Formatting Modern Man on Paper: Ernst Neufert’s ‘Lehren’

When an architect in Germany designs a building, chances are that she will reach for “the Neufert” at some point—Ernst Neufert’s (1900–86) Bauentwurfslehre or Building Design Handbook.[1] Now in its 41st German edition, with 18 international editions, the book comprises an encyclopedic assortment of measures and floor plan elements that still serves as a reference for the organization of competition briefs and the execution of commissioned buildings. With its collection of suggestions for architectural programs for everything from dog kennels and zeppelins to office buildings and school layouts, the volume has arguably educated more of Germany’s architects and shaped more of its architectural heritage and current production than any architectural schools or famous masters.

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Recently, Neufert’s handbooks are garnering increasing scholarly attention, both for their widespread impact on architectural production (hitherto mostly analyzed through the influences of the so-called Avant-Gardes) and, more recently, their charged political implications.[2] I argue that Neufert’s instructional books need to be assessed beyond their individual histories and beyond their proposals for architectural solutions. To re-evaluate Neufert’s seminal handbooks, I will bring them into relation with his unpublished treatise, “Lebensgestaltungslehre” or Life Design Handbook. Transcending the distinctions of medium, edition, or format might help us to pose questions of handbooks as part of larger trajectories. Might a larger scope of evaluation situate a given handbook within a different genre? Might the notes jotted down in a diary become a handbook in their own right?

In November 1936, the year his Building Design was first published, Neufert mapped out in his diary a larger scheme for his books: a strategy toward a system of total organization.[3] He planned a tripartite oeuvre, a truly modern endeavor in the Kantian sense. Building Design would provide preformatted elements for architectural design, and “Life Design” would provide the “human foundations” (menschliche Grundlagen) for the “organization of life.” In a 1942 diary entry, Ernst Neufert mapped out his future book projects, including “Life Design.” Though never realized as a book, this title in any consideration of his oeuvre is central to a larger understanding of Neufert’s norm efforts. Beyond the creation of an encyclopedic kit of parts for architectural production (as in Building Design), or a complete norm measure system for architecture (as in Building Regulations), the norm became for Neufert ultimately a tool to format the very subject of life.

“Men: Measures and Spatial Requirements,” in Ernst Neufert, Bauentwurfslehre (Berlin: Bauwelt-Verlag, 1936), 30.

Educated by the Bauhaus director Walter Gropius (1883–1969), Neufert soon established himself as the  German norm expert in architecture, especially after the publication of his Building Design Handbook, which compiled standardized building regulations and measured and preplanned elements of all scales, defining all elements of architectural production from bathroom doors to “man[’s] measures and spatial needs.”[4] Hired in 1938 by Albert Speer (1905–1981) to find a way to standardize solutions for the pressing housing problem, Neufert published a short book on the efficient construction of low-income housing (Kleinwohnungen or Small Apartments) and later one on air raid protection in such housing.[5]

His main focus, however, was to conceptualize a higher-order system of measurements for the entire German building industry, a tool he deemed wanting, especially in response to the building standards issued by a private association of engineers, architects, and industry representatives, the German Institute for Norms or DIN. Founded in 1917 under the name Fabrikationsbüro or Office for Production,[6] its original purpose was to streamline the production of weapons and munition by learning to see them in terms of their constituent parts.[7] Yet soon after the First World War, DIN’s ambitions went beyond military production, and DIN norms came to address everything from screws to postcards. Neufert saw his handbook as a tool to prepare architects for the materialized totality of norms that the DIN Institute envisioned.

With his so-called Octametric System as the proposed solution, Neufert conceived of design as fitting into a system far beyond buildings. The resulting measurement system, for use throughout the entirety of architectural production on all scales, was first published in 1939 and republished in 1941 in the magazine Der soziale Wohnungsbau in Deutschland (Social Housing in Germany). It formed the basis for his 1943 Bauordnungslehre or Building Regulations Handbook.[8] Written under Albert Speer in 1943, the last book was motivated by the “daily experience of lacking a super-ordinated relation of measure of parts to each other, which would have made their understanding and assembly easier.”[9] Neufert conceived his Octametric System to fill such a gap. It would link everything together (and inform later editions of Building Design). Rather than an additive system, as his colleague and competitor Martin Mittag had proposed, Neufert advanced a series of measures derived from a division of 10 meters (for example, 5, 2.5, 1.25, and 0.625 meters) as the best foundation for a comprehensive system to norm all parts of the building process.

The unrealized project of the “Life Design Handbook” resituates Neufert’s published treatises, rendering their reception as mere pragmatic tools untenable. So far not included in Neufert’s historiographical treatment, his third (albeit unpublished) handbook foregrounds the scale of his aspirations not in size but reach. Neufert expanded the notion of life design from how it was understood around the turn of the century, moving beyond social norms. By working on systems rather than the shape and form of the finalized building or object, Neufert thought it possible to make every part conform—including the subjects inhabiting the building. Since design for Neufert was not limited to objects or even architecture, neither were his handbooks. Beyond enabling the creation of an encyclopedic kit of parts for architectural production (as in Building Design), or a complete system of norm measurements for architecture (as in Building Regulations), norms and measures for Neufert ultimately became a tool to format the very subject of life.

For Neufert, man was never the measure of all things; man needed to fit the system.[10] This paper posits all three of Neufert´s seminal handbooks were an attempt to format German society in the 1930s and 1940s using inherently architectural means such as floor plans, norms, and a system of measures. Analyzing his handbooks not as stand-alone volumes but as part of an approach to regulate architecture at large, Neufert’s “Life Design Handbook” undermines technophile rhetoric of modern “objectivity” and political and aesthetic “neutrality” found in Neufert’s own writing as well as his reception. In Neufert’s book, norming objects and formatting life were part of the same act.

Anna-Maria Meister is an architect and a PhD candidate in the History and Theory of Architecture at Princeton University

  1. 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 (Berlin: Bauwelt-Verlag, 1936); A revised edition first appeared in English as Architects’ Data: The Handbook of Building Types (London: Lockwood, 1970).  ↩
  2. Walter Prigge, ed., Ernst Neufert:Normierte Baukultur im 20. Jahrhundert (Frankfurt a.M.: Campus, 1999); Gernot Weckherlin, BEL: Zur Systematik des architektonischen Wissens am Beispiel von Ernst Neuferts “Bauentwurfslehre” (Berlin: E. Wasmuth, 2017); Nader Vossoughian, “Standardization Reconsidered: Normierung in and after Ernst Neufert’s Bauentwurfslehre (1936),” Grey Room, no. 54 (2014): 35–56; Patricia Merkel, “Das Wirken Ernst Neuferts in den Jahren von 1920 bis 1940 mit einem Werkverzeichnis und einer Werkübersicht in Bildern” (PhD diss., University of Siegen, 2017).  ↩
  3. See Neufert’s diary among the Ernst Neufert papers in Archiv der Moderne, Bauhaus University, Weimar. When I studied this source in 2013 and 2014, it had only been recently acquired and did not yet have an ascension number.  ↩
  4. Ibid., 30.  ↩
  5. Ernst Neufert and Albert Speer, Bombensicherer Luftschutz im Wohnungsbau (Berlin: Volk und Reich Verlag, 1942); Ernst Neufert, Preisgekrönte Entwürfe für Kleinsiedlungshäuser: Wettbewerb 1 des Reichsinnungsverbandes des Baugewerkes, Berlin (Eberswalde: R. Müller, 1938).  ↩
  6. After this incarnation, DIN was intermittently called “Deutscher Normenausschuß” (DNA), before then becoming DIN, which is used throughout this piece.  ↩
  7. With the improved exchangeability of its parts, the 08/15 rifle became synonymous for normed objects at large in German; see Peter Berz, 08/15: Ein Standard des 20. Jahrhunderts (Munich: Fink, 2001). Self-published institutional histories of the DIN: Thomas Wölker, “Entstehung und Entwicklung des deutschen Normenausschusses” (Berlin: Freie Universität, 1991), and the subsequent book, Thomas Wölker, Entstehung und Entwicklung des Deutschen Normenausschusses 1917 bis 1925, DIN-Normungskunde, vol. 30 (Berlin: Beuth Verlag, 1992); Günther Luxbacher, DIN von 1917 bis 2017: Normierung zwischen Konsens und Konkurrenz im Interesse der technisch-wirtschaftlichen Entwicklung (Berlin: Beuth Verlag, 2017).  ↩
  8. Ernst Neufert and Albert Speer, Bauordnungslehre (Berlin: Volk und Reich Verlag, 1943).  ↩
  9. Ibid., 10.  ↩
  10. Gerd Kuhn, “Die Spur Der Steine: Norm-Ziegel, Oktametersystem und ‘Masztab Mensch,’” in Ernst Neufer, ed. Prigge, 335–57.  ↩
Suggested citation: Anna-Maria Meister, “Formatting Modern Man on Paper: Ernst Neufert’s ‘Lehren’,” History of Knowledge, May 21, 2018,