Starting From “New Normal(s)”: Non-Normative Design Methodologies in Architecture Education

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Article published in The Funambulist 19 (September-October 2018) The Space of Ableism. Click here to access the rest of the issue.

Normative Bodies in Architectural Education ///

The human body has long been at the center of architectural discourse and design education. In Ten Books on Architecture, Vitruvius describes the ideal measure and proportions for the human body that subsequently shaped classical architecture for centuries. Around World War II, a culture of intensified orderliness and standardization began to infiltrate architecture. In response, Le Corbusier established the Modulor, an anthropometric system of measure for architectural space which mediated between metric and imperial scales. The system was codified in two books and was applied through the production of several of Le Corbusier’s influential works. However, it is Ernst Neufert’s book Bauentwurfslehre that has likely had the most pervasive impact on the conception of the human body in design education. The book, which is most commonly known as Neufert Architects’ Data, was first published in Nazi Germany (1936) and led to Neufert’s later collaborations with Albert Speer, chief architect to Adolf Hitler. The substantial document was designed as a reference for architecture students with the objective of enabling the rapid and systematic design of buildings. Embedded in the detailed and dimensioned diagrams of basic architectural typologies were prescriptive ideas of the appropriate size, proportion, and behavior of human bodies. Despite its problematic origin, the book has been reproduced through numerous German editions and translations into other languages, ensuring its use in academic environments worldwide.

For architecture students, the illustrative diagrams filling the pages of Neufert Architects’ Data or even Architectural Graphic Standards often serve as the primary, if not exclusive, reference for depicting the human body’s relationship to the built environment. In the intense and subjective structure of any design studio, these manuals offer an objective “solution” for the human condition, providing every conceivable spatial configuration and appropriate dimension for the activities of the average body. With this architectural reference at hand and without real-world users to respond to, design students are liberated from engaging with the corporeal diversity of the human condition. The abstract nature of design studios, instead, tends to prioritize technical, formal, or programmatic methods for architectural exploration. As a result, the prescription for the body embedded in any architectural reference manual becomes the default building occupant.