Despite the structural and economic changes taking place, the defining symbol of this period of renewed growth and confidence is the Ulmer Hocker (Ulm Stool), designed in 1955. The stool is a model of minimalist design. The use of naked wood and no fixtures is a nod to the austere age out of which the city had just emerged. There is no luxury here and yet the Ulmer Hocker is strikingly beautiful. The visible notched jointing on top is the only concession to the aesthetic in an otherwise brutally functional design. The Hocker was conceived as a low-cost solution to student seating in schools. It could be sat upon during lessons and then turned upside-down to carry student books and supplies from class to class like a basket. It is an ingenious low-tech solution to a practical problem.
Almost exactly 60 years later, faced once more with practical need, the Ulmer Hocker is inspiring a new generation of designers. The need this time is not frugality or lack of space. The need arises from a growing groundswell of parents, teachers and administrators in Ulm’s schools who are looking to foster collaboration and trust among Ulm’s fragmented ethnic populations. At Spitalhof Gemeinschaftsschule, Ulm’s first “Community School”, the built environment reflects the school’s commitment to student-centred, collaborative learning. Their approach, however, is not revolutionary. In fact, it is decidedly low-tech.
Inside an 8th Grade classroom, most students are involved in group work. One student, distracted by the noise as she studies for a self-administered quiz, asks if she can go to the stairwell. It is a defining moment. The teacher happily encourages her to leave the group. Before leaving, she picks up what looks like a broken crate. She levels it across three steps and suddenly it becomes a table on which she lays out her reading materials. Without delay she begins taking notes. She relaxes into the stairwell, undisturbed.
This table is even more austere than the Ulmer Hocker. It comprises of two pieces of wood screwed together. Crude as it is, it has played a significant role in reinventing this school. This simple wooden structure is not just a table; it is symptomatic of the Mission of this school. Students are trusted to take responsibility for their own learning. There is no issue of control or tension on behalf of their teachers to allow them work outside of their direct supervision. Students collaborate with their teachers, or “Learning Coaches” as they are known at Spitalhof, to become independent thinkers, responsible, and reflective. This simple table, inspired by the Ulmer Hocker, allows students and teachers to transcend boundaries, and not just physical ones.