Between 1970 and 1973, Chile experimented with the Stafford Beer’s Viable System Model (VSM) of what is known as second- order cybernetics, what one of its principle theorists Heinz von Foerster called the cybernetics of observing systems, as distinct from first-order cybernetics, which is involved in the study of observed systems. The interdisciplinary approach of VSM places emphasis on management and control systems from a biological and technological perspective, taking into consideration each of the components of the system as capable of making and executing decisions. It does not depend solely on a centralized unidirectional approach. The interactive design set in place for this project, carried out within the Chilean economic development agency of the Allende period known as the Corporation for the Promotion of Production (Corporación de Fomento a la Producción, CORFO), was strategic, and was chiefly the work of Gui Bonsiepe, a designer from the faculty of the Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm (HfG) who had relocated to Chile as a design consultant.
The basis of a VSM can be identified as possessing three elements: a decision-making space, the larger environment, and the technology that acts as the intermediary between the first two elements, but does not constitute the objective.
A VSM also possesses the intrinsic need to perform retrospective analysis to project future strategies. This approach has an analogical antecedent in the study of what was termed “Integral Architecture” in Chile, which became part of the new curriculum of study within the Faculty Architecture at the University of Chile in the 1940s. It too is thought of as possessing a number of variables defining its basis: the human being, nature and material. The work of Tibor Weiner, a former student and collaborator of Hannes Meyer at the Bauhaus Dessau, and in the USSR of the early 1930s, was very important for the development of this curriculum, and with subjects like “Bio Architecture,” it helped consolidate a trend Chilean architects followed during the ensuing decades: the city designed as living organism.
The Chilean encounter with second-order cybernetics in the early 1970s was an essential part of the modernization project the state had been promoting since the 1920s, a project which also encompasses the 1945 reform of the architecture school. But if one reviews the history of this project with greater care, one can identify a third factor – the reform of the new art school of 1928, which was the product of a social movement that began after the First World War, and that in 1928 was able to implement in the main school of art of the country, a “first year of trial” similar to the methodology of the Bauhaus preliminary course, influenced by the trends of the “Active” or “New” school of the time.
In Chile, the moment of cultural transformation that began in the 1920s fed directly and indirectly the events of the 1940s and early 1970s. Using the models of organization of biology as part of the utopian ideals of artists, designers and architects tried to situate the development of human beings as intrinsically linked to their natural and social environment.
The “Active School” and “Vorkurs”
The vanguards of the 1920s proposed to radically reconstruct the comprehensive subject from scratch, as a critique of the nineteenth century brand of modernity which had brought on the First World War. In this context it is impossible to separate the creation of the State Bauhaus in Weimar and the foundation of the Weimar Republic, its constituent assembly and the preferential democratic social orientation of its early years. With regards to education, one of the main questions in this period was: what type of education should artists, artisans, designers and architects receive in order to serve as protagonists in the construction of this new society of the Weimar Republic?
On the one hand, the Deutscher Werkbund (a German association of artists, architects, designers and industrialists formed in 1907 with the intention of integrating the arts and crafts into mass industrial production in order to increase German competitiveness) had already established a precedent, defending the applied arts and making them pertinent for a new era, based on past references, and, on the other, the complementary development of a vanguard movement generically known as the “Active School” or “New School.” This educational model focused on the valorization of the cultural, social and environmental variables inherent in the generation of knowledge rather than the rote regurgitation (hence reproduction) of acquired information. According to this process, the student generates autonomous knowledge, independently analyzing different tendencies; a method which also strengthens teamwork. Several of the theorists of the Active school referenced psychology and biology (Núnez-Prieto, 2013) to bolster their argument for this form of integral learning which was inherently critical of nineteenth-century pedagogical models. Some of the Swiss and German exponents of this movement were extremely important to the Bauhaus (Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi and Friedrich Fröbel, for instance) as well as to Latin American social movements, which proposed education in general and education in the applied arts in particular as a great device for societal transformation.
In the case of Chile, between 1920 and 1924 normal school teachers (the products of secondary schools organized around pedagogical training) and the Workers Federation of Chile (Federación Obrera de Chile – FOCH) organized alternative schools to the already existing state and private schools. These self-managed schools employed pedagogic techniques used by the Active School (developed by Pestalozzi and Fröbel, as well as methods designed by Maria Montessori, Ovide Decroly and Adolphe Ferrière).
After the First World War (even earlier in the case of México), throughout Latin America there were strong social movements demanding paradigmatic change. These movements focused on overcoming the colonialist structures that still defined Latin American economic policy in order to achieve a more just society for the majority of the population. In 1920, a President was elected in Chile – Arturo Alessandri – who promised to make great changes to achieve social justice, but in September 1924 he was forced to resign and enter into European exile, having not fulfilled his promises. He would return in 1925.
In March 1925, the same month as Alessandri’s return from exile to resume his duties as president, the normalist teachers’ movement in Chile, together with the FOCH, students, intellectuals and workers organized a conference in the municipal theater of Santiago de Chile to prepare a constituent assembly. The new constitution project included an educational reform based on the ideas of the New School. President Alessandri did not call for the assembly to be held, as he had promised from exile, but instead created his own constitution, affirmed by plebiscite in September of that year (he would leave office shortly thereafter, returning for a longer third term as President in 1932). In response, the teachers continued protesting and, when General Carlos Ibáñez del Campo assumed power in the spring of 1927, he called on the teachers in the Active School movement to carry out their reform throughout the Chilean educational system, including the transformation of artistic education. There are equivalences of this Chilean reform with the educational reform of Uruguay, carried out in 1927, and with the Brazilian reform movement of 1930 led by Lucio Costa.
In reality, General Ibáñez did not entirely understand the concepts of the Active School and was thinking instead of Mussolini’s corporatist model, whose hierarchical and centralized organization was contrary to Active School theories. The reform was abruptly interrupted eight months after it began. However, in 1928 the most avant-garde educational reform in Chile’s took place. As part of that reform, the old Academy of Fine Arts was integrated into the Ministry of Education, creating a reformed new school of art.
Between 1925 and 1926 the teachers’ movement sent the polymath Carlos Isamitt to research new methodologies used at the applied art schools of the European avant-garde. A very important normalist teacher, Isamitt was also an award-winning student at the Academy of Fine Arts, and the National Conservatory of Music, but also in 1918 he had presented the result of his anthropological research on using the geometric patterns found in indigenous art in the artistic education of children. After returning to Chile in 1928, Isamitt was appointed by President Ibáñez, following instructions from the normalist teachers leaders, to steer the reform of artistic education. That year he created a “first trial year” (Figure 1), similar to the Vorkurs at the Bauhaus or the first year at Vkhutemas in Moscow, having been exposed to the latter course at the Paris International Exposition of 1925. Isamitt also integrated elements from Polish, Hungarian, Austrian and Belgian avant-gardes, as well as the extra-artistic disciplines he had studied – including comparative social and historical anthropology, grammar and civic education – in order to address local and regional realities in South America.
With the implementation of a dictatorial regime in 1929, Isamitt’s reforms were interrupted and the progressive orientation in arts pedagogy he had instituted was eliminated from the local history of art for several decades. Despite this, a group of Chilean teachers continued promoting these ideas, and in 1936 published a book which included a visual projection (Figure 2) of the administrative, organic and self-managed effect of the proposals suggested in the 1920s.