteen-teens, Gropius described the aim of the new school as bringing craftsmen and artists together to create “the building of the future.”

There is a charming correspondence between the idea of a Bauhaus “building” and a Bell Labs “technology”: they both encompass more or less everything. For Bell Labs, communication and the transistor provided unifying technologies around which to build new systems of telephony, computers, psychology departments, language processors, and music and art software. At the Bauhaus, architecture provided a focus for the creation of typography, sculpture, furniture, art, cutlery, and books.

A slightly closer analysis of the history of these two institutions reveals a few basic ingredients of culture that provide clues to the scope of their influence. First and foremost, a focus on rigorous capability and creative freedom in community, and secondly, a healthy disregard for boundaries and benchmarks of disciplinary performance. Speaking about Claude Shannon, Gertner writes, “When confronted with ordinary number problems — 18 × 27, for instance — Shannon would work them out not in his head but on a blackboard. He wasn’t much for details; sometimes he would solve problems in a way that showed surprising intuition but a mathematical approach that some colleagues found unsatisfactory or lacking in rigor. Above all, he almost seemed more interested in doing work with his hands than with his mind.”

The focus on thinking with all of one’s sense and sensibility was a dominant feature of the Bauhaus, where according to the art historian Magdalena Droste, “[t]hanks to their basic training on the hand loom, however, students were equally capable of running small, artistic crafts workshops” and “A profession was thus created within the textile industry which had rarely been found before — designer.”

Between the engineering design of Bell Labs and the artistic design
community of the Bauhaus, I like to position the Santa Fe Institute. Complex systems are that special part of the universe “designed” by natural selection and self-organizing dynamics or by human collectives: organisms, ecosystems, markets, computers, and cities. And all organizations dedicated to understanding design in this larger, distributed sense have no choice but to accommodate very different styles of thought.

When Dieter Rams first presented his Ten Principles of Good Design in the so-called Tokyo Manifesto from the late 1970s, he included: innovative, useful, aesthetic, understandable, unobtrusive, honest, durable, environmental, and minimal. Many of these characteristics are the hallmarks of good theories and models. One might debate the general accessibility of understanding when it comes to mathematical theory, and yet understanding is the ultimate goal of all good theory, and not prediction, which is a truth litmus-test and closer to the domain of statistics.

By placing SFI between The Bauhaus and Bell Labs, I feel that our community of scientists, mathematicians, and artists comes into sharper focus. Our project is a radical one, which seeks to explore the frontiers of complex reality — the garden of machines, as it were — and emphasizes the precarious balance between individual iconoclasm, communitarian vision, and creative production. Let me leave the final expression of this notion to our friend and colleague Cormac McCarthy.

“The world you live in is shored up by a collective of agreements. Is that something you think about? The hope is that the truth of the world somehow lies in the common experience of it. Of course the history of science and mathematics and even philosophy is a good bit at odds with this notion. Innovation and discovery by definition war against the common understanding. One should be wary.” (Stella Maris, 2023)

— David Krakauer
President, Santa Fe Institute

From the Summer 2023 edition of the SFI Parallax newsletter. Subscribe here for the monthly email version, or email “news at santafe.edu” to request quarterly home delivery in print.

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Santa Fe Institute

The Santa Fe Institute is an independent research center exploring the frontiers of complex systems science.