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3. The Pragmatic Tradition

Published onApr 23, 2021
3. The Pragmatic Tradition

Industry as an Initiating Force: The Steel House

Responding to the assessed needs of the housing market in the mid-twenties, German industry—and not only the building construction industry—began, somewhat tentatively, to turn its attention to the field of industrialized building. The use of sophisticated steel structures, following American models, had not only been seen for some time in industrial and commercial buildings but by 1926 had also been introduced into residential buildings by the Luckhardt brothers and Anker in a private house, and by Mebes and Emmerich in the same year in a large apartment development at Berlin-Britz.1 Now, consideration began to be given to the mass production of houses, using unorthodox materials and methods. “The shortage of dwellings in Germany is undoubtedly hastening the development of steel house construction there,” advised the U.S. Department of Commerce, basing itself on a report, in 1928, from its consul in Cologne. This shortage, estimated at 800,000 dwellings, was “not without its effect in promoting the popularity of quickly erected, easily financed, durable, and hygienic quarters such as are just now becoming available to the public through the medium of steel houses.”2

In addition to this perceived demand there was on the part of the steel industry and its associated branches an anxiety to exploit more fully a productive capacity that had begun to exceed marketing possibilities. “A big slump in the steel trade in 1927 left Vereinigte Stahl-werke, the German steel trust, with considerable excess capacity and the desire to seek new outlets,”3 noted Burnham Kelly, adding that even major industrialists like Hugo Stinnes (a founding member of the trust) and Hugo Junker became interested in the potential of steel building methods.4 Ambition and necessity combined to give a special impetus to the development of a new industry which, despite its innumerable permutations, was collectively called Stahlhausbau.

Steel houses produced by this industry were classified5 in four classes: Stahltafelbau, a framed and sheathed construction, where the frame may not be steel but covered with steel plates; Stahllamellenbau, a structure of selfsupporting steel panels that act as both structure and cladding; Stahlskelettsbau, a steel skeleton frame with an infill walling system that utilizes a variety of possible materials, including conventional masonry construction; and Stahlrahmenbau, a steel supporting structure preassembled into framed panels to simplify erection procedures. It is evident that not all of these methods are complete prefabrication systems; industrialization in some apply to the framing, in others to the cladding, and most involved a greater or lesser degree of site work, apart from assembly and erection procedures. But they were all far in advance of conventional housebuilding methods, and considerable savings in both cost and time of construction were hopefully anticipated. These inherent advantages, it was argued, would help to counter the resistance to the new products natural in a conservative society. As the American consul in Cologne reported: “The manufacturers of steel houses have launched considerable propaganda in their support in the Cologne district, hoping by these means to overcome the existing prejudice against their use and at the same time to increase their sale. This propaganda is most widespread, appearing in the local press in the form of favorable comment, through advertising, and also by means of free, illustrated lectures and discussions.” These methods, we may interpolate here, were precisely those advocated by Gropius in the 1910 memorandum. The report continued: “To date, the most effective arguments presented are those based on the simplicity of this method of construction, its practicability, low price, hygienic character, durability, and the rapidity with which these steel houses can be erected.” He then added wryly: “The prejudice against the steel house is traditional in the Cologne area and is based principally upon aesthetic grounds. The houses which are being erected are, admittedly, useful but cannot be called beautiful, which fact the producers seem to have taken into account in that they base their sales arguments rather on the practicability than the beauty of these structures.”6

In this new development precedents were sought and encouragement derived from experiments in other countries. The industry of Britain and America was still much admired and respected in Germany, and their achievements were looked on as a model for emulation. Therefore the extensive American experience with steel, in the structural skeleton generally and to a limited degree in the development of steel houses,7 was regarded with interest. However, the more important influence was undoubtedly the British postwar experiment in factory-produced steel houses, especially of the Atholl, Braithwaite (Telford), and Weir types. These British developments, whose achievements were widely publicized but whose problems were not as widely known, were regarded as a great success in Germany. They looked with admiration at the range of types, at the eminence of their sponsors, and the thousands of houses reported to have been constructed. Most of all they looked to the Weir house, and its features were comprehensively described in German-language professional and construction-industry literature.8

The first German steel house of this postwar period, manufactured by the Wöhr Bros. Ironworks at Unterkochen, was generally acknowledged to have been derived from the Weir house.9 It was produced in April 1926 as a five-roomed house of Stahltafelbau construction whose basis was a wood frame covered with 3-mm steel plates well insulated with Torfoleum. Later models used an alternative structure of steel framing. This more homogeneous system was also used by Braune and Roth of Leipzig, whose “Sonne” model steel house came shortly after the Wöhr house. Completed on 26 August 1926 it had taken a mere three weeks to erect, and eventually several one- and two-family house types were produced, all in a system similar to the Wöhr house, or its British prototype. Braune and Roth came to steel house manufacture from a background in the manufacture of steel strong rooms and safes; and their patented system of house construction was used by another Leipzig firm of strong room manufacturers, Carl Kästner and Co., who also began, at that time, to produce steel houses. It was Kästner who put together the Muche-Paulick steel house at Dessau, which we discussed in the preceding chapter. These pioneer efforts in the new steel house business originated not with architects nor even with traditional building contractors but with firms with the special equipment—the presses and mills—for processing steel and the knowledge and experience to adapt it to new purposes. Another such firm was the Hamburg machine tool manufacturer and shipbuilder, the Deutsche Schiffs-und Maschinebau-Aktiengesellschaft, and with its entry into the field of prefabrication, the wheel of history turned full circle, for nearly a century before some of the first iron prefabs had been made by the shipbuilders Fairbairn and Grantham.10

By far the most substantial industrial concern to engage itself in prefabrication was the newly established giant steel trust, the Vereinigte Stahlwerke, which set up a subsidiary company, the Stahlhaus-Baugesellschaft m.b.H., of Duisburg, “for the sole purpose of manufacturing steel houses.”11 These houses were of the Stahllamellenbau type, similar in some respects to the Telford house of Braithwaite; that is, they were constructed of load-bearing, self-supporting steel panels. An experimental house of this type was erected at Kaiserburg, in Duisburg, in 1927, and was followed shortly after by groups of houses in Duisburg and Munich. The system was developed for Stahlhaus-Baugesellschaft by the architect Heinrich Blecken, who was Vereinigte Stahlwerke’s director of construction, and had been described in all its technical details by him as early as 1926 in an article in the Deutsche Bauzeitung, after the system had been patented.12 When, some three years later, Blecken once again wrote of the steel house, in a comprehensive survey of Skelettsbau and Lamellenbau, he could point to many examples erected, including a complete steel house Siedlung in the Ruhr.13

One of the most important of the German steel house systems originated in neighboring Austria. This was the Böhler system, originally developed by the Viennese architect, Alfred Schmid.14 He first reported on the new system in the journal of the association of architects and engineers in Austria in 1927,15 but as he pointed out, the experiments he was describing had by then been proceeding for one and a half years, which would place them among the first pioneers. He acknowledges the contribution made by others to the development of industrialized building: the American experience in steel building, the Bauhaus experiments, and of course the Weir house, a major article on which had appeared in the previous issue of the same journal.16 He views the industrialization of the building process with enthusiasm and with optimism. Its product is the “house of the future,” and its day is not far off. The reasons he cites are familiar because they have become the undisputed assumptions of the new industry. The factory-made house must succeed, because of its economical cost, its speed and ease of erection, and its independence of the constraints of both the traditional labor force and the vagaries of the weather. The article sums up the achievements to date: an experimental house in Kapfenberg, and two houses at the exhibition Wien und die Wiener, one designed by the architect Walter Raschka and the other possibly by Schmid.

3.1 Wöhr Bros., steel house, probably at Unterkochen, 1926

3.2 Braune and Roth, steel house, construction details, c. 1926

3.3 Heinrich Blecken, steel houses, Stahlhaus G.m.b.H., Duisburg, c. 1927

The manufacturers of these houses, Böhler Bros., are only briefly mentioned in the article, but they are the technical base and commercial power that motivates the entire operation. In 1926 the Gebr. Böhler & Co. Aktiengesellschaft of Vienna established their Abteilung Stahlhausbau to produce houses based on the Schmid system.17 Several house types were developed, including one-family and two-family models. A branch of the business was established in Berlin to further sales, and was said in 1928 to be “active in this direction.”18 The Böhler houses utilized a steel skeleton frame of light channel sections at 1-m spacing, to which were bolted steel plates which formed the interior surface of the wall. The exterior was clad with Heraklith or other insulation boarding, finished with roughcast plaster. In later versions Böhler abandoned the inner steel plate, which had been its unique feature, and experimented with a variety of other materials, including Heraklith and Eternit asbestos sheeting as the inner cladding. Still other versions, while retaining the small-scale, closely spaced steel posts and beams (the enduring and essential elements of the system), replace the cladding with more substantial materials, such as pumice building blocks and slabs, cement rendered.19 Although the structure of the Böhler house is prefabricated, in many of its forms its external finish is stucco, which makes it indistinguishable to the eye from conventional houses. The Böhler company made constant efforts to bring the advantages of its system to the attention of architects and the lay public. At the Bauwelt Musterschau of 1931 a house, designed by architects Kuhnert and Pfeiffer, using the Böhler system, was exhibited as part of the outcome of a low-cost housing competition.20 Later the same year, the Böhler-Stahlskelett-Bauweise (as demonstrated in a house by Haring) was displayed to the public.21 In the Houses for Fixed Prices exhibit organized by Bauwelt magazine the following year22 (1932) there were five houses using the Böhler system, four designed by architects, the fifth a product of Böhler’s own design department. The appearances of these houses are varied, and it is apparent that the use of the system imposes few constraints on the architect. This is also apparent in the diverse appearance of the Böhler houses designed by the architects of the Growing House, in the 1932 exhibition at Berlin, which we shall discuss later.

Gropius himself had for a long time taken a keen interest in the Böhler system. He had familiarized himself with their printed material, inquired of their conditions of payment and delivery, and was particularly interested in their use of flat roofs.23 His own experimental house at Stuttgart, we recall, was based on a light steel frame, and as we shall see, he was to return to the idea again, developing it even further. The Böhler system, though essentially a compromise system of prefabrication, was one of the better known in Germany, and it continued in production until the mid-thirties, when restrictions on the use of steel forced it out of business.24 As late as 1933 there were reports of a new Siedlung of 2,500 houses, to be built entirely of Böhler houses;25 it was also, as we shall discuss later, actively to seek an export market. For a few years the steel house industry flourished in Germany where it was initiated very largely by the dynamics of the steel industry itself and its associated firms.

3.4 Walter Raschka, cottage, Böhler system, Wien und der Wiener exhibition, Vienna, c. 1927

3.5 Böhler-Stahlbau, schematic diagram, lightweight system, c. 1932

3.6 Böhler-Stahlbau, schematic diagram, block infill system, c. 1932

3.7 Johannes Niemeyer, “fixed-price” house, using Böhler system, Berlin 1932

Konrad Wachsmann and Holzhausbau

Building in timber was a German tradition of venerable ancestry, which remained popular, even after the Industrial Revolution, in rural if not urban contexts. After the 1914–1918 war, as a result of a great shortage of all strategic building materials, timber was once again seriously considered, and its potential exploited, often in entirely new ways by architects and building contractors. The German construction magazine, Deutsche Bauzeitung, began to produce in 1920 a special supplement, Der Holzbau, to record and encourage this development. In its very first issue it featured an article by Adolf Sommerfeld on the role of the German Timber Building Federation, and an illustration of a large wooden hangar for naval aircraft, built by Sommerfeld’s construction company with timber processed by his own sawmills.26 Walter Gropius had at this time, 1920, just designed “a quite fantastic project for an administration building for the Sommerfeld company . . . completely of wood,” had, together with his partner Adolf Meyer, designed a two-story apartment house for Sommerfeld (built in Berlin-Lichterfelde in 1920–21); and was busy with the famed Sommerfeld blockhouse, which was a combined Bauhaus project.27 Gropius was, in 1920, an ardent protagonist of wood as a building material for modern times: “We must re-experience wood, rediscover it, re-form it, according to our own spirit and without imitating old forms that no longer suit us.28 Innovative (although romantically evocative) in form, Gropius’ blockhouse for Sommerfeld was traditional, handmade, in construction. Sommerfeld himself, however, was developing a blockhouse building system on an industrialized scale, which was discussed and described in several issues of Der Holzbau.29

This activity by Sommerfeld was part of a general, but short-lived, revival of interest in timber building, whose climax, perhaps, were housing estates in Berlin of about 300 wooden dwellings, put up in 1920 by the Holzbau-Industriellen-Verbandes Berlin, a consortium of construction companies.30 After this intense activity a decline set in, and after the spate of early projects in 1920 and 1921, by 1923 there is not one report of a new development in Der Holzbau.

In August 1926, in a lecture to the Association of German Master Carpenters, the engineer Leo Kuhberg addressed himself to the problem of timber building methods in the technological development of Germany.31 He regarded timber as a resource whose potential was only recognized during the recent war, when shortages of steel and concrete necessitated a search for alternatives. After discussing the problems and possibilities of wooden construction, even in major engineering works, he turned to the issue of housing. This, for Kuhberg, was to be the main thrust of the economy and the building industry, to mobilize every resource to the last German mark for the building of houses. Here he foresaw a great role for wooden houses, because above all they responded to the call of the day for the establishment of norms and standard types. Whole walls, whole rooms could be premade complete to the last fitting according to these norms. Was it not ludicrous, he asked, that, with this great potential, housing authorities in the Rhineland and Westphalia were at that time busy negotiating with English firms for the importation of Englischen Stahlpanzerhäuser?

This cri-de-coeur reflected that diminishing of activity to which we have earlier referred, the decline the German wooden building industry was at that time suffering, both as the result of changed postwar circumstances and the competition of the technologically more sophisticated, more exciting, and more “modern” steel systems then being developed. In the field of one-family dwelling the traditional building industry focused on massive systems of masonry construction, and new initiatives, which were directed to the development of the steel house, were exceptional. But the wooden house building industry was temporarily eclipsed by these alternative methods. This situation was soon to change, and as we shall later see, the majority of systems at the Berlin Summer Show in 1932 were of wooden construction, with the major emphasis on prefabricated panel systems.32 This renaissance stemmed in part from the revived interest of architects in wood construction, as they came to understand its potential in industrialized building. The extrapolation from traditional methods of detailing woodwork to the designing of total systems was not as great a step for a progressive architect as entry into the more esoteric field of steel construction. These initiatives by architects were underpinned, and given both breadth and stability, by the far more widespread and expanding activity of some of the long-established, substantial makers of wooden buildings. Let us briefly take a look at two of these firms.

Karl Schmidt was a cabinet maker who started a furniture workshop in Dresden in 1898.33 Thjs venture, at first called the Dresdener Werkstätten, later became the renowned Deutsche Werkstätten, whose main concern was to be the production of furniture by machinery. In 1905–06, at an exhibition in Dresden, the workshop showed to the public, for the first time, its range of machine-made furniture, much of it designed by Schmidt’s brother-in-law, the architect Richard Riemerschmid. Riemerschmid was one of the original twelve artists who had been founding members of the Deutscher Werkbund, and the Deutsche Werkstätten had been one of the original representatives of industry. Karl Schmidt was a close personal friend of Friedrich Naumann, cofounder with Muthesius of the Werkbund. Another original member, the architect Adelbert Niemeyer, of Munich, together with a colleague, Karl Bertsch, now came to join the Deutsche Werkstätten group. Its aim, proclaimed the catalog at the Dresden exhibition, was “developing the style of furniture from the spirit of the machine.”34 By 1910 it had begun to concern itself with the issue of standardization and modular units which were developed as Typenmöbel.

The next step, from industrially produced furniture to industrially produced wooden housing, was logical and—considering the number of architects closely connected with the firm—inevitable. While the production of furniture continued, a new department for the production of “D. W. (or De We) Holzhäuser” was established. By the late 1920s this was a flourishing business, with headquarters at Hellerau, near Dresden, and with branches in Berlin and Munich.35 They offered twenty-five standard houses designed by architects Karl Bertsch, Eugen Schwemmle, Richard Riemerschmid, Adelbert Niemeyer, and Hans Poelzig. These house types came in most cases in two alternative systems, finished externally either in Jalousies (weatherboards) or in Schwartzen (half-round timbers set in frames and treated with carbolineum). All wooden walls were thermally insulated and finished internally with smooth panels. Sizes of houses ranged from a modest 55 sq m (costing RM 8,960) to a luxurious 320 sq m (at RM 40,480). On the whole the architectural styles were varied but conservative, and there was no suggestion in the plan, the external form, or detailing that these were factory-produced houses. In fact they were much less like prefabricated houses than were a set of wooden houses, mainly flat roofed and modular, which were designed by Riemerschmid and published shortly thereafter.36 The output of the firm was eclectic, and in addition they were prepared to adjust any design to suit individual desires. It was this quality they stressed—together with economy, speed of construction, good insulation, good fire-resistance qualities, and adaptability to landscape—in their campaign to sell the houses. They participated in competitions to bring their product to the public notice, and in Bauwelfs modern small house contest an entry by Eugen Schwemmle, using the De-We system, was among the award winners.37 Schwemmle was also the architect of their most impressive achievement up until the end of the thirties, the Grosssiedlung Leupnitz-Neuostra, near Dresden,38 with both single and multifamily dwellings constructed in large numbers.

Probably the most important firm in Germany, and certainly the most venerable, to be engaged at that time in the industrial production of wooden buildings was Christoph and Unmack A. G., of Niesky, in Silesia. The history of the firm is complex and interesting.39 Like Schmidt of the Deutsche Werkstätten, Christian Ferdinand Christoph began his career as the maker of furniture, in partnership with an architect, Christian Rudolf Unmack. This was in Copenhagen, in 1869. Some time later, in 1880, the firm of Christoph and Unmack began to participate in the development of a system of construction of wooden barracks, invented many years previously by a Danish military officer, J. G. C. Doecker. In its original form this had been more of a rigid tent than a building, comprising a system of wall and roof panels, each consisting of a wooden (or iron) frame covered with a waterproofed felt material, the panels being hinged together in pairs, for easy folding, stacking, and transportation.40 When, in 1882, Christoph and Unmack acquired the patent rights to the Doecker-Bauten system, they developed it further into a more substantial structure and made provision for doors and windows, more permanent cladding and roofing materials, and an ingenious but simply operated metal coupling system using hooked catches, bolts, and wing nuts to secure and unite the component elements. These, it should be noted, were of standard modular size. The system was reversible, and the essence of the structure was not only its ease of erection but its demountability and transportability.41 With the financial backing, technical ability, and initiative of this firm behind an idea basically sound in conception, the project flourished and soon became internationally known. A Gold Medal was won at the Berlin Hygiene Exhibition of 1883 and an award in an International Red Cross competition for Portable Hospitals in Antwerp in 1885.42 These accolades stimulated trade in the field hospital and barracks buildings made according to the Doecker system. In 1885 an order for 50 barracks was received from the Prussian Ministry of War, and this proved the decisive factor in persuading the manufacturers to move from out of the way Denmark to the heart of Germany. They came to Niesky in Silesia, where half a century previously another Christoph, J. E. Christoph (a cousin to Christian Ferdinand) had established an iron machinery and construction business. It was by now a flourishing concern, run by an engineer son, and employing several hundred workmen. In 1887 the two businesses joined forces, and a new Christoph and Unmack emerged at Niesky, a conglomerate factory manufacturing machines, ironwork, and wooden houses. By the beginning of the twentieth century it was already a large and flourishing business, making a large diversity of wooden buildings. World War I, with its insatiable demand for barracks and field hospitals, gave production an additional impetus. At the war’s end it continued this military production on a diminished scale and turned its attention to civilian needs, seeking to capture markets other than emergency ones. It sought to improve its quality and, in 1919, initiated scientific tests to enhance the thermal performance of its blockhouse and panel systems.43 By 1920 it had begun to build wooden houses in significant numbers, in the new Siedlungen near Berlin, at Johannisthal and Berlin-Steglitz.44 Illustrations of its specialized buildings: hospital pavilions, a pilot’s home, portable gymnasiums, even a school installation exported to Leith, in Scotland, were published.45 After this promising new development came the economic decline, and Christoph and Unmack went through the troubled years of 1923 and 1924, years of financial chaos and social disorder, with great difficulty. By 1925, with surprising suddenness, the economy revived, and with it the fortunes of this giant and diverse manufacturing company which in its departments for wood construction, machine construction and wagon building employed some 4,000 workers, with an administrative staff of 400.

3.8 Hans Poelzig, house using De-We construction system, c. 1929

3.9 Richard Riemerschmid, designs for wooden houses, 1932

3.10 Eugen Schwemmle, Leupritz-Neostra housing estate, precut timber houses

In 1925 a new director, the engineer Friedrich Abel, took over the wooden building department, and a vital new period in the firm’s development commenced. The architect Hans Poelzig was appointed to the Board of Directors in 1926, and although he did not introduce revolutionary changes, Christoph and Unmack was exposed for the first time to the new world of architecture then unfolding in Germany. Through Poelzig there was a direct line of contact with the group of architects who were then remaking Germany’s cities and its architectural character. The eminent Hans Scharoun, for instance, was commissioned to design a “middle-class” house in 1927. Poelzig’s contribution to Christoph and Unmack lay not in this, nor in his own rather undistinguished designs, but in another direction altogether. Heinrich Wurm puts it this way: “Poelzigs eigentlicher Beitrag bestand freilich darin, dass er seinen Meisterschüler Konrad Wachsmann als Chefarchitekten nach Niesky vermittelte” (Poelzig’s essential contribution of course was that he established his master student Konrad Wachsmann as chief architect at Niesky).46

When we recapitulated Walter Gropius’ early experience in prefabrication, we could feel a certain inevitability, a consistency, in an evolutionary process from first theoretical formulation to final full commitment to the industrial system. With Konrad Wachsmann, very much younger and much more ebullient in temperament, we sense a more accidental process at work. In his relationship to prefabrication, as in so many other critical points in his career, chance takes a hand, and when in 1926 he is eventually brought by the vagaries of fate into direct contact with the potentialities of prefabrication, it is a dramatic but unexpected confrontation.

Konrad Wachsmann came only indirectly to architecture.47 As a youth he was apprenticed as a cabinetmaker and carpenter, and later became a skilled journeyman in this craft. In 1922 his latent interest in architecture found its first formal expression in studies at the School of Fine Arts in Berlin. During 1923–24 he took a course under Heinrich Tessenow at the Academy of Arts in Dresden; and the following year was a “master student” under Poelzig, at the Academy of Arts in Berlin. This was to be a most significant encounter, for a warm master-disciple relationship was soon established. When Wachsmann returned to Berlin from an abortive visit to Paris in 1926—penniless, jobless, desperate—it was Poelzig who came to his rescue, with the offer of a job at the factory of Christoph and Unmack, where he was now a director.

3.11 Christoph and Unmack, patent for military tent (German patent 1884)

3.12 Christoph and Unmack, Ducker’s (Docker’s) portable barrack and field hospital, 1886. Top: general views; above: details.

Christoph and Unmack was at this time probably the largest and oldest manufacturer of prefabricated wooden buildings in Europe. It had branch offices in several major German cities and agencies in many more. It was also represented widely abroad, with agents throughout Europe as well as the Middle East and Latin America. According to the original Doecker panel system they manufactured single- and multifamily houses, and entire housing schemes; workshops and office buildings; exhibition and sales pavilions; children’s, recreation, and convalescent homes; and standardized classrooms and school buildings.48 In their blockhouse department they constructed villas, country houses, and hunting lodges of traditional Scandinavian appearance but utilizing ingenious prefabrication methods. In addition to these “transportable” buildings they undertook major engineering works in timber, ranging from industrial buildings to long-span bridges. Finally, they were engaged in the series production of joinery work, such as standard doors, windows, and staircases.

Although the blockhouse section produced a large variety of building types—the catalog of that department alone running to 67 pages49—it was the panel system that was technically and architecturally the most interesting.50 It comprised a simple modular set of self-supporting timberframed elements, ranging in width from 1 to 1.33 m, among which were standard wall, door, and window panels of various types. There was a variety of possible internal and external cladding specifications, as well as degrees of thermal insulation, depending on the class and purpose of building ordered. These panels, in some instances, appear to be complex in construction, overdesigned, and extravagant in the use of material. This, however, was typical of much Scandinavian design and seemed also to be representative of German design in timber of that period.51 The panels were joined together by metal catches (Hakenverschlüsse) let into the framework, four on each side, and the joints were normally concealed by vertical cover strips. This panel system, with its rigid modularity, generated a simple architecture of repetitive character capable of extension vertically and horizontally on an incremental basis. It was a modest, orderly, systematic architecture at once expressive of its mechanical origins and keeping with the spirit of the Modern Movement.

Christoph and Unmack used the services of many architects, in the design of their buildings. To Poelzig and Scharoun, whom we have already mentioned, we could add such names as Professor Albinmüller, Franz Zell, Joh [ann?] Mundt, Werner Schenck, Hans Herkommer, Hans Zimmerman, and many others. Most of them designed houses using the blockhouse system. Other architects52 used the Christoph and Unmack framing system, which gave greater freedom, as it did not express the modularity of the components on the exterior but only in the interior wall linings. In relation to the panel system, however, with its greater discipline, the basic design work was generally done within the organization itself, in Christoph and Unmack’s own design department. Wachsmann entered the design department of Christoph and Unmack in July 1926.53 By April of the following year he had risen to the rank of chief designer and had achieved a position of much authority, being concerned not only with design but also with problems of research, management, and production. He was responsible for the design of several important projects: a house for the director, a convalescent hospital, and a hospital and school pavilions. Although Wachsmann made no changes to the construction system itself, he undertook the reorganization of the firm’s catalog on a modular basis, providing a squared grid upon which customers could plot out their own plans. This aid to user participation was, incidentally, later to be used by Hans Scharoun in his project for the Growing House exhibition in Berlin, in 1931–32. “I developed new types of catalogs,” wrote Wachsmann, “which I believe for the first time in Europe did not offer finished buildings but instead all components to build with. Modular grids had been printed in those catalogs in which clients could draw their own approximate floor plans. Those were then transformed into professional drawings by my office, using only numbered predetermined parts to build the whole.”54 In this way the emphasis changed from the production of a range of building types to a set of standard building components which could be freely combined according to the purchaser’s needs. The importance of this concept must be stressed because Wachsmann had achieved in practice and at one stroke the goal toward which Gropius had been striving since 1910, that is, the standardization of the part and the infinite variety of the whole. Gropius, between the 1910 memorandum and the Bauhaus experiments, defined the theoretical postulates; Wachsmann, possibly unaware of the theory, achieved the practical consummation at Niesky. Notwithstanding this emphasis on the part, every building to leave the factory (components packed in crates which could also serve as floor panels) was fully equipped in every way: prefabricated foundation piers were supplied, electrical and mechanical equipment fully installed, and all necessary furniture included, even—so Wachsmann maintained—the chalk for the school blackboard and the surgical instruments for the hospital!

3.13 Christoph and Unmack, factory at Niesky, Silesia, c. 1926

3.14 Fritz Marcus, wooden house in Rupenhorn, Berlin, using Christoph and Unmack system, c. 1923

In 1929 Wachsmann, in a dazzling display of that mixture of initiative and chutzpah so typical of the man, managed to secure the commission to design the residence of Professor Albert Einstein in Potsdam. Using the full power of Christoph and Unmack’s design department—draftsmen, engineers, accountants—he produced, literally overnight, an overwhelming presentation of the scheme: sketch plans, fully detailed drawings, mechanical and electrical installation diagrams, specifications, cost analysis. After some initial difficulties in finding a site, the project went ahead. The house was manufactured in Christoph and Unmack’s workshops, using not the standard panel system but an alternative framing and cladding system sometimes employed. The finished house was first erected in one of the factory halls to test the fit of the components, as was Christoph and Unmack’s practice,55 and was then dismantled and transported to the Potsdam site for final assembly. The Einstein house is not a central event per se in the history of prefabrication, but it has a place in our narrative, and not only because of its piquancy. It was the occasion for Wachsmann to leave the protective environment of Christoph and Unmack and to enter the exposed field of private practice. But although for the time being he had given up his active role in prefabrication, most of his own designs being based on the more individual timber-framing method than on the universal panel system,56 his view of architecture and technology had been irrevocably changed by his experiences at Christoph and Unmack. As he later put it: “In the large factory halls I saw for the first time, like a miracle, production machines producing . . . prefabricated panel systems for housing, hospitals and schools, manufactured there . . . and then shipped all over the world. In a split second I understood that mass production was more than a technological event. In fact, I suddenly sensed that industrialization was the answer to building, and terribly important.” Wachsmann, who considered himself then, wryly, to be “only a carpenter,” realized not only the limitations of the individual but the tremendous potential of working through the reproductive capacity of the machine. “This,” he proclaimed, “was my revelation.”

3.15 Christoph and Unmack, standard classrooom, c. 1930

3.16 Konrad Wachsmann, house for Albert Einstein, Potsdam, using Christoph and Unmack system, 1929

The lessons learned at Niesky, were spelled out by Wachsmann in the foreword to his book, Holzhausbau, written in 1930: 57

Today the wooden house is produced by machines in the factory, and not by manual labor. The old, highly developed, manual skills are being replaced by machine technology. In this way new possibilities are discovered, new applications and forms. Wood as a construction element formed through the traditional work of the carpenter no longer meets the requirements of fabrication and structural design. However, as a consequence of machine processing, it possesses the same technical and economic significance as any other construction material.58

In this book Wachsmann sums up his experience in wood construction and systematizes it in three modes: framing systems, panel systems, and blockhouse systems.59 Each method is discussed, copiously illustrated, and expressed graphically in a sectional perspective of almost ideogrammatic lucidity. The examples illustrated in the book are derived from three main sources: Christoph and Unmack, the Deutsche Werkstätten, and the Carl Tuchscherer Co., all three pioneers in the industrial production of timber houses. Many of the illustrations are of buildings, in all modes of construction, designed by Wachsmann himself. This lack of modesty was characteristic of the man; also characteristic, however, was his generosity, for the book was dedicated to Friedrich Abel, the director of Christoph and Unmack, to whom he owed so much.

The Role of the Architect

From this brief survey of the German prefabrication industry of the 1920s it is clear that the architect played a varied role. In some instances the architect himself was responsible for the design of the prefabrication system, in its conceptual and technical aspects. If such a design resulted in a concrete consummation, it was generally in the form of a unique, one-off example, hand built by a construction firm rather than the product of an industrial process. It was an experiment in new construction methods, a demonstration of industrial potential, at best a possible prototype for industrial production. This, essentially, was the meaning and value of Gropius’ demonstration houses at the Weissenhofsiedlung; and later at the Berlin Building Exhibition of 1932 it was to be the principal function of the work of many architects, including Scharoun, Ludolf von Veltheim and Klaus Müller-Rehm, Hans Köhler and Jürgen Schweitzer, and Martin Wagner.60 Rarely indeed was the next step attempted, to try and put the design into actual production. Otto Bartning created his own company, Werfthaus System Bartning G.m.b.H., to produce his ingenious panel system; and Gascard and Canthal produced their own “G. & C.-Anbauhaus.”61 These were exceptions and did not prove to be commercially viable. Occasionally, an architect-designed system was adopted by an industrial firm, as was the case when Böhler produced the system designed by Schmid, or when Hans Spiegel’s designs were produced by Stahlbau Düsseldorf G.m.b.H., in their Stahlrahmen houses.62

Much more frequently the systems were designed within the industrial organizations themselves by anonymous designers who might have been architects but were more likely to be engineers or even technicians familiar with the materials, machinery, and processes of production. In practically all the larger and more successful undertakings, whether in steel or in wood, the architect’s role was principally that of an external consultant, designing the houses but not the system itself. We have already referred to many examples in relation to Böhler, the Deutsche Werkstätten, and Christoph and Unmack. Some of these houses remained one-off examples for specific clients, others were demonstration or competition houses,63 while many others became prototypes for mass production, being listed as standard types in the catalogs of the firms. In working out these designs, in terms of a specific existing system, it was possible that the system itself underwent modification. This was probably the case when Muche and Paulick adapted the Kästner system for their steel house, or when Josef Hoffmann designed his elegant steel house using the Vogel and Noot system.64 Hans Scharoun modified the Christoph and Unmack panel system, using some standard wall panels horizontally, above and below strip windows.

Rarely do we have an instance of an architect operating, as Konrad Wachsmann did, within the industry itself. Perhaps the most notable case is that of Heinrich Blecken, the architect who acted as Vereinigte Stahlwerk’s director of construction and who had, as we have already seen, been instrumental in the technical design of the prefabricated system from its very inception. Wachsmann could not of course play such a seminal role. When he came to Christoph and Unmack he was entering into a well-established firm, producing buildings according to long-held, patented, designs. His task, within Christoph and Unmack, was not to initiate a constructive system but rather to refine and develop it, and particularly to correlate techniques of production with concepts of design. In this his position was unique among all the noted architects interested in prefabrication. He eventually came to formulate a theory of industrialized building,65 a theory whose sophistication is only faintly foreshadowed in his Holzhausbau.65 This is no a priori theory, however, rather a crystallization of his years of practical experience, especially in the drafting rooms and workshops of Christoph and Unmack. If he moved toward a theoretical position, it was from a solid pragmatic base.

With Gropius, the reverse situation obtained. From the very outset he proposed a clearly articulated theory of prefabrication. Although this was enriched and refined over the years, he had not, as yet, been able to underpin theory with sound practical experience, other than desultorily in his isolated experiments. This situation of course was not of his own volition. In principle he had always advocated a simultaneity of theory and practice: this was the very essence of his educational approach at the Bauhaus, and it was his goal in practice. In this he had been constantly frustrated, ever since, in 1910, he had failed in his approach to AEG to achieve an industrial base from which to launch his venture in prefabrication. Ironically he remained cut off, by the exigencies of uncontrollable circumstances, from the real world of commerce and industry, despite a theory which, as we have seen, consistently called for the social responsibility of the architect, the need to wed theory to practice, and the ultimate synthesis of art and industry. In terms of this comprehensive philosophy Gropius sought a more durable and substantial alliance with industry. In 1928 he had talks with his old friend and former client, the building contractor Adolf Sommerfeld, who, as we have already noted, was something of a pioneer in the development of the neuzeitliche Bauweise in timber, about collaboration in the rationalized production of houses.66 As an outcome of these negotiations he was sponsored by Sommerfeld to visit the United States and examine the nature of its building industry. He came back from this visit deeply impressed by the efficiency of American building, and with a great deal of information on systems of control and organization.67 The practical outcome of this proposed business venture is not clear. There is some evidence that a few hundred houses were erected by Gropius and Sommerfeld, in Berlin and Posen,68 but this may have been just prior to the American visit when Sommerfeld erected the Fischtalgrundsiedlung in Berlin, a project in which both Wagner and Gropius were intimately concerned.69 Gropius’ drawings contain a set of more than 30 sketch plans, details, and rendered perspectives, of one- and two-family Montagehäuser, prepared in March 1929.70 These are of light steel frame construction, with aerocrete infill panels, deriving perhaps from the Weissenhof experiment, and bearing some resemblance to the Böhler system. The system was illustrated in both flat and pitched roof variants. We have no formal indication of the purpose of these proposals, but it is perhaps legitimate to speculate that they were for the proposed Sommerfeld venture, despite the fact that they were not to be executed in timber. Despite the considerable amount of effort invested by Gropius in the design and detailing of these houses, the venture apparently did not reach any practical consummation, for there is no evidence that any of these houses were ever actually constructed, even in prototype form—in fact they do not appear in the standard catalogs of work in the Gropius literature to any substantive degree. Nevertheless, this experience was not entirely wasted. Two years later it was influential in shaping the houses Gropius was to design, in his most serious and sustained encounter with industry, for the Hirsch Copper and Brass Works.

3.17 Konrad Wachsmann, diagram of Christoph and Unmack type panel system, c. 1930image

3.18 Josef Hoffman, steel house, made by Vogel and Noot, Austria, c. 1929

3.19 Hans Scharoun, house using Christoph and Unmack panel system, 1927

3.20 Walter Gropius, two-family dryassembly (Montagehäuser) house, 1929. Top: street elevation; above: perspective.


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