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2. Theory and Experiment

Published onApr 23, 2021
2. Theory and Experiment

The architect and industry

In Britain, the epicenter of the Industrial Revolution, the relationship between architect and industry in the period right up to World War I was essentially, and at its best, a guarded neutrality, which frequently degenerated into a frank and outspoken hostility. At the turn of the century, and in Edwardian days, the only native architectural tradition was that of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Ruskin was still a force to be reckoned with, William Morris still much admired. The great names in residential design—Charles Annesley Voysey, Mackay Hugh Baillie-Scott, Edwin Lutyens—were part of this solid tradition of an architecture rooted in conservative values and traditional building skills. Even when Art Nouveau was influential, as with Charles Rennie Mackintosh, it could not prize the architect free from the relentless grip of conventional construction methods, at least as far as domestic architecture was concerned. Industrial skills and techniques, those daring flights of structural ingenuity—the railway station roofs, the warehouses and dockyards—were the products not of architects but of engineers or of other, anonymous, designers. It is notable that in the century-long prehistory of prefabrication, when British manufacturers led the world in new techniques of industrialized building, architects played an insignificant role. In no instance did an architect initiate a new system of prefabrication or even play a creative part in its conception. Where the architect came into the picture, and this was the exceptional case, it was in a supportive role as the designer of a specific building in a prefabricated system already preconceived by others.1

It was in Germany that the first constructive links between architects and industry were assayed. Friedrich Naumann spoke at the Third German Exhibition of Arts and Crafts in Dresden in 1906 and stressed the need “to infuse mass production with meaning and spirit.”2 The following year Naumann, Karl Schmidt, of the Dresdener (later Deutsche) Werkstätten, and Hermann Muthesius were instrumental in founding the Deutscher Werkbund, when in October 1907 twelve eminent artists (many of them architects) and twelve manufacturers (involved in such applied arts as furniture making, printing, metalwork, and weaving) came to a meeting in Munich convened by Muthesius, and accepted a program whose first operative clause called for “encouragement of the fruitful cooperation of art, industry and craft.”3 It was, as it was later put, the writing of a peace treaty between art and industry.4 This was not a purely altruistic, idealistic stand but a recognition by the founders that Germany, in order successfully to compete with the industrial giants, Britain and America, had to improve the quality of its industrial goods. The causal links in the chain—prosperity, mass production, industrialization, standardization, quality, design—were clearly recognized by the Werkbund and by most of the architects associated with it.5

One of these architects was Peter Behrens, who had that very month assumed his official position as artistic consultant to the AEG (the Allgemeine Electricitäts Gesellschaft) in Berlin. In this position, in which Behrens virtually became the principal industrial designer and architectural consultant to this giant firm, he had an unparalleled opportunity to realize the Werkbund’s aims and his own philosophy. His viewpoint on the central issue, art and industry, was not, however, monovalent but highly complex.6

If he was at times moved by great engineering works, he nevertheless saw them in terms of a pseudoaesthetic, and his own predelictions in architecture were toward the monumental. He was, in a sense as Wright was, both conservative and innovative. He accepted a functional relationship between art and industrial society almost reluctantly but inescapably. The architect was compelled to work within the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the times; his artistic function was to transmute this spirit into an expressive force and infuse it with the eternal values of monumental architecture. He was not conservative in relation to construction techniques and went further than Muthesius in rejecting the William Morris-Arts and Crafts basis for the Werkbund: but he was conservative in his concept of the cultural role of architecture, a role he believed pure engineering could not fulfill. The challenge to Behrens, as Stanford Anderson put it, “was to bring about the synthesis of technology and art in order that modern civilization might be elevated to a true culture. . . . He wanted . . . an aesthetic ‘rooted in the laws of surging life.’ He also did not want a technology that pursued its own end but one that was sensible to the artistic will of the time.”7 He viewed the technological age not with enthusiasm but with an inevitability beyond debate.

One of the principal directors of AEG, Walter Rathenau, son of the founder and president of the company, Emil Rathenau, was moved by a comprehension of the times consonant with that of his architect Behrens. One could be highly critical of the mechanization of life induced by industrialization, as Rathenau was, and yet recognize industrialization and technology as obdurate facts of contemporary life, not to be wished away but to be worked with. His conclusion for Behrens or for the young Walter Gropius must have had the inescapable ring of truth: “only mechanization itself can lead us beyond mechanization.”8 Like Walter Rathenau, Gropius saw the way to a better future through the creative exploitation of industrial means. Gropius,9 who had entered Behrens’ office as an assistant late in 1907 (at the time of the founding of the Werkbund, and Behrens’ new association with AEG), was one of the first architects to make a bold claim for mechanization as a way to achieve a better architecture. Like Behrens and Rathenau, he saw industrialization as a means of achieving higher cultural goals. Younger than his employer, and Rathenau their client, he was perhaps at that time a less reluctant prophet of industrial technology than they. He was burdened neither by the cultural impedance of Behrens’ classicist affinities nor by Rathenau’s ambivalence in the face of mechanization. This did not mean that he was unaware of the dangers inherent in the machine but that, filled with a youthful confidence that he could master it, his embrace of the potential of industry was much more wholehearted than that of his mentors.

It was to Emil Rathenau, the president of AEG, that Gropius presented a memorandum on the industrial production of buildings, in 1910, probably through the mediation of Walter Rathenau,10 who of course stood close to both Behrens and Gropius philosophically. The importance of this document had frequently been stressed both in Gropian literature and in works on the history of prefabrication, ever since Nikolaus Pevsner drew attention to it in his 1936 edition of Pioneers.11 Its contents, however, have not been subject to rigorous analysis nor have the circumstances of its preparation (even to the limited extent to which the facts are known) been probed in any serious fashion.12 Yet such is the significance of this memorandum to our understanding of Gropius’ role in the subsequent development of prefabrication that it merits the most serious consideration. Gropius himself saw it as a foundation of his work, the bedrock on which his evolving theory of prefabrication was based. It had for him a chronological significance, establishing the priority of his claims, but more than that it was, if we may use a muchabused term, a truly seminal paper.

Gropius submitted his “Programm zur Gründung einer all-gemeine Hausbaugesellschaft auf künsterlich einheitlicher Grundlage, m.b.H.” (Program for the Founding of a General Housing-Construction Company Following Artistically Uniform Principles) to Rathenau of AEG in April 1910, having presumably completed it the previous month.13 It had been in preparation for some time before that. Much research, experimenting, and testing had gone into its formulation until Gropius considered it solidly based (or, as only with the presumption of youth, he could claim, it represented “the sum total of all practical, technical, and aesthetic experience”). All house types and all component parts had been designed, drawn out, detailed, specified, and costed prior to the presentation. In other words, the entire preparation had been undertaken before March 1910, perhaps even in 1909,14 while Gropius was still in the employment of Peter Behrens, and it was presented to Rathenau of AEG, Behrens’ principal client. One must assume then that it was undertaken with the knowledge and approval of Behrens.15 The more interesting question is whether Behrens participated directly in its conception or formulation. This would appear to be a likely supposition, but there is no evidence to support it; however, as Gropius later recalled: “It is possible that I sought his advice.”16

There can, however, be no doubt of the underlying influence of Behrens in the memorandum. Even if Gropius did not discuss the idea with Behrens, though it is difficult to see how he could fail to do so, the philosophy that guided it—the aspiration to a synthesis of art and technology in the interest of achieving a higher culture consonant with the Zeitgeist—is the philosophy that pervaded Behrens’ office and his work. Moreover Behrens’ interpretation of that philosophy in procedural and practical terms in the range of responsibilities he undertook in his work for AEG is the basis of Gropius’ definition of the comprehensive role of the designer in his proposed industrialized building company.

In addition to these general considerations which constitute the ambience of the office where Gropius worked, there is another and more specific factor. At this particular time Behrens’ studio was engaged in the preparation of a housing project, its first. This was the proposal to AEG for a Workers’ Housing Estate at Hennigsdorf, on the Rathenaustrasse, the first section of which was erected in 1910–11.17 Apart from some farm laborers’ cottages in Pomerania which he had designed in 190618 prior to joining Behrens, this would have been Gropius’ first serious exposure to the problem of mass housing, a problem that was to fascinate him in all the years to come. He immediately recognized it as a problem not merely of design but of a more comprehensive kind. Although the Hennigsdorf project was of conventional construction and conservative appearance, it was innovative in plan, being based on Behrens’ theory of Gruppenbau-weise, and particularly what Anderson terms Behrens’ “standardized clusters.”19 The cluster plan attempted to exploit the advantages of design standardization and at the same time convey a character of uniqueness by avoiding the appearance of mechanical repetition of identical units. In so doing, Behrens introduced, though in an oblique way, the concept of standardization and variability which was to be the core of Gropius’ proposal to AEG. The generation of the concept of industrialized housing was undoubtedly Gropius’ significant contribution; the environment of ideas in which it germinated, its intellectual and philosophical context, was the professional office of Behrens, with its ideological links to the Werkbund, on the one hand, and its successful design intervention in the industrial world of AEG, on the other.

Gropius’ proposal20 for the industrialization of housebuilding for the mass market envisaged the production in factories of many of the components of houses, to be assembled into standard house types: workers’ cottages, small and large detached houses, semidetached houses, and even flats. His proposal aimed at two objectives, which in terms of current, conventional practice appeared incompatible: improved quality of design and construction and greater economy of cost. In the formulation of these goals the dream of the factory-made house is initiated and is at the same time given its definitive form. Industrialization was the medium, as Gropius saw it, that would combine “the aesthetic activity of the architect with the economic activity of the entrepreneur,” thus establishing “a happy union . . . between art and technics.” The cultural significance of this development was the achievement of künsterlische Einheitlichkeit, an artistic unity seen as a necessary prerequisite of style. Although he used the narrow term unity, Gropius was not seeking conformity but rather consensus, which depended on a voluntary abrogation of individuality. “Conventions in the good sense of the word cannot be hoped for by emphasizing individuality. They depend on . . . the consistency of forms, recurrent because recognized as good.” By these means, Gropius felt, the age could once again approach a Zeitstil.

In practical terms the idea would be realized by the manufacture of a wide range of housing elements (stairs, windows, doors, etc.) based on agreed standard dimensions. In order to achieve Variabilität, these items would be available in various qualities and materials. Through their capacity to adapt to individual needs such variants give the proposal its inherent flexibility. The client is offered a wide range of choice, within architectually predetermined limits, in house types, in mutations within each type, and in the variants in the set of factory-made elements. “It is by the provision of interchangeable parts that the Company can meet the public’s desire for individuality and offer the client the pleasure of personal choice and initiative without jettisoning aesthetic unity.” The concepts of user participation in the design process here articulated, and the idea of variability and choice inherent in the proposal, are innovations in architectural thinking of the greatest importance. Gropius’ understanding that they are inherent in the process of industrialization anticipates that of his most advanced colleagues by a score of years: and is then rarely put forward with such clarity.

Gropius believed that the individual elements could be made by specialist subcontractors, provided they conformed to specified standards and that individual parts could be sold to outside clients. There is therefore a surprising degree of openness about the system he proposes. But this system is not comprehensive and must not be thought of as a total system of prefabrication. Nowhere in Gropius’ list of elements (which includes finishes and furniture) is there any mention of major structural components: columns and beams, load-bearing panels, roof trusses; nor does he include the external enclosing elements, the walls and roof covering. For these he talks of a choice of conventional materials: brick or stone for the walling, slates or tiles for the roof. He does refer in passing to Edison’s experiments in the United States with cast concrete walling,21 but his own proposals do not go this far. Although Gropius’ conception of the design implications of industrialization is so advanced, his understanding of the industrial potential is still, at this stage, quite limited, and what he proposes does not go beyond current industrial practice. In fact it falls far short of the list of pre-made items that had for years past been offered in the catalog of a building-components manufacturer such as Macfarlanes in Britain.22

This limited view is perhaps best expressed in Gropius’ discussion of the organizational aspects of his proposed company. He sees responsibilities in three main categories: artistic, commercial, and technical. The two latter functions embrace all business aspects, with an emphasis on advertising, client contact, and sales. Nowhere is a production department mentioned. The art department, which was to be primarily responsible for the design of prototype products “developed according to basic ideas and types,” was to be entirely separate from the commercial offices, although maintaining close contact with them for feedback from their contact with the public. Here the model is clearly that of the Behrens office, as consultants to, but not integral with, the AEG organization. It is interesting that whereas the public relations aspect of the proposal is detailed at length—the advertising, the informative leaflets, the articles in important journals, the lectures and exhibitions, the making of models, the display of samples—no mention is made of the designers maintaining contact with the manufacturers of components. So we have something of a paradox here: a proposal for the industrial production of houses that is conceptually advanced, highly innovative, and rich in insight but has at its core a vacuum, the complete omission of any attempt to deal with the industrial process itself. Gropius’ proposal did not demand of industry anything more ambitious than could be provided by the Handwerk of small workshops.23

It was perhaps this somewhat surprising omission that contributed to AEG’s failure to respond to the proposal or perhaps a lack of creative imagination on the part of the industrialists, who could not see beyond the limitations of youth and inexperience, to the real industrial potential beyond. Whatever the cause, Gropius’ proposal of 1910 for industrialized houses evoked no practical response and remained in the realm of pure theory.

In the summer of 1910, just after Gropius’ resignation, Le Corbusier came to work in Behrens’ office. Shortly thereafter24 he began for the first time to consider the possibilities inherent in the mass-production of houses. These thoughts first found expression in design projects: the Dom-lno houses of 1914–15, the Monol houses of 1919, the Citrohan houses of 1921. These design exercises, mainly in reinforced concrete, show Le Corbusier extrapolating, creatively and originally, upon basic themes from Perret and Tony Gamier. His emphasis is on concrete as a modern material used to create standardized structural elements (columns, slabs) mainly through the systemization and mechanization of site procedures and on the standardization of component elements (stairs, doors, windows, cupboards) manufactured industrially. The systems proposed are always mixed systems, involving factory-made components, site-manufactured major structural elements, and a great deal of traditional handwork on the site, mainly for partitions and finishes. Far more striking than the basic technological concept is the aesthetic expression, which gives dramatic form to the idea of standardization. The second manifestation of Le Corbusier’s thinking about mass production is the clarion call for industrialization of housing that appeared in Vers unearchitecture in 1923, under the heading “Maisons en série.”25 He declaims in terse, reverberating, phrases:

A great new epoch has begun.

There exists a new spirit.

Industry, overwhelming us like a flood which rolls on towards its destined end, has furnished us with new tools adapted to this new epoch, animated by the new spirit.

Then come the imperatives:

We must create the mass-production spirit.

The spirit of living in mass-construction houses.

The spirit of conceiving mass-production houses.

If we examine Le Corbusier’s proposals, we see that his main points are series or mass production; standardization in both the technical and aesthetic sense, with an ongoing search for standard types; modular and dimensional coordination; and the goal of “uniformity in detail and variety in the general effect.” The call for industrialization that each point subsumes had already been clearly annunciated by Gropius in his memorandum of 1910. We cannot be sure if Le Corbusier had seen this document, although it must have been a subject of office discussion when he arrived at Behrens; certainly its spirit then reflected the Werkbund ethos that permeated the Behrens studio. Conceptually Le Corbusier adds nothing new to the basic formulations of Gropius. Yet ironically in the coming years it is Le Corbusier, not Gropius, who ignites the imagination of a generation of architects; it is not the reasoned arguments of Gropius but the stimulating force of Le Corbusier’s visual images, and the evocative power of his prose, that leads the Modern Movement in its drive for industrialization and standardization.

The Bauhaus Period

For more than a decade after the presentation of the abortive memorandum to Rathenau, Gropius did not return to the problem of the industrialized building process, nor did he again address the housing problem, until the 1920s. He was distracted from these earlier interests by momentous events on both a personal and national level. He entered into private practice,26 whose main achievements, the Fagus Factory (1911) and the Werkbund model factory (1914), were buildings for industry rather than the exploitation of industry for building purposes. As the Werkbund exhibition opened in Cologne, World War I erupted, and Gropius, a serving officer in the German army, followed its cataclysmic course until the German surrender of 1918. Then, amid the economic and political chaos of the postwar era, Gropius became deeply involved in the politics of the emerging Modern Movement in architecture; he immediately plunged into what was to be his greatest challenge and his most enduring achievement, the establishment of the Bauhaus at Weimar in 1918.27

At Weimar, and subsequently at Dessau, the Bauhaus, while under Gropius’ direction, did not deal substantially with the problems of prefabrication. Indeed it hardly dealt with any architectural problems, other than tangentially through the agency of Gropius’ professional office. The isolated experiments in prefabrication under the Bauhaus aegis we will discuss later; they are interesting in themselves but do not add up to a coherent or consistent program. However, what the Bauhaus did concern itself with as basic were two issues central to the concept of industrialization generally. These issues were the relationship between art and industry and standardization of dimensional and typological norms. In other words, the Bauhaus continued to address itself to the two main themes of the Deutscher Werkbund.

Although Gropius’ slogan, “Art and technology, a new unity,”28 was not uncontested, even within the Bauhaus,29 the evolution in education and production from a handicrafts orientation to a fuller involvement in industry took place inexorably and reached its peak with the move from Weimar to Dessau. A marketing organization was established “in order to help establish contact between industry and the Bauhaus . . . [whose] function is to take care of the sale of prototypes to those branches of industry which can mass-produce from completed prototypes and market the product.”30 The designer’s function, as Gropius came to see it, was as the designer of prototypes for industrial production. He had already spelled out his hopes in this direction in 192231 Now, in a policy statement in 1926, he said: “The Bauhaus wants to serve in the development of present-day housing, from the simplest household appliances to the finished dwelling. . . . The home and its furnishings are mass consumer goods, and their design is more a matter of reason than a matter of passion.” The machine, Gropius went on, can provide the individual “with mass-produced products that are cheaper and better than those manufactured by hand.”32 It is evident that this policy statement is still informed by the spirit of the 1910 memorandum. The Bauhaus’ theoretical and practical involvement in industrial mass production, although limited to domestic consumer products (textiles, furniture, light fittings, wall paper, heating stoves) was a significant preparation for a return to a concern with the wider issue of industrialized housing. It was an experiment in the sense of a limited learning experience of directing design to the specific tools and processes of industrial production. Out of this proving ground of trial and error there were lessons of a more universal nature to be learned.

In his statement on the principles of Bauhaus production, of 1926,33 Gropius affirmed his belief that “the creation of standard types for all practical commodities of everyday use is a social necessity.” Standardization was essential, he maintained, in order to exploit the effectiveness of the machine as a device for mass production of products “that are cheaper and better than those manufactured by hand.” The drive toward standardization in the Bauhaus is expressed best by the attempt to crystallize a few, ideal, solutions to everyday problems. To this end the workshops of the Bauhaus were to be regarded, in Gropius’ phrase, as “laboratories in which prototypes of products suitable for mass production and typical of our time are carefully developed and constantly improved.”

There is no suggestion, at this stage, of regarding these industrially produced elements as part of a comprehensive system. Within one subsystem, as in the case of unit furniture designed by Breuer,34 the interface between elements and the overall ordering principle of a modular grid governing standard sizes and variants might be seriously studied. This study of unit furniture followed on earlier experiments to standardize furniture notably by the Deutsche Werkstätten of Karl Schmidt, who had produced Typenmöbel as early as 1910.35 In the Bauhaus, at this stage, this principle of integration and order was not extended in any systematic study to the overall system of dwelling and contents. This is best demonstrated by the experimental house “Am Horn,” designed by Georg Muche of the Bauhaus teaching staff and erected in Weimar as part of a projected, but never realized, Bauhaus Housing Settlement in 1923. In this house, for whose construction Gropius’ office and Adolf Meyer were responsible, “industrially prefabricated products and new building materials were used wherever possible.”36 Even Gropius and Meyer’s proposal of the same year for Baukasten im Grossen, an adaptation of the concept of children’s building blocks in terms of large-scale prefabricated elements, was an experiment that examined one particular problem, that of variability within a standardized system37 rather than the total problem of an overall system of prefabrication.

The architectural expression of this building system is, by the nature of things, cubic, boxlike, additive, austere. It creates an architectural language very different from the romanticism of Gropius’ earlier postwar houses—the Sommerfeld house of 1920–21, the Otte House of 1921–22, and the Kallenbach project of 1921.38 It forms the aesthetic basis moreover for Gropius’ future projects, from the Auerbach house, in Jena, in 1923 to the more freely disposed Masters’ houses at the Bauhaus at Dessau in 1925–26. The Baukasten im Grossen project then may be considered not only important for its role in the history of prefabrication but also for its links—as an expression, if not a cause—with the subsequent evolution of a modern architectural style.

The first attempt to translate industrialized building from a theoretical postulate to a practical exercise came with Gropius’ Reichsheimstattensiedlung, a housing scheme at Toerten-Dessau built over the years 1926 to 1928.39 The project was commissioned by the City of Dessau, and was based on extensive research both prior to and during the project, and sponsored after 1927 by the Reichsfor-schungsgesellschaft für Wirtschaftlichkeit in Bau-und Wohnungswesen, the national society for research into economic building and housing of which Gropius was an executive officer.40 Planned for a population of 5,000, Toerten-Dessau was carried out in stages over three years, 1926 to 1928, under Gropius’ direction, and 316 of his two-story row-house units were constructed. These were of standard design, but with modifications from year to year, and were constructed of reinforced concrete and cinder blocks. Cross walls, beams, infill blocks, floors, and roofs were standardized and were manufactured on the site. Sand and gravel found on the site were suitable for concrete, and it was only necessary to transport cement and cinder. Materials were stored on site and moved by trolley along prelaid tracks to casting areas between the houses, where the building elements were cast and cured, close to the point of use. When ready, they were hoisted by mechanical equipment and set in place by special teams. “The principle of work at the site was to reuse the same man for the same phase of the construction in each block of houses and thereby increase output,” explained Gropius. “In order to insure the interlocking of the individual construction phases from the start of the rough construction and interior work, an accurate timetable was worked out, similar to the ones used by railroads.”41 The stages of construction were carefully articulated; the basic shell, for instance, was defined in fourteen constructional steps. A time chart was drawn out, and it provided both a visual survey of planned progress and a means of control. A photographic check on the progressive stages was maintained.

This project cannot be considered as prefabrication, nor did Gropius so consider it.42 All work was carried out on the site, much of it by traditional means. Yet it is a form of industrialized building, with the organization of site operations as a whole work process analogous to the factory. We have here the concepts of standardization, mass production, specialization of labor, mechanization of operations, and rigorously planned organization of labor and materials, which are the characteristic features of the industrial system. Here these characteristics are transferred in a limited way, but with consistency, to the building process. Gropius is now exploring an alternative path to the industrialization of house construction to that adumbrated in his 1910 memorandum. In so doing, he is part of a wider movement; and Toerten-Dessau must be seen as one of several significant experiments then being undertaken.

The first of these was Martin Wagner and Bruno Taut’s Hufheisensiedlung, in Berlin-Britz, in 1925–27. As early as 1920 Taut had put forward, in Die Auflösung der Städte,43 a system of house construction leading both to standardization and variability. In 1924 Taut wrote: “The problem of house-building today must be tackled along lines that are valid in industry for the production of machines, cars and similar objects.”44 Now, in 1925, he approached this concept in practice, together with Wagner, tentatively and from a somewhat different point of view, as Gropius was soon to do at Dessau. Utilizing the cooperative building construction company organized by Martin Wagner, the two architects planned the comprehensive housing estate at Berlin-Britz in which they made use of large-scale mechanical equipment on the site such as traveling cranes, then an innovation, and set up a rigorous division of labor that involved specialization for specific repetitive tasks.45

2.1 Gropius and Meyer, standardized housing using “building blocks,” 1923


2.2 Walter Gropius, housing estate, Toerten-Dessau, construction system, 1926–28


2.3 Walter Gropius, housing estate, Toerten-Dessau, site organization diagram, 1926


2.4 Bron System, housing estate, Berlin, c. 1926


A much more advanced scheme, built at about the same time as the first stage at Toerten-Dessau, was initiated in Friedrichsfelde, Berlin, early in 1926.46 Here a group of 31 three-story buildings was erected, using a precast concrete system of construction based on the Bron patent, a Dutch method used for the first time in Germany. Precast concrete construction was of course experimented with not only in Germany at this time but elsewhere in Europe. In addition to this Dutch system we also have notable examples in France, which, since Hennebique and Perret Frères, had been a center of experiment and development.47 The Bron system involved the casting of large story-height wall panels, complete with their windows and doors and all other components such as beams and slabs on the site, and then transporting them by a large overhead crane moving on tracks that straddled the line of buildings under construction.

This approach was developed even further in a large-scale housing scheme at Frankfurt, where at Praunheim in 1926–30 Ernst May built 1,400 dwellings.48 Again rationalization and mass production were the key principles. Plans were limited to a few carefully thought-out types, and many details were standardized. Frankfurter Normen, whose use was obligatory if a mortgage was desired, were laid down for doors, hardware, stoves, sanitary ware; the highly efficient “Frankfurt kitchen” was designed for standard use; and a construction system using prefabricated large-scale universal concrete panels, all 3.0 by 1.1 m, and precast beams, was developed. This system was produced by the Frankfurter Montageverfahren, set up by May in a large empty machine hall, with the capacity to turn out a standard slab in three to five minutes, and was further promoted by the Reichsforschungsge-sellschaft, the research organization in which, as we have seen, both May and Gropius were leading figures.

In all this activity we find the production emphasis in industrialization being shifted from the factory to the site, the technical solution becoming specific in relation to each project and no longer universal, and the conceptual solution to the housing problem moving inevitably from the private house (the main thrust of Gropius’ memorandum to AEG in 1910) to mass housing, to the row houses and apartment blocks of the Siedlungen. The reasons for this expansion of scale may be found in the social and economic conditions of the times; in the magnitude of the housing shortage;49 in the recovering economic situation of the postinflationary era and the considerable increase in housing investment; and in the highly volatile social and political situation, potentially threatening, for which housing was seen as an anodyne.

By the end of the decade, however, the pendulum had once more swung back. The promising economy of the late twenties became a casualty to world depression. Unemployment soared, and private investment in housing declined. Public spending on housing was cut drastically with the halving of the special rent tax, and new construction, as a consequence, was drastically curtailed.50

2.5 Ernst May, the Frankfurt building panel factory system

The government, alarmed at the long-term prospects, began to encourage a return from town to country and the building of small cottages for workers. The back-to-the-land movement added an economic dimension to its inherent romantic appeal. After a few years of spectacular success the age of the Grosssiedlung was suddenly at an end and, with it, the brave program of experiment in the industrialization of mass housing, a program that, at Berlin, Frankfurt, and Dessau, was still in its infancy.

In the very heartland of the Modern Movement, with the most stalwart supporters of large-scale mass housing, interest in the one-family house revived, if indeed it had ever been abandoned. Perhaps it is nearer to the truth to say that work on the small house proceeded on a track parallel to that of the Siedlung. The design of the one-family house had always demanded a share of the architect’s creative ability and interest disproportionate to its size but, psychologically speaking, commensurate with its significance as an environmental problem. The one-to-one relationship of family to house was close to the architect’s heart, and even the advocates of apartment buildings often agreed with May’s ideology that the ground-attached individual dwelling was the preferred solution to the problem of living. It was to be regretted therefore that it was not economically attainable, unless—and here the dream of the factory-made house reasserts itself—machine production could significantly reduce costs.

It is entirely understandable therefore that the problem of the prefabricated house continued to engage the inquiring spirit of Gropius and his colleagues at the Bauhaus, even at the time when they were involved in the large-scale Toerten-Dessau housing scheme. The concept of the house as an industrial product was consistent with the Bauhaus philosophy; it epitomized at the most significant level, that of architecture itself, the Bauhaus vision of the unity of art and technology. It was fitting therefore that in December 1926, to coincide with the opening of the new Bauhaus building in Dessau, the Bauhaus was instrumental in erecting on a site at Toerten an industrially produced house made of steel. Georg Muche, the form-master in the weaving workshop of the Bauhaus whose experimental house “Am Horn” in Weimar we have already noted, was reponsible for this bold gesture, together with the architect Richard Paulick.51

The Muche-Paulick steel house was manufactured by Carl Kästner and Co. of Leipzig, whose experience lay in the making of special machinery and in the production of safes and strong rooms. When Kästner began to experiment with utilizing their technical expertise and metalworking tools for the manufacture of steel houses, they turned to a system of wall construction recently developed by the firm of Braune and Roth, who had also been exploring the possibilities of steel house manufacture.52 Some of Braune and Roth’s experimental products, ranging from weekend cottages to a large, six-roomed two-story house, were exhibited in Berlin and Leipzig, with external cladding that consisted of large, 2 by 3m steel sheets.53 The Kästner system used a similar construction, with a light framing of steel l-section (or double T-section) posts. This frame was clad externally with 3-mm-thick Siemens-Martins steel plates, sealed with a T-shaped cover strip complete with a rubberized gasket at the joints. A 60-mm air space separated this external skin from the inner lining of “torfoleum” (wood-wool on peat fiber base) insulation boards and 50-mm-thick cinder concrete slabs which were plastered internally.

A demonstration house erected by the Kästner company in Leipzig shows a strange union of a radical wall structure whose steel panels are unambiguously exposed, and a conventional steep pitched roof complete with dormer window. The Bauhaus model uses a similar constructive principle but is completely different in appearance. It has a flat roof of steel beams and concrete slabs, duly insulated, and a tighter silhouette, although it is a composition of two prisms of different heights, a carry-over from the Weimar Baukasten project. The modular principle rigidly adhered to in the structure does not appear to generate a planning grid, however, and internal partitions do not lie on the modular lines. Inevitably, the 1.5-m module is too wide for the doors, and the windows which are narrow vertical strips, fill only part of a module. Nevertheless, Muche claimed for the house an inherent variability of plan arrangement, with the possibility of moving internal partitions. He foresaw that with mass production the repetitive use of standard profiles and component elements would inevitably result in an economic product.

2.6 Muche and Paulick, steel house, Dessau, 1926. Top: view, as erected early 1927; above: plans.


In that the house involved industrially produced main elements, including the frame, the cladding, the partitions, and the roof, it went far beyond the more limited scope of the 1910 memorandum. But the credit for this should go, not to Muche and Paulick, but rather to Braune and Roth whose system formed the basis of the Bauhaus-designed house. And we should note that Braune and Roth were themselves not operating in isolation but within the context of an emerging German prefabrication industry much concerned with steel houses. To that important topic, however, we must return in a later chapter. For Muche, this was a one-time study, a fascinating design challenge, and he made no further attempt to develop the prototype for industrial production. For Gropius, the problem of the factory-made house had much deeper roots and much wider implications. But the next stage of his investigations was also limited to a case-study house, with no immediate practical consequences. This house was the widely publicized prefabricated house at the Weissenhofsiedlung, the Deutscher Werkbund model neighborhood of 1926–29, in Stuttgart.54

2.7 Carl Kästner Co., steel house, Leipzig, c. 1926


This house was one of two houses designed by Gropius for the exhibition, the other being only partially prefabricated. The fully fabricated house is a two-story structure, whose whole plan is reduced to a simple rectangle and whose form to an elementary prism. The term Gropius uses to describe its construction system is Trockenmontage, a dry assembly system. Upon an in-situ concrete foundation (the only exception to the “dry” rule, and a persistent problem in prefabrication), a steel frame is set up, consisting of Z-section uprights, channel section horizontals, and I-beams for floors. This frame is clad with asbestos sheeting on the outside, lignat sheeting (a cellulose fiber product) internally, and there are 80-mm-thick pressed cork slabs in between, as insulation, separated from each of the wall linings by an air space of 30 mm. The roof is of precast cinder concrete blocks covered with metal. Floors are of wood, and ceilings of celotex sheets. Although the system resembles the Muche-Paulick system in some respects—the steel frame, the external sheet cladding, the insulation—it differs in its inner construction, which avoids such “wet” trades and in-situ work as plastering. The structural module is 1.06 m, to accommodate a standard door frame. The planning module follows the structural grid, and all internal partitions are located on grid lines. It is apparent that Gropius has far greater understanding here of the design discipline that stems from the acceptance of a modular principle of structure.

The system remains elementary when broken down into its constituent components. Each steel section, wall lining, floor board, and insulation slab is a separate industrially produced item. All have to be assembled on the site. There is no concept yet of subassemblies of entire building elements, such as wall panels or inner partitions, arriving ready-made from the factory. In other words, the system remains a primary one, with no clearly defined subsystems. It is essentially an open system, not dependent on the integrated output of a single production belt but incorporating a large variety of established industrial products of diverse origins. As a result the system is a flexible one, providing many alternatives, and responsive to change. The price paid is a considerable amount of site work, albeit of an assembly nature rather than construction in its traditional sense. But within these limitations we do have what was lacking in Gropius’ memorandum of 1910, a coherent overall system. It is moreover the first system of prefabrication conceived and designed in all its technical details, if not by any architect, then certainly by an architect of Gropius’ professional stature. The fact that this work was given great public and professional exposure, directly and in the press, because of its inclusion in the exhibition of the Weissenhofsiedlung, was of great importance to the movement for industrially built houses. Gropius therefore provided this movement with one if its first convincing practical demonstrations. He was to continue to be deeply involved in these empiric endeavours, as we shall see. But at this time his more important role was as the formulator and chief propagator of a coherent theory of industrialized building.

The Theory of the Factory-Made House

The erection of the experimental houses at the Weissenhofsiedlung was an opportunity for Gropius once again to formulate his thoughts on the general principles of prefabrication as a means of lowering housing costs and improving housing quality—the goals, it will be recalled, of his 1910 memorandum. These general principles he discussed in a short but important paper: “Wie bauen wir billigere, bessere, schönere Wohnungen?” (How Do We Build Cheaper, Better, More Attractive Dwellings?)55 We may summarize the essentials for achieving his ultimate objective, “das fix und fertig eingerichtete variable Wohnhaus” (the ready-furnished [that is, fully equipped and ready-to-use] adaptable dwelling) in the following points. Houses should be made by mass-production methods, using the assembly-line production processes of factories, and monitored by precise flowcharts and other control methods. The elements of the houses should be made for dry-assembly construction systems, utilizing the newest building materials. The houses should be designed according to rationalized building plans and should be carefully studied to the very last detail in a way comparable to the meticulous design of machines. Such a design process postulates the idea of standardization of the product; this product, however, should not be the whole house but the various constituent components comprising the building system. Such a stock of standard elements would enable the erection of houses that could be varied according to the customer’s demand (within of course the limits of the system). It should be possible to fix the cost in advance and to guarantee the construction time. In such a rational production system, independent of the variable of the weather, long-range financial planning becomes possible, and the funding of research is of major importance. Finally, in this paper, Gropius proposes that the direction of such a project should be in the hands of a team comprising architect, engineer, and businessman, each with his clearly defined role to play.

2.8 Walter Gropius, prefabricated house, Weissenhofsiedlung, Stuttgart, 1927. Above: view; bottom: construction details.

This is by far the most comprehensive statement on the principles of industrialization of houses to date. It is compatible in its aims and objectives with the original memorandum to Rathenau but is much wider in scope, dealing as it does with total rather than partial systems and showing a deeper understanding of the industrial process. The guiding philosophy underlying these principles was once again stressed by Gropius in a paper written shortly thereafter, and published in the second issue of the Bauhaus journal in 1927: “Systematische Vorarbeit für rationellen Wohnungsbau” (Systematic Preparation for Rationalized Housing Construction).56 Here Gropius states: “The ultimate objective of this trend will be accomplished only when all the reasonable wishes of the individual for his home can be fulfilled without sacrificing the economic advantages of mass production. The houses and their furnishings will differ in their general appearance to suit the number and kind of their inhabitants. On the other hand, the components from which these buildings will be made will be identical. The ‘type’ itself is no obstacle to cultural development; on the contrary, it is almost one of its prerequisites. . . .” Gropius, in order to achieve the goals inherent in his theory of prefabrication, had to set the process in a wider context. He therefore calls for a rationalization of the entire building industry, to be studied within the framework of a system of national and regional building research institutes. The program of work of these institutes, embracing both theoretical and practical aspects, constitutes the “systematic preparation for rationalized housing construction” which is the main argument of his paper. The following are the main points of his interest: the optimization of dwelling design, based on generalized studies of user requirements; the maximum exploitation of new materials and techniques of construction, and specifically techniques of prefabrication; the stockpiling of pre-made components, manufactured according to agreed norms and standards; the rationalization of national distribution systems, especially highway development; the study of the efficiency of building site procedures, with respect to materials, labor, and mechanized equipment; the institution of comparative costing and estimating procedures; and a revision of building legislation to permit the exploitation of new technological developments. The range of Gropius’ thinking here is impressive, as he sees the problem in many-faceted form; also impressive is his humanism, as his search for norms and standards is always explicitly based not only on technical and economic considerations but on what is socially desirable. Prefabrication, or mass production through industrial means as Gropius sees it, is not only a search for quantity but essentially a means of achieving quality.

It is this search for quality that brings Gropius to the other element in his theory of industrialized housing—the central role of the architect. It is the essence of the third major theoretical paper which we have chosen to consider briefly here: “Der Architekt als Organisator der modernen Bauwirtschaft und seine Forderungen an die Industrie” (The Architect as Organizer of the Modern Building Industry and His Demands on Industry).57 Here we have a long philosophical discourse on the schism between art and industry since the days of the medieval craftsman, who embraced within his personal skills the functions of artist, technician, and tradesman. This was no longer possible within the framework of an industrial society, where the opposition of technical and formal considerations was inherent. Who is to resolve these conflicts? Who is to understand the building as the organizing factor of our life’s processes (als Gestaltung von Lebensvorgängen)? And who is to integrate the scientific, social, technical, and economic factors, inherent in the new architecture of the industrial age? Gropius’ answer here is unambiguous. This integrative role is the essential task of the architect, and therefore of necessity he must be involved in the process of industrialized building of houses. Can the architect stand aside, asked Gropius, when even at that moment the combined forces of the German Steel Federation were united in an effort to “fill the land with steel houses”?58 The theoretical framework constructed by Gropius for the enhancement of environmental and housing quality through prefabrication demanded the architect’s engagement in the process, as a vital instrument not only of design but of total synthesis. If the architect did not step in, then, Gropius feared, industry would act alone. In this fear Gropius of course was fully justified. The pragmatic forces of economics were to prove a more powerful motivation for an attempt to industrialize the housing process than the logic and justice inherent in Gropius’ elegantly formulated theories. It is to that development we must shortly turn. Before doing so, we should perhaps, in true Gropian manner, attempt a synthesis of Gropius’ various theoretical statements as a summary of his principles of industrialized housing.

The architect, who is responsible to society, must contribute to the solution of society’s most acute problem, the mass-housing problem. Mass housing demands mass production, and for this purpose the architect must learn to work with industry. Industrialization of the housing process inevitably means standardization; we should not resist this, for standards are the norms of a civilized community and give it unity of expression. However, we must not forget that individual needs and desires vary, and within the limits of social consensus man must be given choice. Man and his world are not static but in a state of dynamic flux, and the dwelling produced by industry must be adaptable and responsive to demands for change and growth. Industrialized housing must therefore be designed for maximum utility, standardization, and interchangeability of the parts and maximum variability of the whole, the house as final product. This industrialized building system moreover is not an end in itself but an integrated part of a larger whole, one level in a hierarchical environmental-social-economic system.

Gropius’ theory of prefabrication was wholly consistent with his philosophy of life. If there is a theme that runs through all Gropius’ work, it is the theme of wholeness, the theme of unity, the theme of synthesis.59 His concern in every undertaking was to demonstrate the essential oneness of life, its organic unity whereby all parts constitute a whole, or series of wholes combine in new unions to form wholes of a higher order of structure, value, and purpose. It was from this point of view that he sought to resolve the dualisms of art and life, art and technology, in new syntheses. The philosophy underlying Gropius’ theory of prefabrication is essentially of this unifying, synthesizing approach. On the surface this was not immediately apparent. In principle, Gropius had to choose between two main streams of development, in seeking to adapt industrial techniques to the processes of building: the industrial production of the complete building in a variety of predetermined variations, a process analogous to the mass production of the motor car, or the manufacture in factories of the components of buildings as a standardized set of elements with rules of combination allowing for variability of the final house design.

The application of a production-belt system to the fabrication of the total dwelling had obvious advantages not only in reducing the cost structure but in achieving a uniformity of design and quality, with a high degree of control over the whole process. The process is a determinate process of controlled synthesis leading to apparent maximization of unity. This was the direction Buckminster Fuller chose for his Dymaxion house; it was the direction one would have anticipated for Gropius, whose modus operandi was synthesis and whose aim was unity. Yet the import of his theory of prefabrication was to deny the validity of this approach. “Total” prefabrication was discarded as being only superficially consonant with his philosophy of unity, for it was antagonistic to his fundamental aim, the ultimate unity to which he strove, the integration of art into the life of man. The prefabrication of the complete dwelling was, in his view, based on a mechanistic world view. It was concerned with providing a given quantity of units in response to a need stated in numerical terms; it produced architecture for the statistical mean and not for the rich diversity which is human life. Unity produced by such means is an imposed unity which excludes free choice and personal preference.

Gropius turns therefore to the alternative avenue of approach and seeks to reap the advantages of prefabrication through the manufacture of the standardized part rather than the whole, leaving the synthesis to be defined by the needs of the user and the creative skills of the architect. Gropius’ attitude to prefabrication is thus an attempt to resolve the conflict of uniformity and variation, of standardization and diversity, in a new unity: and it is typical of Gropius that he sees the resolution of this paradox not in a choice of alternatives but in a reconciliation of opposites in a new synthesis. As an instrument of this synthesis, as a means of achieving unity of the whole, standardization of the part becomes a consideration of prime importance. The synthesizing process depends on the nature and quality of the component parts. The demands of the technology of production, the demands of economics, the demands of the quality of design, and the demands of order and aesthetic unity all converge in the concept of the standardized component. Gropius willingly accepts the concept of standardization as culturally beneficient. “As a maturer and more final model than any of the individual prototypes merged in it, an accepted standard is always a formal common denominator of a whole period.”60 These standards, however, were not fixed and immutable but were in Gropius’ words to be “constantly checked and renewed.” The quality Gropius was seeking, through standardization, was to be “dynamic, not static, to serve as an inexhaustible stimulus to man.”61

The practical experiments of Gropius were much more limited than the grand sweep of his theoretical vision. At Toerten-Dessau his unity is an imposed unity, achieved through the repetition of standardized, identical dwelling units. At the Weissenhofsiedlung we have the dwelling conceived as a static, finite object. These experiments, however, must be considered as means, not ends. They were conducted to examine the technical problems of industrialized building on the building site at Dessau, in the factory at Stuttgart. They were laboratory experiments under controlled conditions, examining limited hypotheses. At all times, however, through the reiteration of his broad theoretical principles, Gropius kept the wider picture and the bigger dream in mind. At no time did he regard the technical solution as an end in itself. The same, however, could not be said of the pragmatic forces of industry.

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