‘Handbuch der Architektur’ (1880–1943): A German Design Manual for the Building Profession

The first volume of the massive reference book series Handbuch der Architektur  (Handbook of Architecture) was published in 1880.[1] At this time, the population of European cities was growing at a hitherto unprecedented scale, industrialization outside of England was reaching its peak, and traffic infrastructure was taking on global dimensions. The building boom of the newly founded German Reich was in full swing too. Suddenly, workshops, post offices, hospitals, and more had to deal with ever increasing numbers of customers or patients and goods that demanded bigger, spatially and functionally more differentiated facilities. Novel types of buildings, such as railway stations, department stores, and disinfection plants, presented architects with the pressing question of how to design them appropriately to their purposes and so that building and using them would be cost efficient.


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Across the country, knowledge about workflows had to be acquired and building standards developed to meet the many requests for such functional structures. Little wonder, then, that late nineteenth-century Germany saw the founding and blossoming of quite a number of architectural journals as platforms to discuss contemporary challenges in architectural practice. Among them were Zeitschrift für Bauwesen (1851–1931), Deutsche Bauzeitung (since 1867), Zentralblatt der Bauverwaltung (1881–1931), Deutsche Bauhütte (1897–1942), and Der Baumeister (since 1902), whose titles referenced the “building trade,” “structural engineering,” “building authorities,” the “builder’s hut” (also “Masonic lodge”), and “the architect.” It was against this background that Handbuch der Architektur was conceived. Its goal was to gather and systematize all contemporary knowledge on architecture, which up to 1880 was scattered across myriad journal articles and monographs. Accordingly, a review in the journal Zentralblatt der Bauverwaltung from 1881 stated that the new series aimed to “condense the whole wealth of literary material from the broad field of architecture . . . into a consistent handbook, divided into four sections and 12 volumes and presenting the state of the art in architectural science in a complete and clear way.”[2]

The idea for this practical reference work went back to the professor of architecture Eduard Schmitt (1842–1913), who taught at the Polytechnic Institute in Prague and had specialized in building railway stations. In 1873, he published a selection of his lectures. In the introduction, he lamented that there was no comprehensive and systematic reference book on railway buildings.[3] A year later, Schmitt was appointed professor at the Technical University in Darmstadt, where he was able to win over his colleagues Heinrich Wagner (1843–1897), Josef Durm (1837–1919), and Hermann Ende (1829–1907) to collaboratively start the monumental publishing project Handbuch der Architektur. The editors’ objective was to reference all manner of building types. Besides three sections on architectural history and theory, materials, and building technology, its forth section presented itself as a guide for the design, arrangement, and equipment of all possible building types ranging from slaughterhouses, administration buildings, research facilities and post offices to hippodromes and circus tents (Figure 1). They conceived the handbook as a building manual to be widely disseminated to specialized libraries, architectural offices, and building authorities.

Figure 1  Title page of Eduard Schmitt’s 1904 Circus and Hippodrome Buildings volume in the Handbuch der Architektur (courtesy of Bauhaus-Universität Weimar)

Architectural challenges at the dawn of the twentieth century apparently provoked a project that in its keenness (or megalomania) seemed more like a prototypical undertaking of the eighteenth or nineteenth century. The undertaking was conceived as an encyclopedia on the entire existing body of knowledge on architecture in the tradition of Johann Beckmann’s (1739–1811) Anleitung zur Technologie (Instructions for Technology) from 1777, whose author had systematically studied and classified all techniques of craft and manufacture he could uncover in order to reorganize them and make them more efficient.[4] That Handbuch der Architektur under these premises would exceed its twelve anticipated volumes, was rather obvious to its contemporaries. “Reservations about the scale of this endeavor” were not long in coming.[5] All in all, more than 150 volumes written by about 100 specialized authors came to be released over a period of almost 65 years. Some volumes even exceeded 1,000 pages, for instance, the second revised and expanded edition of Oswald Kuhn’s book on hospitals in 1903, which appeared only five years after the first edition.

The handbook was more than just an encyclopedic repository for architectural knowledge, however. It first and foremost functioned as a medium for processing and producing the knowledge it presented. The authors of Handbuch der Architektur exhaustively dissected and described the workflows executed within the buildings it covered in order to analyze their spatial requirements. In 1896, the handbook author Robert Neumann wrote,

For the purpose of understanding the peculiarities of a post office building, it may be deemed necessary to briefly present the postal services taking place within. This survey should be kept sufficiently general and only serve to explain the significance and coherency as well as the furnishing of the individual rooms.[6]

Once their functional interdependency was understood, the isolated architectural elements, the equipment, and rooms could be assembled into purposeful layouts and efficient facilities. The authors instructed how and the architects would later realize these intentions.[7]

Although architectural drawings appeared in every volume of Handbuch der Architektur, text was its preferred medium and over-explanation its modus operandi (Figure 2). Thus the volume on laundry and disinfection facilities explained,

The treatment of certain articles of clothing, especially of undergarments, bed linens and table clothes, as well as particular household- and decorative pieces (drapes, curtains, and the like) for the purpose of their cleaning and maintenance with the help of water and soap is called “washing”[8]

Verbal description in analytical fashion made for a huge output of text. If the contemporary architect used the handbook as a design tool to architecturally organize work, he first of all had to invest considerable reading time.

Figure 2  Two pages from the Handbuch der Architektur volume by Felix Genzmer on Wasch- und Desinfektionsanlagen, or buildings in which to wash, launder, and disinfect (photograph by author)

With its dual claim of completeness and specialization, the handbook seemed more and more anachronistic after the turn of the century, succumbing to the merits of another architectural reference work in 1930s.[9] The 1936 Bauentwurfslehre by the onetime Bauhaus student Ernst Neufert had the same goal as Handbuch der Architektur,[10] namely to become the standard manual for the building profession and to provide all necessary knowledge on the drafting, structuring, and constructing of buildings in a single handy reference work. Bound to early twentieth-century rationalization and standardization, Bauentwurfslehre followed a different strategy.[11] It compressed the 22,000 pages of its predecessor into 300 pages and employed hundreds of images rather than elaborate and lengthy texts (Figure 3).

Figure 3  Two pages from Ernst Neufert’s 1936 Bauentwurfslehre (photograph by author)

Though architecture generally is an image-centered discipline that relies on perspectives, layouts, sections, photographs, and computer renderings, this should not obscure the fact that any epistemology of architecture would also need to attend to textual sources, maybe even give them preference. Fundamental architectural knowledge on work processes, building codes, legal requirements, or operating instructions, for instance, is usually bound to the discursive rather than the nondiscursive. As the example of Handbuch der Architektur shows, not prominent figures of architecture and architectural theory produced such texts but practicing professionals who circulated their expertise in contemporary journals, handbooks, or monographs. Although architectural historians have studied Neufert’s design manual extensively, Handbuch der Architektur has long been overlooked.[12] Maybe this is due to its reliance on text rather than images as the central medium for conveying knowledge about building design.

Susanne Jany is a research fellow at the Department of Cultural History and Theory, Humboldt University of Berlin and at the Interdisciplinary Laboratory: Image Knowledge Gestaltung, Humboldt University of Berlin.


  1. Josef Durm et al., Handbuch der Architektur (Leipzig, 1880–1943). For the bibliography, see Roland Jaeger: “Monumentales Standardwerk: Das ‘Handbuch der Architektur’ (1880–1943): Verlagsgeschichte und Bibliographie,” Aus dem Antiquariat (2006): 343–64.
  2. “Handbuch der Architektur,” Zentralblatt der Bauverwaltung 1 (1881): 56.
  3. See Eduard Schmitt, Vorträge über Bahnhöfe und Hochbauten auf Locomotiv-Eisenbahnen. Erster Theil: Die Anlage der Bahnhöfe. (Leipzig, 1873), iii.
  4. Johann Beckmann, Anleitung zur Technologie, oder zur Kentniß der Handwerke, Fabriken und Manufakturen, vornehmlich derer, die mit der Landwirtschaft, Polizey und Cameralwissenschaft in nächster Verbindung stehn. Nebst Beyträgen zur Kunstgeschichte (Göttingen, 1777).
  5. “Ein deutsches Architekturwerk,” Deutsche Bauzeitung 16 (1882): 375–76.
  6. Robert Neumann, Gebäude für den Post-, Telegraphen- und Fernsprechdienst. Handbuch der Architektur. Vierter Teil: Entwerfen, Anlage und Einrichtung der Gebäude, Halbband 2, Heft 3 of Gebäude für die Zwecke des Wohnens, des Handels und Verkehres (Darmstadt, 1896), 9.
  7. See Susanne Jany, “Operative Räume: Prozessarchitekturen im späten 19. Jahrhundert,” Zeitschrift für Medienwissenschaft: Medien/Architekturen 12 (2015): 33–43.
  8. Felix Genzmer, Wasch- und Desinfektionsanstalten. Handbuch der Architektur. Vierter Teil: Entwerfen, Anlage und Einrichtung der Gebäude. Halbband 5, Heft 4 of Gebäude für Heil- und sonstige Wohlfahrtsanstalten (Stuttgart: Bergsträsser, 1900), 7.
  9. Although the handbook project was officially ceased in 1943, the decline had already started in the late 1920s with, as fewer and fewer volumes being were released since then.
  10. Ernst Neufert, Bauentwurfslehre: 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 (Berlin: Bauwelt Verlag, 1936). The significance of Neufert’s book for architectural practice in the 20th century cannot be overstated. The book has been continuously published since 1936 and is currently in its 41st edition.
  11. Nader Vossoughian, “Standardization Reconsidered: Normierung in and after Ernst Neufert's Bauentwurfslehre (1936),” In: Grey Room no. 54 (Winter 2014): 34–55.
  12. For the first extensive study of Handbuch der Architektur, see: Susanne Jany, “Prozessarchitekturen: Betriebsorganisation im Medium der Architektur von 1880 bis 1936” (PhD diss., Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, 2017).
Suggested citation: Susanne Jany, “‘Handbuch der Architektur’ (1880–1943): A German Design Manual for the Building Profession,” History of Knowledge, June 2, 2018, https://historyofknowledge.net/2018/06/02/handbuch-der-architektur/.