Dezeen Magazine

Nelly Ben Hayoun and crew on the set of her film Disaster Playground
Nelly Ben Hayoun and crew on the set of her film Disaster Playground

New University of the Underground design course aims to build "a network of creative soldiers"

A new masters programme titled the University of the Underground is promising a fee-free design education to students who want to "positively challenge institutions and power structures".

Masterminded by designer Nelly Ben Hayoun, the course is being offered through the Gerrit Rietveld Academie's Sandberg Instituut in Amsterdam.

The University of the Underground will offer a unique curriculum that teaches students to design experiences, events and situations that support social change.

To set an example of the kind of change the programme hopes to spur, all of its places will be fully funded through a mix of 80 per cent philanthropical donations and 20 per cent government grants.

"The University of the Underground responds to the current trend of increased fees for postgraduate programmes by proposing a business model in which all students are provided with scholarships to cover their tuition fees," Ben Hayoun told Dezeen.

"It aims to act as a model of what can be achieved through coordination, shared passion and belief in the next generation – the goal being to create many more of these educative structures worldwide on that basis, 80 per cent, 20 per cent."

Confirmed board members of the University of the Underground include Sandberg Instituut director Jurgen Bey, curator Beatrice Galilee, writer Dave Eggers, Parsons School of Design's Fiona Raby as well as executives from Airbnb and WeTransfer.

Ben Hayoun – an experience designer, filmmaker and activist – will serve as course director, while Pentagram partner Paula Scher, science-fiction author Bruce Sterling and professor of experimental architecture Rachel Armstrong are among those confirmed as guest tutors.

While the course might seem like a direct response to today's highly charged political climate, Ben Hayoun says the idea has been in development for some time.

"As a designer, I always felt that objects and our discipline did not properly respond to the emergencies of our world," she said. "Meanwhile, I believe that institutions like universities owe it to be the place where politics get actively challenged and discussed."

"The University of the Underground is set to create and connect a network of creative soldiers who can positively challenge institutions and power structures."

For Ben Hayoun, a turning point was being exposed to critical design at the Royal College of Art while studying Design Interactions.

She has also explored the intersection of design and politics throughout her practice, in projects such as the feature film Disaster Playground, which looked at real-life emergency procedures for events like an asteroid impact, and the The International Space Orchestra – an orchestra of space scientists re-enacting a Greek tragedy.

"It draws me to believe that yes, it was possible to design within institutions and still embrace experimentations, chaos and power shifts at the start of the creative process and as a mode of public engagement," she said.

The University of the Underground will combine critical design with experiential, theatrical, filmic, political and musical practices.

The programme will be based in Amsterdam, in what is being described as a "hidden network of urban spaces". Ben Hayoun is currently working to secure a disused chocolate factory, among other sites.

Students will also spend three months in London working out of the Village Underground.

The University of the Underground is open for applications from today until 1 April. The first class of 15 students will commence the programme in September, entirely scholarship funded.

They will graduate two years later with a Master of Arts degree, officially licensed and funded by the Dutch government.