»The new building really gets us rethinking everything«

Interview with Susanne Eickemeier By Silke Hohmann

Photo: Felicitas von Lutzau

Silke Hohmann: A new building for the HfG Offenbach is first and foremost a necessity. But is it also an opportunity?

Susanne Eickemeier: It’s a huge opportunity. One problem we have now is that we as a university are spread across Offenbach, which makes it difficult to work together in many respects. We’re now hugely excited to soon all be able to learn, teach, and research together in one location and to be able to shape the transfer to get there. The new HfG will also allow for greater permeability between the departments. That’s important because interdisciplinarity is an important characteristic of the HfG.

SH: The redesign of the university calls for the anticipation of future needs. How do you go about this?

SE: Of course, in terms of content, we are asking ourselves: What do we want for the HfG as an academy of art in ten or 20 years? We started the transformation process a long time ago. For our strategy concept, we developed guiding principles for this and concluded target agreements. One important building block is the study reform, i.e. the shift from diplomas to bachelor’s and master’s degrees, which we completed successfully in the 2022–3 winter term. By and large, we have already positioned ourselves strategically in various areas, so the next major task will be to fill these with more substantive content. Of course we have a vision for where we want to go – for example, towards greater interdisciplinarity. But then of course the question arises of how we can implement that. Right now, the various teaching areas in our art and design departments have their own workshops, and this results in a separation that we’re not fundamentally aiming for. Our intention is to organize the new building in such a way that workshops are accessible to all students, regardless of their department or subject area. This intensive discussion about the new building is incredibly fruitful. Based on the architectural shell provided, we can now discuss how we really want to fill the space inside it. It may be possible to generate artistic or creative synergies that have a positive impact on the management and execution. Ideally, design processes as a whole can be much better penetrated as a result.

SH: To what extent can specific requirements be formulated at this stage?

SE: The strategic ideas we have had so far are still at a more abstract level to a certain extent, but the design from the planning firm now allows us to be more specific. Regardless of individual sensitivities, needs, and preconceptions for each person’s own teaching area, we are first asking ourselves the overriding question: What will teaching be like in ten or fifteen years? And what will be the consequences of that on the interplay within the overall structure? What’s clear is that we don’t simply want to project the status quo onto the future, that is, into the new building. That wouldn’t go far enough. That would mean missing out on the opportunity we just mentioned.

©2022 Viviane Niebling, “Now” | Photo: Jakob Otter

SH: Looking to the future also implies that there will be a change of generation – among the students, but also among the professors. What effect will this have?

SE: Before the new building is ready, there will be a relatively major generational shift, so I hope that those who are currently working or studying at the HfG will be able to take a step back. Many of them will no longer be personally affected by the decisions being made right now. And I hope that, together with those who have recently joined us, they will tackle the task of considering what the model of the future could be for the HfG. I’m very curious about that.

SH: The HfG is itself a place of creativity. How are you using this in-house potential for the transformation?

SE: We had a very inspiring workshop where students were also involved. This resulted in a whole host of concepts for the interaction between teachers and students and how this might be expressed in spatial terms. There was scope for out-of-the-box, experimental, and free thinking. These kinds of free formats get people excited, draw them in, and encourage them to think: “Oh yes, that’s how we want it!” We would like to get back into this kind of flow with everyone involved, including as a way to get them out of their individual considerations and inspire them for the bigger picture.

SH: How do you manage to create this identification?

SE: This is by no means trivial given the different generations that are gathered at the university. Often, the ones who decide are those who have been there longer. There are different preconceptions, including on how quickly you should move from talking to doing. For students, it would undoubtedly be easier if a lot of things were implemented more directly: talking and taking action straight away, instead of going through preliminary talks, department meetings, the Senate, and the Executive Board. These are the important bodies and committees of university policy, but they also require a lot of patience. We are trying to scrutinize ourselves at all levels, including in these structures, and make more targeted progress in the direction we have in mind. And in many areas we really have made tremendous progress. The administrative or supporting processes for teaching and learning have become much more digital. This enables students to register digitally and to query the entire process externally via the corresponding eCampus management system. We were able to get all this implemented in a relatively short time –the time frame we were given was seven years, and we managed it in three. We are under a lot of pressure from outside, which means we are sometimes not able to appreciate everything we have achieved. With so many tasks and challenges to fulfil, unfortunately we sometimes forget to give ourselves a pat on the back every now and then.

SH: Will the new building also help to increase the visibility of the HfG Offenbach?

SE: We are a very small institution compared to classic universities. We have managed the aforementioned study reform, and we have dealt with the integration of the Höchster Porzellanmanufaktur porcelain factory. We are really doing a great deal, and we’re much more visible to the outside world than we were a while ago. Of all the things that drive us, greater visibility is an ongoing challenge.

SH: Like all institutions, you’re facing new tasks. What is the influence of topics like raising awareness and sustainability?

SE: The new building is really forcing us to rethink things and to look at all process levels: Where do we stand? Is it sustainable? What is the demand? Can we do better? We need to become more digital, more sustainable, and more aware. And undoubtedly also more diverse and thus more international. There is a broad spectrum of things and topics that need to be done and addressed over the next ten years. Raising awareness and respectful interaction are aspects we have been dealing with in very intensive processes for some time, and I get the impression that we’ve made great strides forward here. At the same time, this is an area that will always drive us. With an eye on sustainability, we are currently discussing and testing out how we can reduce our use of resources both in teaching and in our pragmatic approach. After all, it’s the students we are educating – and if they are not more sustainable in future, then who will be? In my opinion, that does clash slightly with freedom of thought and the artistic and creative freedom to do anything, but it is essential for the preservation of the planet that we move in this direction.

SH: When you imagine your last day on Schlossstrasse, what will it be like? What will you be doing and what will go through your mind?

SE: When that day comes, I’ll look wistfully one more time at the square with the red Isenburg Castle and the fountain. For me, this place is symbolic and at the same time typical of the HfG. When I’m making calls, I like to look out of the window and see how many people meet up there. It’s a dream view that I won’t have in the new building, which makes me sad on the one hand. So it will be a bittersweet moment for me when I leave the campus on Schlossstrasse. On the other hand, though, I’m really looking forward to the feeling of making the new building something great and to a different, no less fantastic view. So it’s on to something new and let’s see how it goes!

SH: Have you already imagined yourself in the new building? What would a first day in the new university be like?

SE: I haven’t really figured it out yet. I think it needs more input and specifics from the university community. My feelings about it are relatively in line with the status of our development.