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1. The Prefabrication of the Dwelling

Published onApr 23, 2021
1. The Prefabrication of the Dwelling

Searching for answers to the dilemma of homeless millions in a world of potential abundance, in A Crack in the Rear-View Mirror, Richard Bender drew attention to a statement by Henry Ford:

The term mass production is used to describe the modern method by which great quantities of a single standardized commodity are manufactured. Mass production is not merely quantity production . . . nor is it merely machine production. Mass production is the focusing upon a manufacturing project of the principles of power, accuracy, economy, system, continuity and speed. The interpretation of these principles, through studies of operation and machine development and their coordination, is the conspicuous task of management. And the normal result is a productive organization that delivers in quantities a useful commodity of standard material, workmanship and design at a minimum cost. . . .1

The architectural profession has long been suffering from recurring bouts of the Henry Ford syndrome (Why can’t we mass-produce houses—standard, well-designed, at low cost—in the same way Ford mass-produces cars?) encapsulated in a dream of a mechanically produced mass product which Siegfried Giedion once called the “Wohnford.”2 Early in this century, using its traditional process of design and construction, it had already acknowledged its inability to master the problems of housing the urban poor (and, latterly, of housing the middle class as well). For seventy years or more in an intensive form and for a century before that in more sporadic fashion, architects, engineers, manufacturers, industrial designers, construction firms, entrepreneurs and developers, private investors, and government agencies have been involved in an ongoing search for a cheap, durable, attractive, housing product capable of being produced by industrial processes. From the Edinburgh iron founder C. D. Young’s pronouncement in the 1850s that his three-story cast-iron houses “are susceptible of being carried out in ranges to any required extent, so as to form whole streets or squares,”3 to Buckminster Fuller’s eulogy to technology in the Dymaxion house, designers have been seduced by the dream of the mass-produced house and entranced by its potentialities.

In his review of prefabricated housing systems, John Burchard wrote,

It would seem that no one could read through the list of prominent names and distinguished inventors appearing in the text without some sense of humility. Here is a galaxy of well-known names; here are the fruits of incalculable hours of thought and research by able men; here are ideas that cover in principle almost everything that a human being might conceive in the field of redesign of house structure; here is mute evidence of the expenditure of thousands, nay millions, of dollars, representing the time of many brilliant men and the labor of many others. The total cost of all the effort epitomized here may well be of the order of a billion dollars.4

We must remember that Burchard made this statement nearly half a century ago before markets for mass-produced housing opened up: before the defense housing boom in the United States, before the resettling of returned soldiers after World War II, before the reconstruction of war-torn Europe, before Operation Breakthrough. Burchard was writing of the 1930s, a period that we may choose to regard today as the heroic period of prefabrication, charged with enthusiasm, energy, and courage, a period of exploration and experimentation in the industrial production of dwellings. This is the period when the great masters, Le Corbusier, Gropius, Frank Lloyd Wright, found it necessary to deal with the technological imperatives and social ideology of mass housing, when each in his own manner—Wright romantically, Le Corbusier ideologically, Gropius totally and with deep commitment—explored the potentials of industrialized building. This is the period when European architects of standing in the modern movement (Martin Wagner and Ernst May, Hans Poelzig and Hans Scharoun, Josef Hoffmann, Max and Bruno Taut, Otto Bartning) engaged with enthusiasm in designing prototypes for industrial production or even total systems of prefabrication, developing them in the greatest of detail. In this crusade they were joined by Richard Neutra, Lawrence Kocher, Albert Frey, Barry Byrne, Buckminster Fuller, and many other notable architects in the United States. Their efforts, it must be conceded, were rarely brought to practical fruition; successes in the field were limited, disappointments frequent. Yet despite the lack of tangible results, the experiments continued and hopes were high.

It is difficult to understand what generated this enthusiasm for the concept of the factory-made house, what kept the dream alive. The fundamental motivation, the challenge of finding a technical means of solving the housing crisis, was the obvious spur to much thought and action in the field of prefabrication. But it is hard to conceive of this being a sufficient explanation of the passion and perseverance that marked the movement. Not even for a socially committed architect like Gropius was this enough. There were obviously other, deeper satisfactions in tackling the problems of industrialized building, which separately or in conjunction helped stoke the fires of enthusiasm.

For many architects the reward was in the creative and intellectual challenge inherent in the design itself rather than with its ultimate realization. Hence Fuller: “The Dymaxion House is still as it has been for years—a theory only. Despite pragmatic criticism it has conscientiously been kept so. While theoretical it is immediately improvable by every scientific advance. . . . The Dymaxion House rather than being a fixed solution has been naught but a statement of the problem, progressively satisfiable in the latest manner.”5 If the design process is properly conceived of as a series of stages toward the concretization of the design concept,6 then for men such as Fuller there comes a moment when the temptation to suspend the process while still fluid is great, to remove one’s creation from the constraints and limitations of real world situations, and to keep one’s options open for refinement, revision, or redesign. Wachsmann, too, was later to discover that there are greater satisfactions at the drawing board than in the market place. For many of the designers involved in the search for the factory-made house, there was an idealization of the problem and its solution, an exercise highly satisfying to the creative spirit but not always productive of concrete results.

If at one level the architect is dealing with pure creations of the mind, at another he is a pragmatist, an inventor of devices, a solver of problems through the design of ingenious instrumentalities. Watch an architect at work and see the disproportionate time and effort he will sometimes devote to intricate architectural details, the intense creative joy he derives from solving technical problems. For some designers, it is true, the nuts and bolts are tedious impedimenta, but for many there is a satisfaction in the immediacy, the apprehensibility, the tangibility of solving, say, the problems of designing a panel or a jointing system. Such architects do not necessarily lack broader vision; on the contrary, even within the sweep of their creative imagination, they still see—with Mies van der Rohe—that “God is in the details.” Konrad Wachsmann was such a man, drawn inevitably to prefabrication by the nobility of the technological era as he saw it and, simultaneously, by the fascination of its detailed problems. These men—Fuller, Wachsmann, Gropius—saw the totality of the whole and the significance of the part as reciprocal aspects of an integrated system.

The concept of “system” was beginning to enter into the architect’s thinking at that time, although the term itself was not then in common usage. In the intellectual climate of the twenties and thirties the idea of the system was emerging to find expression in diverse and challenging directions.7 Jan Christian Smuts published his philosophy of holism, and Alfred North Whitehead his analogous theory of organic mechanism. Ludwig von Bertalanffy laid the foundations of a general systems theory, and Arthur Tansley applied parallel ideas to the environment in his concept of the ecosystem. Walter Gropius, in Idee und Aufbau (Idea and Organization), gave us a prevision of his philosophy of total architecture, which was in essence a comprehensive systems theory of architecture.8

Prefabrication was an exemplar of the systems approach in its most direct sense, its most comprehensible form. A prefabricated system comprised a series of components organized hierarchically, with each component both a clearly defined element in its own right and a part of a more comprehensive entity. This entity, the prefabricated building, was a whole consisting of parts whose relationships to each other and the whole were governed by defined laws of combination and whose meaning derived from the whole (or end product) itself. It was a model of order and integration, based upon a clear organizing principle. As such, it had a deep appeal to many architects who were uneasily seeking a new discipline in a world when time-honored architectural standards had been abandoned and, with them, that sense of design security that comes from working within an established canonical framework. The modern movement in architecture had only contempt for historicism and eclecticism; with the rejection of the styles, those principles of permanence in design that were provided for so long by the classical orders were in disrepute. But the need for a framework of stability remained some basis for architectural consensus. Prefabrication, with its modularity and standardization, with its agreed vocabulary of parts and syntax of relationships, appeared to be an acceptable, because stylistically neutral, substitute. The interwar period in Europe (and to a lesser degree in Depression America) was an era of turbulence, uncertainty, chaos. In such a period, stimulating though it may be to artistic creativity, there often comes a deep-seated desire for stability, for predictability, for order and discipline. This was true not only in the social order and in politics but also, eventually, in art. For many architects, even some of the most revolutionary, a return to order and clarity was an inner necessity. We are talking here not of brutal extremes, of an Albert Speer turning to Fascism, or of the soulless rigidity of the Zeilenbau, but rather of the phenomenon of Erich Mendelsohn abandoning the exuberance of expressionism for the discipline of the Columbushaus, or of Mies van der Rohe’s transformation from the sensuous poetry of the Barcelona Pavilion to the immaculate, if ice-cold, reductionism of his later work in Berlin. In this renewed search for an architecture of order, the prefabricated system provided a framework of control of such inherent logic that it appeared not as a retreat from the freedom of the modern movement but rather as its affirmation. The technological imperative sat easier on the conscience than its stylistic counterpart.

Finally, in our analysis of this dream of industrially produced housing we will find, as in all dreams, substrata of fantasy and of romanticism. The factory had a strong emotive appeal for modern architects and was regarded not only by Antonio Sant’ Elia but by Mendelsohn and Gropius as an evocative symbol of the new age. It was not the futurists alone who responded positively to industry’s powerful image. Henry Ford’s operative principles of “power, accuracy, economy, system, and speed” found their echo not only in Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s manifestos,9 which distorted them, but in the hearts of many a more sober architect. The humming machines, the moving belt, the turning cogs, the awe-inspiring multiplication of objects produced, all this was impressive, even fascinating, to an imaginative architect in tune with “modern times.” The thought that architecture itself could be the product of such splendid mechanical installations must have been well-nigh irresistible to many an architect. The idea of the prefabrication of houses contained within it the notion, of which the architect may have been perhaps subliminally aware, of the magnification of his own professional effectiveness: a house designed by an architect was but a house, whereas a system of prefabrication could generate thousands of potential dwellings. But for the romantic this was not the dominant concern: the concept of the mass production of houses was fascinating for its own sake.

A century of development 1820s-1920s

From the present-day view those engaged in the prefabrication of houses during the heroic period, the decades of the twenties and thirties, are usually regarded as being in the very vanguard of a new movement. Gropius and his colleagues are thus acclaimed as pioneers. In a sense they are—if the movement is defined in philosophical terms deriving from the principles of mass production enunciated by Henry Ford and is directed toward the expanding market of mass housing. But with slightly different perspectives we must acknowledge that there is a prehistory of prefabrication going back to the beginning of the nineteenth century or even earlier.

During the nineteenth century prefabrication (the manufacture of buildings in component form in workshops for transport to and ultimate assembly on a remote building site) developed from modest beginnings into an industry of quite substantial proportions.10 From the joinery shops and iron foundries, the rolling mills and shipyards, from the specialized manufacturers of Britain, the continent of Europe, the United States of America, eventually even the countries of the colonial empires, there was a considerable outflow of buildings and structures in component form. These were destined for assembly and erection, occasionally in the home market, but predominantly in an astonishing variety of export markets embracing Europe, Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Australasia. There was an impressive range of products: hospitals and schools, warehouses and factories, market buildings and stores, churches and meeting halls, barracks and blockhouses, lighthouses and bridges, theaters and exhibition pavilions, offices and arcades, conservatories and farm buildings, gasworks and railway stations. They were produced in small workshops and large industrial plants employing a thousand men, businesses styling themselves variously as producers of iron churches, portable cottages, temporary buildings, which in sum constituted a new industry known today, but only since the 1930s, as the prefabrication industry.

This industry utilized the tools and techniques of the industrial revolution, working in timber, in corrugated and cast iron, eventually in steel and reinforced concrete, using glass with growing freedom, exploiting new materials such as sheet roofing and linoleum flooring, and making excursions into such esoterica as faience and papiermâché. For distribution which was integral to the whole system of prefabrication, there was the ever-increasing use of the new technologies of transportation, the railway train and the steamship. Its trade depended on the techniques of international commerce, developed to a high degree in the nineteenth century: an extensive banking network and intensive advertising. The buildings produced were as ambitious as the Crystal Palace, as complex as the 2,200-bed Renkioi Hospital, and as architectually pretentious as the eclectic cast-iron facades of the New York and Glasgow loft buildings.

Right from the earliest days, among this imposing array of prefabricated products, one building type stands predominant in quantity produced and in significance. This is the factory-made house. Prefabrication in the nineteenth century must be seen primarily as an instrument of new settlement, a technological aid to facilitate the opening up of vast territories in Africa, America, or Australia to habitation, development, and economic exploitation. Whether we are talking of the founding of a colony, the drive to the West, or the frenzy of a gold strike shelter is the basic issue, housing the primary need. The imperative of immediate shelter, however modestly defined, with a modicum of security and comfort was the prime motivation for the development of early prefabrication. We know it, not only with the wisdom of hindsight but from the testimony of some of the pioneer manufacturers themselves.11

The sponsors of colonial settlement encouraged the use of pre-made housing, for obvious utilitarian reasons. In 1820, when Britain sent out about 5,000 settlers to the eastern Cape Province, it not only offered to supply them with good cheap tents but, on the initiative of the Colonial Office,12 sent out several demountable three-room wooden cottages of weatherboard construction. The “Portable Colonial Cottage” produced by Manning of London in the 1830s was a much more advanced concept which necessitated a minimum of site work. It was the pioneer fully prefabricated dwelling and was an essential ingredient in the settlement of South Australia. Recent research has revealed that there were large numbers of these prefabricated houses erected in Adelaide and its environs.13 They were also to be found right across the continent of Australia, from Perth and Fremantle in the west to New South Wales in the east and Tasmania in the south. Precut wooden houses and houses of panel construction, originating in the eastern United States, provided an answer to the urgent housing needs of the California gold rush, together with many iron buildings coming from New York, Manchester, and Liverpool. Wooden prefabs also played a significant role in the settlement and development of the American midwest, in the 1860s.14

Corrugated iron houses in considerable numbers were to be found not only in California but in the colonial boom towns in Victoria, the Cape Province, and the Transvaal, following the discovery of gold and diamonds. Johannesburg, for instance, established in 1886, was a veritable city of pre-made corrugated iron structures. If many of these houses were modest in size and lacking in convenience, little more than wood and iron huts, many others were commodious, well-built, comfortably outfitted, suitable accommodations for a man of affairs, a bishop, a mine manager, even a prime minister.15 The architectural character of these prefabs was generally utilitarian and austere, but in more substantial cast iron the iron founders of Scotland produced mansions for export that combined a high degree of comfort with elegance of style and richness of decoration. So durable was the construction that these homes still provide an attractive environment for living today.16

At the turn of the century the attention of those interested in prefabrication was drawn to the possibilities of reinforced concrete. Hennebique’s system, and the patented system of Ransome in the United States, had obvious applications in large-scale industrial buildings, but in the concept of precasting there was also a potential for exploitation by the makers of houses, who generally were interested in a smaller, and lighter, scale of components. Manufacturers were quick to develop these possibilities. By 1903, for instance, Calway and Co., manufacturers of patented cement slabs, claimed that these elements could be easily assembled by unskilled labor, to make bungalows, farmhouses, cottages, and portable buildings. It was, they asserted, “the method of the future.”17 For once, such hyperbole proved accurate.

On a more ambitious and more significant level, J. A. Brodie, the city engineer of Liverpool, devised a system of panel construction in reinforced concrete and conducted a series of experimental projects culminating, in 1905, in the erection of a three-story 12-apartment block of flats, an impressive achievement for that time.18 Brodie’s work influenced Grosvenor Atterbury, a New York architect who had made a study of it. After several years of studying the technical problems of low-cost housing, in 1908 Atterbury developed a system of construction based on hollow-cored, precast concrete units with story-height wall panels. The components were factory made and, like Brodie’s, transported to the site and hoisted into position by crane. For many years Atterbury worked closely with the Russell Sage Foundation and built several hundred units for them at Forest Hills, between the years 1910 and 1918.19 The implications of Brodie’s and Atterbury’s pioneering development of prefabrication in reinforced concrete were to be seen after the war in Europe’s attempts to deal with the housing crisis.

Prefabrication and Mass Housing

By the turn of the century, and up to the first world war, the making of houses in factories and workshops was an established technique. A large number of firms was engaged in the business, and trade was extensive, if highly variable. Fluctuations in the market were violent, because the market itself, linked to the accidents of events—uncertain colonization, economic bonanzas, wars, and natural disasters—was sporadic and unpredictable. For most of this period prefabrication was seen as a solution to crisis conditions rather than a normal development.

One market alone escaped the attention of the hardheaded Victorian businessmen who promoted the premade house so determinedly. This market, surprisingly, was potentially the most promising of all, the mass market of urban housing in the growing industrial cities of Europe and America. The techniques of prefabrication were essentially those of mass production, as was clearly understood by the manufacturers themselves. Yet nowhere in this century of progress were these factory-made products directed at what might have been the most profitable and extensive market of them all, the explosive growth of the cities and the desperate need for housing of the poor. Peter Thompson, a London builder and manufacturer of temporary churches had, in 1845, suggested to Edwin Chadwick that large prefabricated buildings be erected, each to house several families. But Chadwick, the housing reformer, failed to respond positively to this radical solution to the housing problem.20 As far as we know, then, until the work of Brodie and Atterbury not one significant experiment in mass housing using industrial techniques was attempted, or even considered seriously.

1.1 John Manning, portable colonial cottage, c. 1833

1.2 J. A. Brodie, Elton Flats, Liverpool, sectional axonometric, 1904–05

This omission is particularly surprising when we consider the considerable activity in housing, much of it innovative in concept, that took place during the nineteenth century, particularly in Britain, the fountainhead of early prefabrication. Many progressive architects turned their attention to housing and, with the support of the housing associations, enlightened philanthropists, building companies, and eventually local and other governmental authorities, attempted to devise and improve individual dwelling types and the planning of housing for the working classes. Industrialists with compassion, foresight, and good business acumen conceived and built the model industrial towns (Saltaire, Port Sunlight, Bournville, Menier, Krupps, Pullman) with sensitivity to the housing needs of their workers. Yet all this activity, all this initiative and vision in architectural design, was executed on the whole in the most conservative and traditional of building techniques. The factory building at Saltaire21 had its iron structure designed by Fairbairn, a pioneer in the manufacture of prefabricated ships and buildings; the Menier chocolate factory is a landmark in advanced iron construction. Yet what do we know of the housing of either of these two model towns, except that they were of traditional construction?

What exactly do we mean by traditional construction? The effect of the industrial revolution on building methods was felt in two ways. One of these, the revolutionary change, is expressed in what we have called the factory-built house. The other effect was evolutionary but no less important. It related not to the total building system but to the extensive use of machinery in the manufacture of traditional materials and components. Bricks were made by machine, and no longer by hand; stone was cut by power-driven saws; woodworking machinery was extensively used in the joiners’ workshops; the iron foundries used the most up-to-date casting and rolling techniques for building elements; artificial portland cement replaced natural limes, and portland stone gradually usurped the place of ashlar; machine production of wire nails made them a cheap and universal product, revolutionizing timber construction; and new processes of glass manufacture removed sheet glass from the luxury list. Readymade items from the factory—wooden mouldings, balustrades, doors and windows; iron window sashes; castiron columns, beams, brackets, railings, staircases; sheet floor coverings such as linoleum and felt roofing sheeting; and the ubiquitous galvanized corrugated iron for walls and roofs—became increasingly available for incorporation into conventionally built houses being erected by traditional housing firms. They were placed in position by new forms of mechanical equipment gradually being introduced on the building site. Then in the houses there was a growing component of industrially produced equipment (sanitary fittings, stoves, lighting fittings, radiators). In other words, although the building industry remained conventional in principle, there was throughout the nineteenth century and right up to the present a “creeping industrialization” of the building industry, which was often as effective in practice as it was unobstrusive to the eye. The building industry was rightly adjudged conservative, but it was not nearly as static as it was held by its critics to be.

Such improved techniques, together with the long, rich experience it had accumulated, enabled the traditional industry to achieve a predominance in the field of mass housing which was never even challenged, let alone threatened, by the new totally industrialized systems. Several factors help to explain this predominance. There was a demonstrable efficiency of the basically conservative building methods. They used tried materials and tested techniques, and still had an adequate pool of highly skilled craftsmen to call upon. They built well—unless, as jerry builders, they unscrupulously undercut traditional standards—they built quickly, and they built cheaply. Moreover, by virtue of the traditional methods and materials, they produced houses readily repaired and easily maintained by locally available skills. At the same time they were encouraged to continue with time-honored methods by the rigidity of building codes and the cautious conservatism of those authorized to enforce them: conversely, the experimental methods of the prefabricators were inhibited, at times completely frustrated, by the obduracy of authorities such as the London Metropolitan Building Office, and the inflexibility of its regulations.22

It may well be that the perception of the factory-made house as a temporary solution only, a perception shared by the public and the manufacturers of these buildings, inevitably prejudiced the use of these methods in the settled environment of the established cities, and mitigated against their use within the traditional urban fabric. The very terms applied by the makers to their products, the “temporary” houses, the “portable” cottages, became pejorative when considered in a more enduring architectural context. Moreover the industrial materials used in factory-made houses—wooden panels, corrugated iron sheets, cast iron plates, eventually precast concrete panels—were by the nature of the process exposed to view. This was totally unacceptable to the prevailing taste, which demanded that the use of new technology—the cupolas of the Albert Hall or the Bibliotéque Nationale, or the iron and glass roofs of the railway stations—be politely concealed from public view by eclectic architectural screens. Even in the colonies these offending materials were often later bricked round, or stuccoed over, or otherwise genteely concealed. One may readily understand that the “brutal” nature of industrial materials was offensive to nineteenth-century eyes, even those untutored by Ruskin. How much more were they inappropriate, lacking in propriety, in connection with the most sensitive issue of one’s home.

The meaning of “dwelling” is the point at issue here, and it remains a critical point for prefabrication to the present day. The most conservative forces are in operation, when we build a home—and the term “conservative” is used here deliberately, with no prejudicial connotations. The function of the home is to conserve, to protect privacy, family life, cultural and social values, traditions. It is a reflection of very deep needs, for security, continuity, conformity, in an area of emotional intensity, dealing as it does with one’s personal immediate environment, rich in symbolic meaning. The early prefabricated house challenged and denied most of these attributes: this was understood by the manufacturers, who thus never even presented it to their fellow citizens as an option to be rejected. In this they perhaps lacked courage, but they certainly showed sensitivity to the temper of the times.

The nature of the times changed, and our understanding of it, after World War I, when the “normality” that had obtained for a century was replaced by crisis, and crisis in postwar Europe became endemic. Therefore it is no surprise to read that “while America continued to experiment with prefabrication, Europe, by contrast, built with it.”23 The two most highly industrialized countries in Europe, Great Britain and Germany, emerged from the war with their economies in disarray, and they suffered from a housing shortage which, always chronic in the rapidly expanding cities, was now gravely aggravated by five years’ cessation of routine construction. Germany, in political, social and economic turmoil, naturally took sometime to respond to the housing crisis; Britain, recovering more quickly, almost immediately began to show results in the field of industrialized building. “By 1920,” according to Kelly, “the Ministry of Works had approved some 110 systems of construction, of which . . . perhaps 12 involved some degree of prefabrication.” He goes on: “Between the years 1918 and 1925, a large number of partially prefabricated houses were built of elements such as sheet steel, rolled steel frames, concrete masonry, story-height precast concrete units, and expanded metal sprayed with cement. The last type of construction, combined with a steel frame, formed the basis of the Dorlonco house, some 10,000 of which were built in England between 1920 and 1928.”24

The subsequent development of prefabrication in Britain in the 1920s has been carefully documented by R. B. White.25 He draws attention to several significant new construction systems of the times. These include the Weir house and Atholl house, both timber framed, with external steel sheet cladding and an internal lining of millboard or fiberboard; and the Telford house, whose flanged steel plates, bolted together, formed an external load-bearing wall with felt insulation and asbestos-cement inner lining. “It is doubtful,” says White, “whether more than 3,000 dwellings in Great Britain were provided in the form of steel-clad houses at this period; certainly not enough to amortize all the costs involved . . . .” All these houses were relatively costly and suffered from constructive defects, especially corrosion of the exposed steel plates. They were regarded with distaste by a conservative public, and as “makeshifts” in an abnormal situation. “When the shortage was overcome and the normal building methods could handle the demand, few prefabricated houses were built. They had not proved cheaper than the brick houses in whose stead they were being built, and they could not compete on even terms because of the prejudice against them as being new, untried, and substitute products.”26 In addition the Weir house encountered fierce opposition from the building workers unions, who insisted on only their members being employed (and not the unemployed engineering workers of the shipyards) and being paid at the rates of conventional building construction. All of these factors will recur, at later stages in our story, as a leitmotif in the troubled history of the factory-made house.

Although several thousand precast concrete houses were made in Britain during the twenties, the more radical steel constructions ceased toward the end of the decade. They were not, however, without influence elsewhere. The Atholl company formed a subsidiary in Paris, and a number of houses were built in Lyons and elsewhere.27 The Weir house proved influential in Germany where it stimulated many similar experiments. The priority given in thought and deed to mass housing in Germany, by administrators and the best known of its architects, is a salient feature of the decades following the first world war. The contribution of Gropius, May, Taut, Wagner, Alexander Klein, and others, to the refinement of the dwelling plan, the generation of new building types, the development of the technologies of mass production, and the planning of the Siedlung as a social as well as a physical environment, is a well-documented and fascinating chapter in the history of modern architecture. Much of this advancement was fertilized by fresh and inventive thinking, underpinned by substantial basic and applied research and development. A principal focus for this activity was the flat as the unit dwelling, to be aggregated in the new apartment blocks as the logical answer of an industrialized society to the mass-housing problem. In this context, and in an environment of creative ferment and intellectual speculation, the rationality of the flat plan was examined, a serious attempt was made to reduce it to minimal area (a major theme of the “habitation minimum” movement), and—for the first time—the question of the flexible flat plan with the provision of a fixed outer shell and adaptable inner partitioning began to receive systematic attention.28

1.3 G. and J. Weir, the Weir steel house, c. 1925. Top: Douglas type; above: section through wall.

1.4 Braithwaite & Co., Telford steel house, c. 1925

Although this move to high-density mass housing was considerable and dramatic, it was by no means exclusive of other solutions. There continued, in a minor but far from insignificant key, that deep-rooted German affection for house and garden which found architectural expression in the ground-attached dwelling in its single, semidetached and row-house forms.29 These traditional dwelling types (in both rural and urban contexts) were not only of enduring importance in the public eye and heart but evoked fresh thinking and creative design responses from the progressive architects of the day and from advanced elements of the building industry, who saw in rationalized construction methods a potent way of holding down costs. There was considerable interest in the production of low-cost houses, particularly where the price of dwelling could be fixed in advance, and then adhered to, like any industrial product.

Manufacturers of industrialized building systems cooperated with technically oriented architects to produce innovative methods of housebuilding, especially in the development of lightweight modular systems in wood and metal.30 There was, in Weimar Germany, a ferment of ideas, in an atmosphere charged with both crisis and creativity. It is to that story of technological enterprise that we now turn our attention.


26. White, Prefabrication, 1965, p. 80.

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