The Covid-19 pandemic has directly contributed to an increased awareness of the different movements of various bodies in public space. Social distancing has led, in the Netherlands and abroad, to the introduction of a single standard which is imposed on all of society: the 1.5 metre rule. This recalls a rational control of society based on uniform solutions that on the one hand make public life possible, yet at the same time contribute to detrimental forms of exclusion. The current social and ecological crises reveal the fragility of this ideal and encourage us to reflect on how a potential ‘new normal’ can also be interpreted as a design question. Het Nieuwe Instituut sees it as its task to uncover the historical roots of this policy, which is as precautionary as it is spatial, based on the National Collection archives and the institute’s previous projects. A direct connection can be made, for example, between the 1.5 metre society and the experimental 1930s rationalisation of the Bau-entwurfslehre, by German architect Ernst Neufert. This manual, which remains an important reference for designers to this day, provides dimensions for materials, spaces and entire buildings. It thereby contributes not only to the universal standardisation of the built environment, but also to life within it.
Control as a medium
Since the Covid-19 pandemic gripped the world, governments have been trying to control the virus with various interventions. Apart from short-term measures, such as self-isolation, social distancing and the use of face masks, a long-term challenge beckons for designers. After all, this virus and other potential new viruses, which are an inevitable consequence of our anthropocentric exploitation of nature, will continue to have a lasting impact on humanity and its habitat. Similar to the introduction of Bau-entwurfslehre in the 1930s, governments are moving towards standardisation and monitoring of the living environment: from mobile applications for detecting contamination to the radical re-arrangement of public spaces to ensure a distance of 1.5 metres.
Neufert and the Collection of Het Nieuwe Instituut
This unwavering belief in rational control is hardly new. Indeed, it has set the standard for socio-economic and ecological systems in the Western world for centuries. The archives of Het Nieuwe Instituut have countless examples of this rational notion of progress, from 19th-century atlases that systematically relate disease and mortality and birth rates to the living environment and the hygiene guidelines in the Housing Act of 1901 to the traffic counts from around 1927 in the archive of Joël Meijer de Casseres, and from studies into the human body’s interaction with domestic appliances and utensils in the archive of Johan Niegeman to the standard dimensions and floor plans of open-plan houses from 1965 in the archive of Willem Wissing.
The collection contains at least 16 copies of Bau-entwurfslehre, with editions dating from 1936 to 1992. They are housed in various archives, including those of the Netherlands Institute for Spatial Planning, the Association of Dutch Architects and the Netherlands Documentation Centre for Architecture, and the estates of architects such as the aforementioned Joël Meijer de Casseres, the structural engineer Joop de Graaf, and architects Hans Oud and Bruno Mertens. These 16 copies – a modest number given that titles already in the collection are usually not accepted with the acquisition of new archives – together form an interesting sample of the many reprints of the book. They demonstrate that the manual’s content is not static, but has been regularly updated in response to changing cultural values and developments in the field.
Industrial standards as units of measurement
The first edition of Bau-entwurfslehre was already sold out three weeks after its publication in 1936, and the second edition was published three months later. The publication aimed to contribute to the quality of life of ordinary people, which could be improved by the affordable production of decent products and housing, made possible by the division of labour, mass production and standardisation. In addition to this cultural-economic ambition, the political situation in Germany undoubtedly played a major role in the popularity of the book at the time. The Third Reich was built upon tenets such as large-scale industrialisation, rearmament and gleichschaltung (totalitarian control of society). Moreover, the normative aspect of Neufert’s industry-derived building dimensions and regulations fitted seamlessly with the disciplining of society imposed by the National Socialists. As early as September 1939, the Deutsche Industrie Normen (DIN standards) were written into law, making Bau-entwurfslehre indispensable for German architects in this imposed normative culture.
In 1938, two years after the publication of the first edition, Neufert was appointed to the position of ‘Beauftragter für Typisierung, Normung und Rationalisierung des Berliner Wohnungsbaus’ (Representative for Standardisation and Rationalisation of Housing in Berlin) by Albert Speer in his capacity as ‘General Bauinspektor für die Reichshaupstadt’ (General Building Inspector for the Imperial Capital). This position was in line with Speer’s ambition to transform the construction sector into a streamlined part of the Third Reich, through the industrialisation of the design and construction process. Neufert also joined his staff as an advisor on rationalisation issues. During his tenure, in which Speer pushed industrialisation to extremes in preparation for ‘total war’, Neufert developed a mobile ‘Hausbaumachine’ (house building machine), which could automatically produce entire rows of houses as linear extrusions. While working for the Nazi regime, Neufert also developed a new system of measurement, the oktameter, in which the division of a metre into eighths replaced the common decimal system. Again, Neufert’s starting point was the human body, all of whose dimensions could be traced to a multiplication of 12.5 centimetres. Neufert intended for the oktameter to become the new standard of the Deutsche Industrie Norm, and thus the standard for the design of all objects and buildings, a goal that is clearly reflected in the 1943 edition of Bau-entwurfslehre.
Man is the measure of all things
Neufert’s average man measures 1.75 metres (5 feet 7 inches) and occupies an area of at least 40 x 60 centimetres. Two people next to each other need at least 1.15 metres, and four people require two metres. Neufert goes into detail about the space required for every human activity, such as lying, walking and sitting, where active sitting, lazy sitting and resting each have their own specific spatial requirements. These guidelines allow the Bau-entwurfslehre to be read as a 20th-century version of the Vitruvian adage that ‘man is the measure of all things’. Neufert’s notion of modern life does not recognise individual characteristics, but performs actions in a fully standardised environment in a rational and mechanical manner..
Neufert’s standards have a generalising effect, but are simultaneously highly specific. His book provides an exceptional amount of detailed and comprehensive information in texts, tables and a few thousand comic-like illustrations with size charts. Every architectural element (frame, door, staircase), spatial environment (office, school, church) and urban design (housing estate) is shown in plan, section and elevation.
The detailed information in Bau-entwurfslehre is based on both experience and scientific knowledge that Neufert gathered when compiling his manual, drawing upon his education at the Bauhaus in Weimar under Walter Gropius, his early experience with industrial construction methods, his experiences as an architect and those of his colleagues, his teaching in architecture and his extensive knowledge of late 19th- and early-20th-century professional literature, on subjects, including the physics of building, building types, building materials, proportional theory, architecture history and urban planning. When Neufert began collecting information for his book in 1926, he had just been appointed professor and head of the architecture department at the Staatlichen Bauhochschule in Weimar, a position he lost in 1930 when the school was forced to close by the Nazis.
Faith in numbers as the basis for design
Cornelis van Eesteren’s archive in the collection of Het Nieuwe Instituut contains correspondence with Neufert, in which Van Eesteren shares his research into the dimensions of stairs for the stands of the Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam (1925-27). Neufert included this recommendation, albeit in an adapted form, in his guidelines for stadiums in Bau-entwurfslehre. Van Eesteren and Neufert shared great faith in numbers as the basis for design. In addition to writing to each other, the two men also met in person in 1928 in the Netherlands and in Weimar. At Neufert’s request, Van Eesteren accepted a position teaching urban planning at the Staatlichen Bauhochschule in Weimar in the late 1920s. During this period, Van Eesteren made an urban masterplan for Weimar (1927-29) based on time, distance and population density.
The New Normal?
Neufert’s ideas have exerted a considerable influence on the 20th-century physical environment. The handbook reflects a human-centric concept, often represented as a Western male body, superior to non-human bodies, nature and energy sources.
The Covid-19 crisis shows how fragile and time-bound such an ideal is. Above all, it makes it clear that standardisation and regulation do not always provide answers to spatial problems. Norms and standards are never universal, and rather contribute to exclusion. Het Nieuwe Instituut's collection, like history in general, shows that developments in architecture are driven by patterns of exception and crisis. The 1.5 metre rule and other forms of social distancing—which are effective now that we have no vaccine to rely on—should therefore be viewed critically, while searching for longer term answers. The current situation offers unprecedented room for structural changes that affect the physical and virtual built environment and life within it.
- Ernst Neufert, Bau-entwurfslehre Grundlagen, Normen und Vorschriften über Anlage, Bau, Gestaltung, Raumbedarf, Raumbeziehungen, Maße für Gebäude, Räume, Einrichtungen und Geräte mit dem Menschen als Maß und Ziel Handbuch für den Baufachmann, Bauherrn, Lehrenden und Lernenden. 271 Tafeln mit 3600 Zeichnunen, Berlijn, Bauwelt-Verlag, 1940. Between 1936 and 2018 approximately 800.000 copies of Bau-entwurfslehre were published.
- Simone C., Niquille, ‘What does the Graphical User Interface want?’, in: Marina Otero Verzier en Nick Axel, Work, Body, Leisure, Rotterdam, Het Nieuwe Instituut, 2018, p. 211-231
- Gernot Weckherlin, Walter Prigge, ‘Ernst Neuferts ‘Bauentwurfslehre’ zu den modernen Disposition der Optimierung, Disziplinierung und Gleichschaltung’, in: Der Lehrbuchdiskurs über das Bauen, Zürich, 2015, p.244-261.
- Anna-Maria Meister, ‘From Form to Norm: The Systematization of Values in German Design 192x-195x’, in: Workbook 14-15 van Princeton University School of Architecture, 2014, p. 150-152. Workbook; Formatting Modern Man; From Form to Norm
- Gernot Weckherlin, Zur Systematik des Architektonischen Wissens am Beispiel von Ernst Neuferts Bauentwurfslehre, Tübingen/Berlijn, Wasmuth, 2017.
- Urtzi Grau, Cristina Goberna, (Fake Industries Architectural Agonism), 1936, Prolog, 2012, The Neufert Variations, 0047 Gallery, Oslo (Online)
- Walter Prigge, Ernst Neufert Normierte Baukultur im 20. Jahrhundert, Edition Bauhaus Band 5, Frankfurt/New York, Campus Verlag, 1999.
- Wolfgang Voigt, ‘’Triumph der Gleichform und des Zusammenpassens’’. Ernst Neufert und die Normung in der Architektur’, in: W. Nerdinger, Bauhaus-Moderne im Nationalsozialismus. Zwischen Anbiedung und Verfolgung, München, 1993.