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8. The Packaged House: A Wartime Proposal

Published onApr 23, 2021
8. The Packaged House: A Wartime Proposal

The French Legacy of Konrad Wachsmann

When Konrad Wachsmann arrived at the Gropius house in Lincoln, Massachusetts, in September 1941, a destitute refugee, among his few possessions were two precious rolls of drawings, which he believed would one day make his fortune. One of these was the design of a tubular steel structural system.1 This system, later to become widely known as the Mobilar hangar, was one of Wachsmann’s major contributions to the art and science of building technology; its details fall beyond the scope of this study, but its development overlaps with our present concern and in some respects impinges seriously on it.

The second roll of drawings contained ten2 small sheets, unannotated, unsigned, and undated, which delineated with exquisite precision a modular universal building system, consisting of load-bearing panels, weatherboarded externally, flush-paneled internally, thermally insulated, and combining freely (as indicated by the plans, sections, elevations, and details) to generate a house plan adhering to a rectilinear three-dimensional modular grid. The edges of the wall panels were beveled at 45 degrees, and were secured to each other by elaborate Y-shaped metal connectors. This proposal for a universal housing system lies at the heart of our subject.

8.1 Konrad Wachsmann, prefab system (French scheme), combination of panels, c. 1939

8.2 Konrad Wachsmann, prefab system (French scheme), metal connector, c. 1939

These two inventions, which represented the tangible legacy of Wachsmann’s unhappy stay in France, were documented under the most adverse of conditions, the prefabricated house in the internment camp, the steel system partly in Grenoble and partly when sheltering in the South of France, in a “cave near Vence,” in 1939.3 On starting his new life in America, as Walter and Ise Gropius’ guest, Wachsmann set these projects aside, to deal with more pressing immediate issues.

Seeking to give Wachsmann some source of income and, more important, a sense of independence, Gropius offered him the opportunity of working in association on two architectural projects for whose design he had just been commissioned: a recreation center for Key West, Florida, and a house for “a successful writer.”4 This new professional association was in a sense timely for Gropius, who rarely, if ever, put pencil to drafting paper, who always preferred to work in collaboration, and who, at the time of Wachsmann’s arrival, found himself unexpectedly working alone, as his long-standing association with Marcel Breuer abruptly came to an end.5

Gropius and Wachsmann worked on these projects for a couple of months in the Gropius office in Cambridge, until the bombing of Pearl Harbor brought America into the war and eventually caused both schemes to be abandoned. However, the changed situation of America, and the implications of its new, active role in the war, stimulated Wachsmann to consider new architectural challenges and possibilities through the reactivation of dormant, but not forgotten, ideas. “That evening on December 7, 1941,” he recalled, “returning home, I told Gropius for the first time that I had developed during the time in the internment camp in France a universal system of industrialized building components, of course in the metric system . . . we talked after dinner until late in the night about it. . . .”6 The revelation of this system could not but excite Walter Gropius. He had, we may recall, just given evidence to the Congress on the need to develop such a factory-produced system of “standardized parts which should be interchangeable for use in different types of houses.”7 Now the basis of such a scheme, well conceived and presented, was put before him. The late-night discussion, on this fateful evening, could have but one result: a decision by Walter Gropius and Konrad Wachsmann to devote all their energies in a concerted effort to develop the proposal to its full potentiality. Gropius of course had many other obligations, by which his direct commitment was limited, but Wachsmann was free to give the project his full attention. To this task he now devoted himself, in a design studio set up in the basement of the Gropius house.

8.3 Konrad Wachsmann, Ise and Walter Gropius, group photo, 1947

The Packaged House

Work now proceeded at a furious pace. Three drawing tables were set up in U-fashion, and Wachsmann, on a swivel chair at their center, worked day and night, seven days a week, hardly ever leaving the house. The first task was to convert the original drawings, done in the metric scale, to feet and inches. Wachsmann, who was never satisfied merely to reiterate a previous proposal, took the opportunity to reconsider many of the original details, most significantly the metal joint. This new set of drawings included details of ten standard panels which made up the set of enclosing elements, and a sectional perspective to show how they combined to create an architectural entity. It comprised 20 sheets, bound in a cover labeled “Konrad Wachsmann, 1941. 1–20” and constituted the definitive basis of all future cooperative effort.8

But development work did not stop there. On the contrary, yet another variant was painstakingly evolved, with a completely new type of metal wedge connector, the third which Wachsmann had devised so far. This wedge connector consisted of an interlocking set of metal plates housed in the panel edge, replacing the Y-shaped connector screwed to the beveled surfaces of the original and modified French schemes. As all the components of this new connector were essentially two-dimensional (rather than the complex three-dimensional form of the Y-connector), they were obviously considered to be easier to manufacture and less vulnerable to damage. Progress was unbelievably fast. At the beginning of February Wachsmann was able to report to a friend in England that the work was nearly done, with 20 out of 24 planned sheets completed.9 He had worked compulsively, driven not only by his creative demon and his boundless faith in the system but equally by powerful emotional stresses of a blacker hue. He was an uprooted and displaced person, living on the kindness and hospitality of others; his wife Anna was ill in New York, and he was torn by anguish over the news from Europe that his mother and sister had been transported by the Nazis to Poland.10 In his case work was not only a means of fulfilling long-held ambitions, and a way of regaining independence and self-respect, it was also an anodyne to pain.

The new set of drawings, comprising details of the panels, the new wedge connector, methods of jointing, floor and roof construction, stair details, room combinations, and illustrations of a “fictitious” building using all the elements, was completed by the third week of February 1942. Joseph Hudnut, Dean of the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University, was one of the first to see the completed work,11 and suggested the name, the “Packaged House,” which was immediatély adopted.12 The term itself was not new,13 but it was appropriate and became the registered trade mark of the system as well as its popular appellation.

8.4 Konrad Wachsmann, modified scheme, detail of metal connector, 1941



Konrad Wachsmann, modified scheme, panels, 1941

8.6 Konrad Wachsmann, modified scheme, sectional perspective, 1941

8.7 Wachsmann and Gropius, Packaged House, wedge connector, 1942

8.8 Wachsmann and Gropius, Packaged House system, 1942

Gropius undertook the formalities of having the system patented, and by May 1942 an application had already been filed.14 Although the patent application claimed the novelty of the connector as the fundamental innovation of the system, the points stressed in the objectives of the system were much more comprehensive: “The invention aims to transfer most of the labor involved in the construction of a building from the site of the building itself to a factory and to make the erection of the building primarily one of assembly.” In order to achieve this, “standard units or sections, each consisting fundamentally of a duplicate of the other” are used so that “any frame section can be interchanged with any other.” In this sense the system was conceived as universal, with an infinite potential for combination of a set of standard panels (the vertical ones being load bearing) related to each other in three directions.

In trying to place the Packaged House within the conceptual framework of systems theory, it is advisable to consider separately two different issues: the Packaged House as a construction system and the Packaged House as a design system. In construction terms it was conceived as a closed system; that is, it was entirely self-contained and comprised a kit of parts whose every component element was of necessity purpose-made. It was a rational system in that the number of components was severely limited; but for all that, it was closed. It did not seek to exploit the wide range of industrially produced building components then on the market; it could not, for instance, because of the nature of the panels and the jointing system, readily incorporate standard doors and windows, or pre-made roof trusses or ceiling panels, then being mass-manufactured by others. Nor did it adjust to industrial norms, where these existed, such as the standard 48” width of plywood which was incompatible with its 3’4” module. It was a closed, rigid, homogeneous, construction system, whose limited set of integrated components all stemmed from a single design source and ultimately would all have to be produced in one comprehensive factory.

8.9 Wachsmann et al., prefabricated building (U.S. patent application 1942)

On the other hand, as a design system in relation to the end product produced, it was conceived essentially in much more flexible terms. Here it could be described as open-ended. It did not postulate a standard design, nor did it even envisage a standard set of house designs. It was intended to generate a very wide range of design options, which could not, in fact should not, be predicated in advance. These design options were of course not infinite but limited by the parameters of the construction system to a family of designs that were all rectilinear, modular, panelized, and low-rise.

At this stage, whether considered as a construction system or a design system, it was essentially product oriented. The factory-made house is in itself a subsystem of a much wider system, which goes far beyond the physical object, and that is the housing process. The factory-made house is a product; industrialized housing is a process. In that process there are of necessity other subsystems, relating production to distribution, financing, legislation, transport, and land. The Packaged House, as a product to be manufactured, was not yet conceived in terms of this wider context.

As a tool for generating houses, and as a physical product, the Packaged House was a unique and advanced conception, and yet, like many other great inventions, its uniqueness lay in an original synthesis of known and well-established elements. Except for the four-way metal connector (correctly claimed in the patent application as “new”), all the other aspects of the system were, by 1942, quite well known in theory and had often been demonstrated in practice. Load-bearing wood-framed panels, independent of a structural frame, had been used previously by both Wachsmann and Gropius. Wachsmann had worked with modular load-bearing panels at Christoph and Unmack prior to 1929, and Gropius had employed them in the Hirsch copper houses,15 based on the Förster and Krafft patent whose beveled edges were almost identical to the prototype design brought by Wachsmann from France. There were also several such systems used in the Growing House exhibition in Berlin in 1932, which had received wide publicity.16 An interesting parallel in the United States was the Modulok system17 of Arnold Southwell, an architect who was later to become involved in the Packaged House story. As far as the universality of the system was concerned, it is of interest to note an earlier proposal by architect E. Friberger for the Toreboda system, in which he used 3 m × 1 m panels which were standard except for their finishes for floors, roofs, and walls.18

Only the ingenious four-way metal connector of Wachsmann was entirely original. And yet, even here, it is not altogether without precedent. Some examples are particularly relevant. The infill panels of the Uninorm system of Constructions, Demontables Uninorm, of Paris, of 1938, were connected by a metal fastener. The “panels are fixed to each other by a special locking device with a key, two to each panel . . . an interesting locking device permitting rapid demountability.”19 As one of the principal uses of the system was for temporary shelters and barracks, one wonders if Wachsmann perhaps came across the method when he was interned in France in 1939 and acted as the camp’s “director of building operations.”20 Other examples are even closer to home. The Hirsch system locked the wall panels together by bolting them to a small vertical steel channel section. Gropius sought to eliminate this steel element by housing the fastenings directly in the wooden panel frame. To this end he designed in 1931–32 a most ingenious spring-loaded metal fastener,21 which was, however, not adopted by Hirsch. And then the Christoph and Unmack system, as we have seen, connected the panels by means of metal catches, four on each side, let into the framework of the panels, and had in fact been using metal fasteners (hooks, bolts, clamps) from the earliest days.

If attention is drawn to these precedents here, it is not to detract from the very real contribution made by the Packaged House, in both its advanced design of every separate element and the overall consistency of its general conception. Our purpose is rather to show that, inevitably, the Packaged House was a product of its times, the climax to the evolution of prefabrication in previous decades. As such, it grew naturally out of the rich experience that had been garnered by both Gropius and Wachsmann in their separate paths to mastery in the field.

The Contributions of Gropius and Wachsmann

There is no doubt, from the historical evidence, that the Packaged House was initially the brain child of Konrad Wachsmann. Gropius confirmed this with characteristic generosity, ascribing to Wachsmann a “decisive part in the scheme.”22 However, in saying this, he nevertheless went on to claim that, in the development of the Packaged House, he and Wachsmann had “pooled our experiences.”23 This is literally correct, as in the evenings they mulled together over the principles and the evolving details of the scheme. But it is perhaps also true in a more general, and much more significant, sense. The original Wachsmann proposal, the French scheme, which is the prototype of all subsequent mutations and developments, is the product not only of Wachsmann’s ingenuity but of a whole decade of experience of prefabrication to which Gropius in Germany had given the prime theoretical direction and a great deal of practical impetus.

From this point on their individual contributions to the joint endeavor varied in kind and in quantity. Wachsmann’s contribution to its technical development predominated, and most of the drawing-board decisions—those decisions of detail that are critical to architectural projects—were made by him. Gropius of course could contribute significantly here. He had a firm grasp of technical detail, and even though his experience in Germany had been predominantly in metals and lightweight construction, he had built up an extensive experience of building in wood since coming to America.24 But because of the limited time at his disposal his role was more that of critic and sounding board: Wachsmann, working full time, was the essential innovator of detail. Gropius, on the other hand, provided the theoretical framework which gave architectural meaning and a human goal to the technical means: the conceptual framework of his philosophy of unity and variety, flexibility and growth, stability and change, standardization and individual choice. He also gave the Packaged House its first architectural form with a set of drawings showing possible house types generated by the system—a two-family house and a doublestory row house with dwelling units of various sizes.25

Each in his own way responded to the challenges of technology and industrialization. Hence Wachsmann, at the Princeton Conference on Building for Modern Man:

The planning of man’s physical environment has to be based on the best use of the available technique, which in turn is based on our knowledge of and our ability to control energy; in other words, on our economy and on our science. Only when it uses such means can a building, in any age, be called modern. Anybody who is able to improve such methods, even in abstract terms, is indeed an artist.26

8.10 Gropius and Wachsmann, Packaged House, standard house type A, 1942

Gropius, on the same occasion, had this to say:

Men will always rebel at attempts at overmechanization which are contrary to life. But industrialization will not stop at the threshold of building. We have no other choice but to accept the challenge of the machine in all fields of production until men finally adapt it fully to serve their biological needs.27

In other words, to Wachsmann the technological imperative was sheer poetry, by which man, in heroic terms, mastered the universe, whereas to Gropius it was an inescapable force, a means to be transmuted by man into serving his human goals. Gropius was in some sense a nineteenth-century figure, a humanist with an ambivalent attitude to the machine, fearing its dehumanizing potential but recognizing it, in Etienne Cabet’s phrase, as “humanity’s emancipator”;28 Wachsmann, of a later generation, was a man of the twentieth century, glorifying in technology and the science which underlay it as a source of light and poetry. Despite these fundamental differences they shared some important values:

An intense involvement in people and problems, a quality that Buckminster Fuller defined in them as love.

An unassailable optimism and a forward-looking faith, expressed in Wachsmann’s phrase, “The future is everything.”

A synthetic vision, always taking the comprehensive view and seeing potentialities for relationships where others saw only boundaries and incompatibilities.

In the fateful months between December 1941 and February 1942, within an ideology jointly conceived, Wachsmann produced the superbly drafted folio of drawings, and Gropius provided the logistic support: his home as drafting space and a base for operations; the capital, which provided for Wachsmann’s work and livelihood and the cost of preparing drawings and models; access to legal guidance for making the patent application. Most important of all, Gropius operated within an incomparable network of connections which he had by now established through his formidable international reputation, his high standing at Harvard, and his inherent qualities as a human being of warmth and integrity. Such a network provided access for the Packaged House proposal to sources of influence in the press, the government, the academic world, and even the fringes of high finance.29

They entered the affair as equal partners and cooperated willingly, selflessly. But the stresses under which they operated were great. There were the macrostresses of the troubled world situation: it was not easy to be categorized, even if only in a technical sense, as enemy aliens in wartime America;30 it was not easy, in the tranquillity of New England, to ponder the fate of their friends and family in Germany. And then there were the microstresses: the eternal worry about money, the tensions of an overlong stay as a houseguest, where hospitality, however generous, eventually becomes a burden on the receiver as well as the donor, and frictions caused by personality differences begin to arise.

Not only was Ise Gropius by now, much to her husband’s concern, beginning to become restive with the situation, but by the spring of 1942, it was becoming apparent that the future of the Packaged House system lay not in the secluded world of Gropius’ house in Lincoln, nor in the academic ambience of Cambridge, but in the hurly-burly financial world of New York. The hard decision was taken for Wachsmann to leave the drawing studio for New York City. Ise Gropius, whom he greatly admired but with whom, in recent weeks, he had increasingly crossed swords, bade him a hero’s farewell. “Come back to Lincoln,” she said, “either with your shield, or on it.”31 Wachsmann left Gropius, as he had arrived, practically penniless. He still spoke little English and faced considerable hardship in New York. But overcoming difficulties was a way of life with him; he was stimulated to be a free agent again and was optimistic that he would successfully meet all challenges. Great events had taken place in recent months, not only in the studio at Lincoln but also in the public arena, in the world of housing. On 24 February 1942 President Roosevelt “used his war powers to consolidate all Federal housing functions with a new National Housing Agency under a single administrator with full powers.”32 In the same month it was reported that a division of the FWA had allocated $153 million for demountable housing, in a vast program to house defense workers relocated through the decentralization of industry. The program, which aimed at producing 42,000 dwellings, provided a great oppportunity to the prefabrication industry.33 Gropius’ evidence to the Select Committee of Congress had possibly been a factor in this highly favorable development; Wachsmann would have to hurry, however, if the newly invented Packaged House was to be ready in time, to share in this promised windfall.

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