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The unique German trade of 'Bauhüttenwessen'

Matthias Beckonert
December 21, 2020

Since the Middle Ages, the stonemasons’ lodges built under the "Bauhüttenwesen" style have been known to ensure that crucial cathedrals and buildings don't fall into disrepair. Now the craft has been honored by UNESCO.

Dombauhuette des Koelner Dom
Image: picture alliance/U. Baumgarten

There are countless world-class architectural masterpieces built according to the principles of the "Bauhüttenwesen:" St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna, Reims Cathedral, the Strasbourg Cathedral and Dresden's Zwinger Palace. These buildings serve as magnets for millions of tourists from all over the world each year — and yet they remain as eternal construction sites. 

Keeping these monumental, centuries-old structures in good condition requires a team of specialists on site working all year round. Since the Middle Ages, there have been fixed community workshops at these buildings for this very purpose, the so-called "Bauhütten." 

Now, this European building trade has been included in UNESCO's list of intangible cultural heritage.

Köln Figur Michelportal Köln Dom
Rather than throwing anything out, the Bauhüttenwesen believes in sustainable buildingImage: picture-alliance/dpa/O.Berg

What does it mean to be an intangible cultural heritage asset?

Since 2003, UNESCO has been awarding the prestigious title of "Intangible Cultural Heritage" to certain cultural practices around the world. For example, the Cologne Cathedral was included in the list of World Cultural Heritage sites in 1996 as a tangible building. But intangible cultural heritage includes practices like the Argentinean tango, Jamaican reggae music and European blueprinting techniques.

UNESCO justifies the inclusion of this unique building trade in the list by referring to the "international model character" that this building trade has: The close interaction of the various professions in the workshops is not only historically fascinating, but also serves as a model for the future of the construction business.

Reims Cathedral
Reims Cathedral in northern France is considered to be a prime example of BauhüttenwesenImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Knowledge transfer dating back to the Middle Ages

At the same time, however, UNESCO also honors centuries of international cooperation between such individual building lodges by recognizing them as intangible cultural heritage. The nomination phase alone included 18 "Bauhütten" from Germany, Austria, France, Norway and Switzerland, which had jointly applied for recognition in the list of intangible cultural heritage.

However, this kind of international networking is not a modern invention at all: Medieval craftsmen were known to be highly flexible, traveling to major construction sites across Europe in the spring and coming back home in the fall. The next year, the journey would typically start all over. This is how these craftsmen spread their knowledge throughout Europe.

These building lodges, in which architects, stonemasons, blacksmiths, carpenters, artistic glaziers, scaffolders, painters and roofers all worked together under the guidance of a cathedral master builder, emerged alongside the new Gothic architectural style, as art historian Barbara Schock-Werner explained in a DW interview. 

She herself was a master cathedral builder in Cologne from 1999 to 2012, and was also the chairwoman of the European Association of Master Cathedral Builders for many years.

A love of innovation

Schock-Werner told DW that the cathedral of Reims was the first "Gothic building to require a lot of specialized stonemasonry work," setting standards for their workers and for the future Bauhüttenwesen trade.

"Basically, you can see the first cathedral building lodge in Reims, at least at an early stage. The cathedral was the first Gothic building that required a lot of specialized stonemasonry work," Schock-Werner explained.

Cathedral builders throughout Europe later followed the French example, and as a result there was a veritable surge of building innovation that arose: "The cathedral construction huts were places where modern technology was invented — because it was needed for the construction," Barbara Schock-Werner stressed. 

"One example is the wheelbarrow, which was invented there in the 13th century." Thus, the Bauhütten were not only repositories of knowledge, but also ensured progress for society as a whole with their inventions.

Do — or decay

German Minister of State for Culture Monika Grütters said that the Bauhüttenwesen was an "internationally networked place of research and training" intended to bring together "great expertise with exceptional craftsmanship. This approach would even have played an important role today, she highlighted, such as for example, in the reconstruction of the baroque facade of the Humboldt Forum in Berlin. 

"This makes the award from UNESCO all the more deserving," Grütters said.

Barbara Schock-Werner
Barbara Schock-Werner regards the Bauhüttenwesen approach as one full of innovation and surpriseImage: Imago Images/H. Galuschka

The award is about more than "just" official recognition: Former cathedral builder Barbara Schock-Werner sees the inclusion of Bauhütten in the Intangible Cultural Heritage as a great success for practical reasons as well: "After all, it is always claimed that this kind of approach to work is not efficient enough. The fact that UNESCO has now designated this building trade as a piece of European culture is very important to help us shield ourselves against attacks from people who only look at the financial aspects."

In addition, Schock-Werner also hopes that this will provide a boost for young people: "It's important that these crafts are cultivated, that young people continue to be trained there as stonemasons or blacksmiths" — not only for the sake of the craft, but also for the cultural monuments that the Bauhüttenwesen maintains and repairs throughout Europe. 

In concrete terms, Schock-Werner says, that the values of Bauhüttenwesen are almost paradoxical: "Cologne Cathedral without any scaffolding on it is an eyesore," she told DW — adding that without the craftspeople of the Bauhüttenwesen working on it, such great buildings would be abandoned and left to decay.

This article was translated from German.