Skip to main content
SearchLogin or Signup

6. Into Exile: With Gropius and Wachsmann to the New World

Published onApr 23, 2021
6. Into Exile: With Gropius and Wachsmann to the New World

National Socialism and the Exodus of Talent

Upon the assumption of power by the National Socialists in Germany in 1933, there followed an event unprecedented in the history of modern civilization, an event whose ultimate dimensions of personal tragedy have tended to overshadow and obscure its enormous cultural import in all fields of creative human endeavor, and not least in architecture. We are talking of the exodus, voluntary or enforced, of the cream of German intellectual and creative talent, its widespread dispersion throughout the world, and the cultural dislocation and the cultural crossfertilization inherent in this dispersion, in what Sibyl Moholy-Nagy wryly called “the Diaspora”—a term normally applied to the exile of the Jews, but which she here chose to give the wider connotation of the “scattering of the faithful.”1

The cruel weight of Nazi policy and practice fell first, and most heavily, upon the Jews. By 1933 the first measures had been taken “to foster Jewish emigration from Germany and Austria,” which by 1941 were to result in more than half a million leaving.2 Some of these “measures” were cooperative, if not disinterested, as we have seen in the case of the Palestine prefabs; others were of a more coercive and increasingly brutal nature. As a resuit of these oppressive measures, wrote historian Cecil Roth, “within little more than a year upward of seventy thousand German Jews had left the country. The majority were not artisans or merchants, as might normally have been expected, but professional men—University professors, physicians, surgeons, lawyers, art experts, writers, journalists: in many instances men of international reputation, who had given up their best years and devotion to Germany’s service. By the end of 1933 there can have been few countries in the world where some famous German-Jewish scientist or scholar was not at work.”3

But it was not only the Jews who were leaving Germany. Their massive exodus was accompanied by a sporadic flow of emigration, of smaller proportions, it is true, but of tremendous cultural significance, of German gentiles who found “Nazi Germany intolerable. These were the artists and intellectuals, usually of liberal or socialist political persuasion or association, who for motives of conscience, professional frustration, or the sheer necessity of survival in the face of such a harsh regime, chose, or were forced, to leave their native land and culture and expose themselves to the “agonies of the creative mind made homeless.”4

Prominent among both groups of exiles—Jewish and non-Jewish—were the architects, and especially those architects who had constituted the vanguard of the Modern Movement. There were many reasons for this. As we have already seen, in the closing years of the Weimar Republic unemployment among architects was endemic as the effects of worldwide depression were increasingly felt in the German building industry. Opportunities for employment were manipulated, and in selected instances further restricted, when the Nazis came to power. Jewish architects were excluded from professional practice by the discriminatory membership requirements of the regulatory body, the Reichskammer der bildenen Künste; radical architects of non-Jewish origin, on the other hand, although not “legally deprived of the right to practice . . . nevertheless received no new commissions after 1933.”5

Among the Nazi ideologists, although there was far from a consensus on this issue, there was a growing tendency to join with such architectural reactionaries as Schultz-Naumburg and his circle, in their attack on the new architecture. The Modern Movement, as a facet of the International Style, had generated a considerable amount of hostility in chauvinistic, conservative circles; this view was expressed not only in the party press but in professional journals. Many of the new architecture’s most prominent achievements moreover were in the arena of public housing, cooperative ventures in socially inclined municipalities, and in attacking the architecture, the Nazi propagandists were attempting to denigrate, if not demolish, these potent symbols of socialist achievement.

But this hostility was directed even more to the architects than to the architecture. Most of the prominent architects of the avant-garde were, in Nazi eyes, irredeemably tarred with the socialist (hence, “Bolshevist”) brush. The Modern Movement’s left-wing origins, in the Novembergruppe and the Arbeitsrat für Kunst, had not been forgotten, nor forgiven, by the National Socialists. Der Ring, that organization formed by Gropius, May, Taut and Wagner in 1926 to protect the position of the modernists within the architectural profession, was looked on with deep suspicion, especially due to its international links through CIAM, as an organization subversive in the political as well as the artistic sense. And then there was the Russian connection.6 Many of the leading German architects had always expressed an open interest in, if not a sympathy for, the experimental new society in the Soviet Union. In the 1920s and continuing into the early 30s, the radical German architects—Gropius, Mendelsohn, Meyer, Poelzig, Breuer—had actively participated in Russian competitions and projects: the Leningrad factory of Mendelsohn, the Palace of the Soviets competition, the Kharkov State Theater. Then, probably most damning of all, from the Nazi point of view, was the actual presence in the Soviet Union of Ernst May, Hannes Meyer, and Bruno Taut, with their teams of German architects, directly participating with their Russian colleagues in the design and planning of the cities of the socialist “new world.” Of these architects very few in fact were Jewish, but it helped in their vilification if the racial label (hateful in Nazi eyes) were falsely attached to all of them (if May, for instance, were caricatured as a Bolshevist, complete with Jewish skullcap), so that a hysterical propaganda campaign would be waged against the so-called “Jewish-Bolshevist” nature of radical architecture and its principal proponents.

Under this intense pressure, economic, political, racist and architecturally reactionary, the exodus of the German architects began.7 Erich Mendelsohn, sensitive to peril and doubly vulnerable as a Jew, was one of the first to leave Hitler’s Germany, and in 1933 moved to London. There he was joined, within the next few years, by Walter Gropius, and his former Bauhaus colleagues Marcel Breuer and Moholy-Nagy; by the architectural historians Nikolaus Pevsner and Rudolf Wittkower; by Arthur Korn and several other architects, in a small but highly esteemed coterie of architectural émigrés.8 London, for many of these, was a congenial but temporary way station before threatening war clouds and beckoning opportunities drew them on to the United States. There, Bauhaus design teachers Josef Albers and Herbert Bayer, and photographer Walter Peterhans, had already settled, and by 1938 they were to be joined not only by the Bauhaus people from London but by Mies van der Rohe and Ludwig Hilberseimer, who, together with Martin Wagner, had left Berlin to emigrate to America.

Erich Mendelsohn, who had personal ties and professional connections with the land of Israel (including the Schocken family for whom he had built a notable chain of department stores in Germany) commuted between England and Palestine before settling down for a few highly creative years in Jerusalem. In Palestine there had by this time gathered an extraordinary concentration of architectural talent, the only group of exiles from Germany who were at once no longer in exile but at home, emotionally speaking, if not culturally. Alexander Klein, pioneer analyst of functional dwellings and a major collaborator in the development of the Siedlung, came to Haifa where he taught for many years at Israel’s Institute of Technology, the Technion. Also to Haifa came Adolf Rading, a non-Jew, after he and Hans Scharoun had been dismissed from their posts at the Breslau Academy. Bauhaus graduates Arieh Sharon, Shmuel Mestechkin, and Munyo Weinraub returned home to join a large number of recently emigrated German-Jewish architects of advanced ideas, such as Joseph Klarwein and Heinz Rau. Little wonder that, even till today, Haifa and Tel Aviv have areas that are almost museum precincts of “Bauhaus vernacular.”

Of the German architects in Russia, all were disillusioned by the deteriorating situation as Stalin ever more firmly seized the reins of power. Meyer returned to Switzerland. May and Bruno Taut were refused reentry permits into Germany but left Russia nevertheless, May eventually to spend many years in East Africa, Taut to live, until his death in 1938, in Istanbul.

This outflow of architectural talent, which we have briefly sketched out here, had two immediate, connected, and predictable results. The first was a dramatic dimunition of German creative power,9 for though occasional works of architectural merit continued to be produced, even under the National Socialists, the heart and spirit went out of the Modern Movement at whose center German architects had once stood. Conversely, however, there was a massive infusion of the radical spirit into the architectural Diaspora, which transformed architectural theory, teaching, and practice in countries as far apart culturally as the United States, on the one hand, and Palestine, on the other.10

6.1 Bauhaus faculty, Dessau, 1926. From left to right: Albers*, Scheper, Muche, Moholy-Nagy*, Bayer*, Schmidt, Gropius*, Breuer*, Kandinsky*, Klee*, Feininger*, Stölzl* (in 1931), Schlemmer. Those who left Germany, 1933–39 are marked by an asterisk.

6.2 Tel Aviv, general view, showing influence of Bauhaus architecture, 1933

In this period of enforced cultural transfer there occurred a shift of emphasis in technological innovation from Europe to the New World. Germany after a decade or more of intense activity loses its central creative role, and in many fields, including that of the prefabrication of the dwelling, the center of gravity passes to the United States where in the late 1930s and early 40s many interesting new developments in prefabrication are taking place, within a climate of support engendered by the swing from depression to economic recovery. It is to these developments that we must shortly turn. Before so doing, however, we must return to Germany and our two main protagonists, Walter Gropius and Konrad Wachsmann. We must trace their troubled paths as they move from their native land into exile, first in Europe, eventually and almost inevitably, in the United States. In 1941, on the eve of America’s entry into the war, they are to come together in creative partnership in New England. The paths that bring them to Lincoln, Massachusetts, are entirely different, and each is, in a way, characteristic of the man. Here are two men, from the same country, each vitally interested in the prefabrication of the house, who do not know each other. Each takes his own course, works out his own destiny. Only once prior to 1941 do those paths intersect in time and place, accidentally and significantly.

Into Exile: The Years of Wandering

As we have seen, by 1932 the effects of the depression were being seriously felt in Germany, especially in the building industry and the architectural profession. Wachsmann had chosen an inopportune time to leave the security of his job at Christoph and Unmack, and despite his success d’estime in being the architect of Einstein’s house, he managed to secure very little work in his private practice. It is true that after the publication of his book Holzhausbau, Wachsmann’s name began to be more widely known, especially in architectural circles. In 1930 his studies in timber were reviewed in Wasmuth’s Monatshefte,11 in 1931 in Moderne Bauformen,12 and at the end of 1932 he received considerable publicity when Bauwelt magazine published his work in a major article on new techniques of building in timber.13 But fame within the profession does not always signify business success, even in the best of times, and while his reputation increased, Wachsmann’s personal position grew ever more desperate. The darkening political situation and the increasing strength of the National Socialists aggravated the exposure and vulnerability of his position, as a Jew. Then, a way out of his dilemma appeared: at the suggestion of his mentor and patron, Poelzig, he applied for, and won, the coveted Prix de Rome. Late in 1932 he left Germany to take up residence in the German Academy in Rome. This, however, was to be but a temporary haven: as the Nazis eventually took over in full power at home, his position in this official institution soon became untenable. Forced by these circumstances to give up his studies at the Academy, he decided not to return to Germany,14 and his years of wandering began.15

In 1933 he traveled in Spain, and for a while acted as assistant to the City Planner of Granada. He then returned to Rome, in 1934, to make his base there for the next few years; but he traveled incessantly, as much as his straitened financial position would permit. His journeys took him all over Europe: to France and Switzerland, Yugoslavia and Greece, Belgium and Holland. He earned little, spent what he had, and lived life to the full. In part because he needed the money, in part because he enjoyed the task, he photographed the architecture of Europe assiduously, and produced guidebook photographs of high quality. Everywhere he traveled, he went with his camera at the ready, so to speak.

Wachsmann’s peregrinations through Europe took him, in September 1934, to Yugoslavia. At Spalato, standing camera in hand in a narrow gallery of a church tower, he fell into conversation with a fellow German tourist, about cameras and the art of photographing architecture. This tourist, it soon emerged, was none other than Walter Gropius. For Konrad Wachsmann, a firm believer in coincidence as the hand of providence at work, this encounter with Gropius was indeed to be a fateful meeting. As far as can be ascertained, they had, prior to this, and strangely enough, never met in Germany. Of course Wachsmann knew of Gropius, who was famous throughout Germany; but whether Gropius had heard of Wachsmann, whose star was yet to rise, is unlikely. There had in fact been one point of contact, in 1930, but it was a purely formal one and involved no direct meeting between the two men. The magazine Bauwelt had at that time conducted a competition for “das billige zeitgemässe Eigenhaus.” Gropius and Martin Wagner were among the judges, and among the many prizes awarded were two to entries by Konrad Wachsmann: a one-family house and a row-house design,16 both using the Christoph and Unmack construction system, as well as the services of their cost analysis department. It is probable that Gropius knew of Christoph and Unmack. He was remarkably well informed in all matters pertaining to prefabrication. He had moreover in his experimental house at Stuttgart, used Lignatplatten for the internal lining, and these cellulosefiber boards, made to a Swiss patent, were handled in Germany exclusively by Christoph and Unmack.17 And of course he knew Poelzig, Wachsmann’s patron, and a director of Christoph and Unmack, through many professional associations and through intimate contact in Der Ring. But prior to the meeting at Spalato, he did not know Wachsmann.

At this meeting Gropius was on the first leg of a journey into voluntary exile. For years, even prior to the assumption of power by the Nazis, in 1933, Walter Gropius, “that elegant salon Bolshevist,” as he was derided in the party organ, the Völkischer Beobachter,’18 had been under National Socialist attack. He was assailed as an acknowledged leader of the international Modern Movement, as the founder of the Bauhaus (“the cathedral of Marxism”), and as an important member of Der Ring, (that “Jewish-Bolshevist architectural organization”).19 After his association with Hirsch—perhaps in part because of it—he found it difficult to find work, and the copper houses were to be his last important executed project in prewar Germany.

Early in 1934 he was involved in what was to be his swan song, a minor event in his career: the organization, together with Joost Schmidt, of the nonferrous metals exhibit at the Deutsches Volk-Deutsches Arbeit exhibition in Berlin. His participation in this exhibition was something of a test case for his future professional standing in Germany, as well as for the future of modern architecture as whole. After the dissolution of the Bauhaus in July 1933, and the vicious attacks on all associated with it, or with avant-garde architecture generally, there was indeed much to fear. Gropius had made strenuous efforts to preserve the architectural movement to which he had dedicated his life’s work, in letters to the new administration, in February and March 1934. His cry from the heart, “Can Germany afford to throw overboard the new architecture and its spiritual leaders, when there is nothing to replace them?”20 fell, ominously, on deaf ears.

6.3 Konrad Wachsmann, row house, competition entry, Das Billige Zeitgemässe Eigenhaus, 1931; judges include Gropius and Wagner

Something of the stresses of that period, but nothing of their true intent, was apparent to the eminent British architect Howard Robertson, who visited the Deutsches Volk-Deutsches Arbeit exhibition early in 1934. He reported home on his impressions of what he called “the first Nazi exhibition” in Berlin:

Two of the best Halls, those of chemistry and metals, show strong evidence of the influence of Walter Gropius and Mies von [sic] der Rohe. These modern architects, one is glad to learn, have not suffered total eclipse, in spite of the misfortunes of the Bauhaus. We are told that by official order they were not to be excluded from participation in the Exhibition. Their great international contribution to design has therefore been recognized; and this fact shows all absence of bigotry, which is reassuring in view of rumours of architectural reaction.21

What this “fact” showed, however, was not “all absence of bigotry,” as was so sanguinely believed, but the effectiveness of Nazi propaganda in their effort to project a respectable image.

The harsh reality behind this facade was very different, as Gropius later recalled. “Right after that I encountered a rather disagreeable event; a uniformed Nazi patrol came to my house and told me I would resent [regret?] it if I let myself be seen again in a large exhibition called ‘German People, German Work,’ in which I was building a goodsized department for the non-ferrous metal industry.”22 Despite these threats behind the scenes, Gropius was too well known a personage on the international front to be openly persecuted by the Nazis: at least at that early stage when Hitler was still anxious for world approval. Therefore when an invitation came from the prestigious Royal Institute of British Architects for Gropius to present an exhibition of his work in London, permission was granted for him to leave Germany to do so. This exhibition was prepared in April 1934 and held from 15 to 26 May of that year. Consisting of “170 drawings, photographs and diagrams illustrating Professor Gropius’ work, ranging from the surprisingly modern pre-war buildings to recent planning and housing schemes,”23 the exhibition was opened by Sir Raymond Unwin; it was an unexpected concession to modernism on the part of the conservative RIBA, which reflected credit on the intelligence of the secretary, Ian MacAllister, as well as on the initiative of Morton Shand, who actively promoted it.24 It was also an indication of the respect in which Gropius was held, even in circles far removed from the front line of modern architecture.

At the time of the exhibition of his work Gropius had also given a lecture to the Design and Industries Association—the British offshoot of the Deutscher Werkbund—on “The Formal and Technical Problems of Modern Architecture and Planning.”25 Maxwell Fry, who had played a role in the exhibition, was in the chair at the lecture. “I remember a meeting in the School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine arranged by the Design and Industries Association, where Gropius introduced us to our more serious tasks in an atmosphere of tense excitement and breathless enthusiasm,” he reminisced some 20 years or so after the event. “I can remember exactly the over-crowded room and he standing among us, speaking with the utmost clarity in broken English. . . .”26

From this successful visit to England Gropius returned to a troubled Germany. It became increasingly apparent that he could not remain there much longer. As he conceded in London, he was “not exactly a persona grata with the Chauvinists” of Germany;27 and he now looked for a way out. Through the mediation of Jack Pritchard, a patron of modern architecture and industrial design,28 Maxwell Fry had suggested that Gropius be associated with him in two architectural projects in England. A carefully worded letter had been written to Gropius, which would be helpful in getting permission to leave. Now, in addition, an invitation was received from the Fondazione Alessandro Volta, for Gropius to participate in an international conference on the theater to be held in Rome from 8 to 14 October 1934. On the grounds of these international approaches, which could only bring prestige to Germany, the Nazis granted Walter and Ise Gropius a “leave of absence” permit29 for what was presumably to be a temporary visit. For the Gropiuses this invitation was to be “both the pretext and the means to escape from Hitler’s Germany.”30 On their way to Italy they stopped off in Yugoslavia, and at Spalato they met Konrad Wachsmann.

Gropius and Wachsmann: Encounter and Reunion

Between Gropius and Wachsmann, a quick friendship sprang up, as they discovered shared interests. They planned to meet again the following week, this time in Venice, and from there they went on together—Walter and Ise Gropius, and Konrad Wachsmann—to see the mosaics in Ravenna. Wachsmann, the eternal romantic, was overwhelmed by the magic of it all—the illustrious friends he had made, the wine, the gondolas, the music: “es war ein phantastische schöne venezianischer Tag.”31 Eventually, a month later, they came together in Rome, where Wachsmann had set up in architectural practice and where Gropius, as a guest of the Italian government, was to address the Volta conference on the theater.32 Between them they had very little money, Gropius with “ten marks in his pocket,” as German currency controls were severe, and Wachsmann chronically short of funds. But Wachsmann had a small open car, and they spent an exuberant time together. Circumstances forced them into a certain intimacy of association. They were both out of their normal milieu, expatriates uncertain of the future; they had parallel architectural experiences in the past, a mutual professional interest in prefabrication; and despite their disparate personalities, both shared a great zest for life. It may have been temporary, like a shipboard friendship, but in the few hectic days and nights they shared in Venice and Rome, a favorable chemistry bound them together.

From Rome Gropius went on to London.33 Jack Pritchard, who had previously commissioned the first modern block of flats in London, the Lawn Road flats designed by Wells Coates, allocated an apartment to the Gropiuses; and Gropius went to work in partnership with Maxwell Fry. After this promising beginning, life became increasingly difficult. Very few projects on which he and Fry worked in the next three years reached concrete realization—just the Impington College and a couple of houses—but although this was discouraging, Gropius’ courage never flagged.34 The possibility of a chair at Cambridge University was mooted but failed to materialize.35 Most trying of all, the years passed, and what had at first been conceived as a short episode away from Germany, while things settled down, now appeared likely to be a longterm exile,36 cut off from friends, family, and culture in a rapidly polarizing world.

In 1937, unfulfilled in London, Gropius responded to approaches made by President James B. Conant of Harvard University, and Joseph Hudnut, Dean of the Graduate School of Design, and accepted an offer of a professorship at Harvard.37 Through the intervention of Ernst Jaeckh, onetime executive secretary of the Deutscher Werkbund—who had access to the Nazi administration38—Gropius received permission to return discreetly to Germany to retrieve his furniture, paintings, and other possessions, including all his documents, from the care of his sister-in-law, and to sail to the United States “without unpleasant remarks in the press”39 or other, more drastic, sanctions. They arrived in Boston in March 1937, to begin a new life. Gropius rested for the summer and then took up his appointment in the Harvard architectural school. There he was soon joined by some of his former colleagues, including Marcel Breuer of the Bauhaus and Martin Wagner, his frequent associate of Berlin days.

Although not without economic and emotional stress, as the trauma of his uprooting from Germany was exacerbated by the growing threat of war, the next years were good for Gropius. He made a respected academic niche for himself, being appointed chairman of the architectural department; he built his own house in Lincoln, and for the first time in many years could feel secure, as he began to put down new roots. Building opportunities came to him, albeit slowly, as he began to establish himself in architectural practice in association with Breuer. His opinions were widely sought after, and if he did not always evoke agreement, he was always listened to with respect. When the war in Europe broke out, toward the end of 1939, he could confront its problems, especially as they affected his friends and family in Germany, at least from a secure and stable base. Wachsmann’s situation, on the other hand, had by this time deteriorated seriously. After Gropius left Rome, at the end of 1934, Wachsmann had stayed on, to practice architecture there. It will be recalled that Wachsmann’s architectural training had been somewhat desultory and that his experience in architectural practice had been almost exclusively confined to building in timber. This of course was hardly the appropriate basis for working in Italy. But Wachsmann had initiative, an eager and open mind, and an unerring sense of construction. He therefore turned with ease to the predominant building material of the new Rome and began to produce innovative structures in reinforced concrete: multistory apartment buildings, a covered market structure, and a multistory office building with underground cinema and parking garage. These were ambitious projects, few of which came to fruition, but they stretched his knowledge and his ability as an architect. In the normal course of events this could have been the modest beginning of a new and successful career. But these were hardly normal times, and Wachsmann could not escape the realities of Europe in those fateful years, as crisis followed crisis and the world scene steadily darkened. An increasingly militant Fascist Italy, now more strongly in alliance with Nazi Germany, no longer provided a safe haven for the German-Jewish exile. In 1938, therefore, he uprooted himself once more and moved to France.

Here, constantly harried and always poverty stricken, he moved anxiously from one temporary refuge to another. Accompanied by the woman who was later to become his wife,40 he made his way from Marseilles to Aix-en-Provence, and from there to Paris. After several months they moved on to Grenoble where they had learned it was possible to acquire identity cards, which legitimized their stay in France. It was in Grenoble, inspired, as he said, by the slender steel lampposts of that city, that Wachsmann conceived the tubular steel space-frame construction system which formed the basis of his later, renowned Mobilar hangar. Despite help from friends, some fellow refugees, life was lived on a hand-to-mouth basis. Then an English poet, Harold Tooby, offered a place of refuge: a primitive stone-built sheepherder’s hut on the Cote d’Azur between Vence and Les Tourette, with a “breathtaking view,” which, together with the security if offered, helped compensate for its almost total lack of amenity. Here Wachsmann was active in trying to assure himself some kind of future. He sent out letters of appeal for help to influential friends now abroad, to Walter Gropius and to Albert Einstein. He also invested much effort in trying to get his space frame patented and commercially exploited, an act of incredible optimism considering his precarious position. And finally, he applied for immigration visas to the United States, with little hope of success as America pursued its tragic restrictive policies.

In miserable condition, in the minimal shelter of the hut near Vence, always penurious, usually hungry, they managed somehow to survive. Albert Einstein, who despite his eminence, had been deprived of his German research post and professional status, was now in honored exile at Princeton; notwithstanding the many other calls for help to which he responded, he sent for some time a monthly retainer of $10 to Wachsmann, an act of grace which meant “salvation” to his former architect. In the meantime the threatening clouds of the coming war grew ever darker in Europe. In September 1939 Hitler marched into Poland, and the Allies declared war on Germany. All aliens in France were immediately ordered to report to the police. Wachsmann was of course at this time entrapped in the eternal no-man’s-land of the refugee: to the Germans he was a Jew and therefore an outcast, a nonperson; but to the French he was a German and therefore an enemy alien. As such he was immediately interned, first at Antibes, then in other camps. As a “carpenter and architect,” as he styled himself, he soon found himself active, designing and constructing barracks for his fellow inmates.

At this critical juncture, early in 1940, Walter Gropius came to his aid, writing forceful letters to high French officials, trying to get Konrad Wachsmann, “a very good friend of mine,” as he put it, “an extremely talented young architect . . . a most distinguished man of high standards,” out of the camp de rassemblement in France.41 In the spring of 1940, as a result of these efforts—Gropius was tireless in his concern for the wellbeing of his friends and former colleagues now trapped in Europe—Wachsmann was freed from the internment camp and almost immediately inducted into the French army. His military service was short-lived, however, and he was demobilized shortly thereafter, when France capitulated in June 1940 to the Nazis. He managed to get to Aix, was there reunited with his companion, and there they eked out an existence until May 1941, when on his 40th birthday, they eventually succeeded in getting visas to the United States. A few months later, after a long and circuitous wartime voyage, Konrad Wachsmann arrived, a destitute refugee, in New York. Gropius, who had been in frequent contact with the Emergency Rescue Committee in New York, offered to give Wachsmann accommodation in his own home for a while and sent him the rail fare to come to Lincoln. There, in the ambience of warmth, friendship, and hospitality traditional to the Gropius home, he found shelter and security after his long odyssey.

Wachsmann’s arrival in the United States was timely, from many points of view. He had come almost at the last minute, while America was still a neutral country in a world at war, and there he found, in its general and more immediate sense, a climate propitious for the development of plans he had long cherished for the industrial prefabrication of the dwelling. Even when in France, after joining the army, and while in that capacity designing a house for an army doctor, Wachsmann had worked on such a proposal. “Probably inspired by the barracks I had built,” he recalled, “I also laid down the principal idea for a mass-produced and industrialized housing project.” In the French debacle such plans were intellectual exercises, therapeutic perhaps but hardly of practical import. Now, in the United States, the situation was vastly different. Industry in America was gearing up for war, and these preparations generated a demand for housing that was as large as it was urgent. A housing crisis was at hand, and it was in times of crisis that prefabrication came into its own. By late 1941 the American prefabrication industry at last appeared to stand on the threshold of maturity, ready to respond to the crisis in housing. If its past development had been sporadic and hesitant, its future, from Wachsmann’s perspective, seemed more hopeful than he could have dared to dream.


No comments here