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Anna-Maria Meister, Princeton University, History of Architecture

From Form to Norm: The Systematization of Values in German Design 192x-195x

My dissertation explores the norm as object of and tool for design in 20th Century Germany—a point of encounter between modern subjects and their built environment, between citizen and state administration. Far from neutral, the technology of the norm carried a moral charge: to regulate objects and the subjects handling them. The task of the DIN (German Institute of Norms) was to prescribe and disseminate the "best" solution for any object, from screws to paper format, and subsequently normed furniture to fit the paper. By determining the window, norm-makers framed the inhabitant's view of the world; by formatting the door handle, they shaped the physical contact between the user and the built environment.

Rather than as bureaucratic measure I pose the norm’s episteme of precision and tolerance, division and assembly as fundamental for modern architecture in 20th century Germany. To "norm" was a highly deliberate act: a systematization of values, designed and disseminated by a group of experts in an institution. My objective is to uncover how institutions produced moral values through the design and dissemination of normed objects, and how this morality evolved through three German political systems: the Weimar Republic, the Nazi regime, and the first decade of postwar reconstruction. Throughout the century’s most radical ideological shifts, the technocratic norms showed astonishing resilience as they became important political and aesthetic tools in the hands of radically divergent regimes.

Under the rhetoric of economic optimization, norms provided the ideal instrument to streamline not only the momentum of industrial progress, but the Gesinnungswechsel (change of convictions) toward a better society. They served as medium for technocratic visions of a better world, offering reliable systematicity as projection screen for moral values: the very desire to eliminate flaws was thought to be outsourced to bureaucracy itself. My project identifies this transformed double bind of morals and aesthetics in the Normenwerk, as it turned value production into an institutional design endeavor.