Skip to main content
SearchLoginLogin or Signup

4. Cropius, Hirsch, and the Saga of the Copper House

Published onApr 23, 2021
4. Cropius, Hirsch, and the Saga of the Copper House

The Hirsch Copper House

The Hirsch Copper and Brass Works (Hirsch Kupfer-und Messingwerke) were founded by Aron Siegmond Hirsch in 1906, as the extension and consolidation of an old-established family metal business based in Halberstadt, with associated enterprises in Werne, llsenberg, and Ebers-walde. The firm developed to become a major power in the German copper industry and is described as having played “a leading role in German economic life.”1 (It was at Eberswalde, incidentally, that Hirsch built a large two-story new factory, designed by architect Paul Mebes, and later published by Walter Gropius in his Internationale Architektur.)2 Hirsch not only dealt with copper ore but also with the manufacture of copper products, including such building products as copper tubing, sheeting, and roofing.3

During 1930 the Hirsch company began to experiment with the use of copper in building on a more comprehensive scale. They acquired the rights to a system of prefabrication of dwellings, invented by Friedrich Förster (originally Frigyes Förster, of Budapest) and later further developed by Förster in conjunction with Robert Krafft.4 Förster, in his original patent application of 1924,5 drew attention to the many previous attempts to design “knockdown buildings that can be readily assembled,” which had failed because of high costs or through inadequate standards of construction and performance. He then went on to claim:

Recognizing the importance of such considerations I have constructed a knock-down type of building composed of structural elements that are made at the factory in the desired form and to the desired dimensions required by the purchaser. Each structural element constitutes a wall section of box-frame construction, and is adapted at its edges to be joined to other sections to provide a complete wall.

The wall sections may be made up of wooden skeleton frames covered on both sides with metal sheathing. The space between the metal sheathing is filled with insulating material such as wood wool, sawdust, exelsior, or the like. The edges of the sections may carry tie bolts or equivalent forms of fastening means for easily connecting the sections together.

The general construction of the sections is such that they can be readily made up at the factory and transported to the point of construction.

The advanced nature of these proposals must here be stressed, as well as their early date, in a European context. They were developed at the very latest in early 1924, and possibly in the previous year, and therefore predated all the German steel houses by at least two years. The Förster concept moreover had no structural prototype among the German houses, or even the earlier, much-admired British models. His self-supporting metalfaced panels eliminated the need for a structural frame, but without the excessive weight of the Telford panels and with a superior degree of thermal insulation. Moreover—and here lay the most significant contribution—the entire panel could be factory made, reducing the site work to a minimum.

In 1930 Förster, now working with Krafft, radically altered his concept of insulation, and a new patent application was made for a revised system that did away with the infill of insulation material and replaced it with a series of “parallel partitions of a material which is impervious to air, preferably metal.” This principle, incidentally, had already been exploited in practice in the panel system of the wooden houses produced by Holzbau A.G., a firm of house manufacturers operating under the direction of the architect Kunz, and had been published as early as 1922.6 The performance could “be further improved by lining the partition with a layer of a poor heat conductor, preferably of a fibrous material,” in order to impede vertical air movement within the panels and to eliminate the possibility of heat bridges from exterior to interior. Dramatic improvements in thermal capacity were achieved, many times that of an equivalent brick wall. Hirsch was later to claim a thermal equivalence to a 220-mm-thick masonry wall for the panels they manufactured according to this system. In Förster and Krafft’s patent application, a revised and much improved method of joining the panels was suggested in place of the original, rather primitive tie bolts. The wooden frames were beveled and bolted to a continuous U-section connector. By this device two-, three-, and possibly four-way connections were easily achieved without altering the standard panel, and at the same time heat bridges between adjacent panels were avoided. A universal jointing system was thus proposed. At the time of the revised patent application, in August 1930, Förster and Krafft gave their address as at Finow, Mark. This was the location of the Elberswalde factory of Hirsch Kupfer-und Messingwerke. Hirsch set up a sophisticated production process for the manufacture of houses on the Förster and Krafft principle, including assembly of the subcomponents to make building elements on a moving production belt, and a new division was established in the factory, the Copper House Department. A five-roomed model house war erected probably late in 1930, and it generated much interest not only in Germany but also in the United States, where it was studied with care by the Copper and Brass Research Association and published in the metal industry journals.7

In order to publicize this new venture, a catalog was printed, and a total of six examples of complete houses were exhibited, some at the Paris International Colonial Exhibition of 1931 (winning a “Grand Prix”) and others at the German Building Exhibition in Berlin in May of the same year.8 The “Haus in Allkupfer-Bauweise der Hirsch Kupfer-u-Messingwerke A.-G. Berlin” as exhibited was a large, two-storied structure made of wood-framed panels covered externally with copper sheets, internally with pressed steel plates, and insulated in the prescribed manner. The ceilings too were of pressed steel, suspended from wooden trusses, ready cut (with the parts numbered for ease of assembly), which carried the copper roof. The cost of the Berlin exhibition house was given as RM 10,900, and an erection time of only 24 hours was claimed.

Reaction to these exhibition houses was mixed. The editor of Bauwelt magazine in a private letter9 confessed to some disappointment. He was worried about such technical problems as the heat conductivity of the copper panels; he anticipated long-term maintenance problems, particularly if the houses were erected in areas where the necessary skills and materials were lacking. He also pointed out that the price differential with conventional housing was not sufficient and—perhaps most important of all—the architectural character (more picturesque than functional) set back the cause of modern architecture by thirty years. Walter Gropius, on the other hand, in reply to an inquiry, affirmed that on the whole he was most impressed with the copper houses, was convinced that their weather-resistance was very good, and expressed his intention shortly to look into the technical aspects in greater detail.10 This general approval, as we shall see, did not preclude Gropius from having his own reservations, both about technical aspects of the copper houses and especially about their conservative architectural character.

4.1 Förster and Krafft, heat-insulating wall (U.S. patent application, 1930)

4.2 Hirsch Kupfer-und Messingwerke, copper house, 1931.

4.3 Hirsch Kupfer-und Messingwerke, copper house, German building exhibition, Berlin, 1931

4.4 Hirsch Kupfer-und Messingwerke, construction details, 1931

Together with the exhibition houses a handsome catalog was produced, which extolled the virtues of the copper house in a twelve-point manifesto, answering the selfposed question “Why is the copper house the best?” Attention was drawn to its precision, being mechanically assembled; its hygienic qualities; its efficient thermal insulation, which made it economical to heat; its proof against fire, lightning, and earthquake; and the fact that it could be erected in 24 hours and internal partitions could be relocated. A price list for separate components—internal and external wall panels, glazed windows, doors, insulated roof decks—was included in the catalog. Wall panels were shown to have an outer facing of rectangular-patterned copper sheets and an inner lining of pressed steel, with a choice of six “tasteful patterns,” some simulated brick or tile, others (the Englisch and Japanisch styles) with a delicate overall floral motif. These panels were modular, in 1-m increments up to a maximum of 4 m, and in two heights: 2.35 and 2.80 m. The wall unit, came complete from the factory, fully insulated with aluminium and asbestos and fitted where necessary with shuttered double-glazed casement windows (whose fanlights were remotely operated) or with doors. These large units were assembled simply and speedily by a crew of six workmen. All sanitary ware, electrical installations, and a fully-equipped kitchen were provided, with built-in cupboards available as optional extras. To round out the comprehensive specification, a choice of six internal colors was offered, ranging from coral red to pastel blue.

Nine houses were illustrated in the catalog. We see that the exhibition house in Berlin is representative of the architectural character of all models offered: conservative, with steep pitched roofs and romantic features such as arched porches (technically difficult to achieve in a metalfaced panel system) and flower boxes. To the prospective client a questionnaire was included, where he could tabulate the data relevant to his particular site and his preferences in relation to all the optional items: heating, built-in cupboards, sanitary equipment.

This was in May 1931. Early the next month we find Bauwelt approaching Gropius to prepare the material on the Hirsch houses for the Bauwelt catalog. To this request he responded, but publicity material and technical details were obviously supplied by Hirsch.11 We have here what is evidently the beginning of a formal relationship between Gropius and Hirsch Kupfer. From June 1931 onwards12 this relationship is expressed by the intensive and extensive activity undertaken by Gropius on Hirsch’s behalf, activity that embraced not only architectural design but also technical research and development and market and sales promotion. This role was external to Hirsch Kupfer’s organization but obviously much more than that of professional consultant. It was—and this is entirely consistent with the holistic philosophy of Walter Gropius—the provision of a total service. Gropius himself talked of having taken over the direction of the copper house division at Hirsch Kupfer.13

On 19 June 1931, having studied the model houses, and the documentation that had so far been presented to him, Gropius put forward his views in a wide-ranging evaluation of the copper houses.14 This paper is impressive both for its breadth of scope and for its precise grasp of detail. On the one hand, Gropius deals with broad questions of housing policy and dwelling preferences; the conflict between industrialized building and the protective nature of conventional building workers’ organizations; the need for standardizing parts while maintaining the variability of the whole building. On the other hand, he produces a six-page summary of detailed criticism of technical aspects of the design, including structural safety, construction details, condensation and waterproofing, electrical and plumbing installations, maintenance and cleaning problems, even the noise problems of heavy rain or hail on the copper sheets.15 He considers the advantages of fixed prices and guaranteed delivery dates, and the legal obligations deriving from these which will fall on the manufacturing company. He proposes to separate the manufacturing from the merchandising functions and advocates for the latter the establishment of a separate marketing and finance company. We may at this point comment on the continuity in his thinking here, in relation to his pioneer manifesto: “Program for the establishment of a company for the provision of housing on aesthetically consistent principles,” which he had presented to Rathenau of AEG in 1910. Gropius now proposes a plan of action:

4.5 Hirsch Kupfer-und Messingwerke, internal finishes to copper houses, 1931

4.6 Hirsch Kupfer-und Messingwerke, window detail, copper houses (Grundman House, Haifa, 1933–34, by Deutsche Kupferhaus Gesellschaft).

4.7 Hirsch Kupfer-und Messingwerke, erection procedure, copper house, 1931

4.8 Hirsch Kupfer-und Messingwerke, “Kupfercastell” type, 1931

I recommend that you stop advertising the houses for the time being and conclude only those sales that arise out of the exhibitions in Berlin and Paris. Your gentlemen dealing with sales assume that with the conclusion of the exhibitions, approximately 20–30 sales would have been made to the month of August, so that the factory would be rather busy in the immediate future. As a second stage, I propose the development of the types, taking into consideration the design and technical faults that have been complained of. This would be done during the winter months, so that, following these preparations, active advertising may be renewed in the spring. The third stage should be started at the same time, namely the development of future houses, technically more improved . . . .

Finally, Gropius recommended that a limited series of standard types be developed, capable of satisfying a wide variety of demands. We have no documentary evidence that Hirsch Kupfer formally accepted this program, but the subsequent facts speak for themselves. For the immediate future the direction indicated by Walter Gropius becomes the policy of Hirsch Kupfer.

Improving the Design

Hirsch and Gropius were united in their desire to refine the copper house, eradicate the technical problems, and enhance the performance in every respect. They therefore entered into a long and serious process, whereby the prototypes of the Berlin exhibition were probed, tested, evaluated, and improved. These tests took three forms: the examination of elements of the building system, and systems of manufacture and assembly, mainly in Hirsch’s own workshops in the Copper House Department at Finow, near Eberswalde; the seeking out of expert opinion and the evaluation of materials, processes, and environmental performance by key German research institutes in such fields as acoustics, thermal insulation, sanitation, heating, safety in terms of fire and lightning, and so on;16 and the building at Finow of an experimental Siedlung, originally of six houses, for the testing of materials and techniques under field conditions, over protracted periods of several months. When shortcomings were revealed, or when more efficient methods thought of, alterations were effected, comparative analyses made, and the consequent improvements built into the design and construction processes. The policy, both in relation to the original prototypes and later to the new types developed by Gropius himself, was one of continuous evolution and improvement rather than radical change. At all times the implications of changes suggested for aesthetic or technical reasons upon the cost, or upon the processes of industrial manufacture in the factory, were carefully balanced. And a constant dialogue was maintained by the technicians of the Hirsch plant and the designers in Gropius’ office in that sort of creative interaction between architect and industry presupposed in the foundation of the Deutscher Werkbund and adumbrated in the educational programs of the Bauhaus.

Although all aspects of the design and construction of the copper houses were subjected to this close and ongoing scrutiny—the foundations, external staircases and railings, waterproofing details, roof construction and covering details, electrical and sanitary installations, fireplaces, stoves,17 and central heating (even to a comparative analysis of the cost of alternative fuels)—the most serious attention was undoubtedly given to the wall panels, which were the system’s most unique and characteristic feature. Tests were mounted and discussions held on the copper sheets, which constituted the external face of the panels, examining their thickness and metallurgical qualities, the rigidity and stability of their pressings, the problems of patina. Similarly, the inner facings of pressed steel sheets were closely studied, and alternatives, particularly of aluminium,18 evaluated and eventually adopted. Both aluminium and steel19 were investigated by Gropius as possible alternatives to the copper facing. And though we may assume that Hirsch was not too happy at this attempt to bypass copper, their raison d’etre, they at no times stopped these open-minded queries. The construction of the panels and their connections formed the basis for much debate, and some controversy. Gropius and Hirsch examined, in drawings and model form, the possibilities of an ingenious jointing system that eliminated the need for the U-section connectors and fixed the panels directly together by means of spring-loaded bolts. However, despite advantages, including the elimination of unsightly cover strips, it was rejected as involving many new problems. It could mean new tooling in the workshops, more complicated fixing patterns, a deviation from the standard module, and an upset in packaging arrangements. The question of modularity and standardization was a problem to which Gropius in particular was especially sensitive.20

Most obdurate of all problems, however, was the question of thermal insulation. This had been at the core of Förster and Krafft’s original patent for the wall panels, and endless attempts were made to upgrade the performance over a period of six months. Gropius, out of his own experience at the Weissenhofsiedlung21 preferred metal foil and supported the introduction of the Dycker-hoff system, using aluminium, subject to proper testing. An arrangement was entered into with Dyckerhoff, who was paid licence fees of RM 6,000 for a period of about six months, expiring on 31 December 1931.22 Tests were done at Hirsch’s, and also by independent sources at Munich; alternative designs were prepared, and comparative evaluations made, some in the presence of Förster and representatives of Dyckerhoff. In the final analysis such good results were obtained that Gropius could cite the high thermal value to weight ratio of the walls as his reason for considering the system the best dryassembled method he had ever come across. The ingenuity of Förster, the rationality of Gropius, and the technological integrity of Hirsch Kupfer combined to make it so.

Together with this process of continuous improvement, Gropius turned his attention increasingly to the development of new house types. The original designs, as we have seen, were open to criticism on both aesthetic and technical grounds. In a letter to Siegfried Hirsch,23 Gropius maintained his positive view of the copper houses, seeing no inherent problem with respect to both the plan and the outer appearance that could not be overcome by careful design. The decision of the inventors of the copper houses to show them to the public in an “old-fashioned style” was, he felt, mistaken, for the reactions of the public to the houses at the exhibitions of Paris and Berlin had been negative. The public Gropius had in mind was an elite one, “the more refined public, architects, and experts in taste” who rejected “the imitative character of the houses.” However, he went on, these difficulties “could be overcome by improvement of the types and the form of the houses, by reworking and improvement.”

4.9 Walter Gropius, proposed new connection system for Hirsch panels, 1931–32

In July 1931 Gropius began this process. The original list of types offered for sale by Hirsch Kupfer consisted of a basic nine ranging from the most expensive of the list, “Kupfercastell,” of 100 sq m, costing RM 10,900, to the cheapest, “Eigen Scholle,” of 56.6 sq m, at RM 6,300. To this list was added an unnamed type K, a modest 36.9-sq-m dwelling costing only RM 4,200, and type R, a 167-sq-m seven-roomed villa, at RM 13,600.24

Gropius set to work upon the K type. By the end of July the design had stabilized, as a basic (type K) core house of 37 sq m,25 containing a minimal three rooms, kitchen alcove, and WC, which could be expanded by the addition of a further two rooms to make a new variant (type K1) of 62 sq m. Another related pair of designs, K0 and K2, represented a slightly modified version, with separate kitchen, of both the core and the expanded houses. A type L house was also developed, with both single- and double-story variants, but apparently this type was abandoned in favor of type K.26 Gropius then went on to develop the M series, whose basic unit of about 49 sq m (type M) could be repeated to form a double-story house roomed dwellings. The large type R house was also further developed, as well as two variants of type D, the original “Juwel” house of the Hirsch range.

By mid-July preliminary sketches were complete and some plans already incorporated by Hirsch Kupfer into their catalog. A week later prices had been calculated for five variants; by the end of the month many details had been established, including a new roof system, the question of heating, quotations for ironwork for the outside stair, and a precise schedule of areas and prices.27 During the next two months an intensive campaign of design and development took place. New drawings continued to be prepared in great numbers. By 19 November 1931 Gropius’ office had prepared some 130 sheets of drawings for what was called the “Gropius-Typen,” that is, types K and M, about half of which were superseded in the continuous evolutionary process of refinement. Carefully drawn sketch plans were prepared of all variants, showing plans and elevations. Rendered perspectives showed attractive little houses of restrained modernity, all with pitched roofs, some hipped, others with gables. There is, in fact, a striking resemblance to the architecture of the Montagehäuser houses, with their simple fenestration and wire-meshed balconies, which Gropius had designed in 1929. In addition to these presentation drawings all types were studied from the point of view of solar penetration, according to various orientations. These drawings were carried out in Gropius’ atelier.28 After much development selected versions of each type were then detailed in working drawings and detailed studies, and well over 100 sheets of such drawings were prepared in the Hirsch Kupfer drawing office (Abteilung Kupferhausbau). This ongoing, evolutionary design process is what Gropius had in mind when he advised Hirsch on the necessity for reworking and improving the planning and appearance of the copper houses. This process included the building of a prototype of the K type on the Wolfwinkelerstrasse at Finow, both as a show house and as an object for experiment; construction of this house was still continuing when Gropius visited the site early in January 1932. The lessons from the prototype were then fed back into the revised standard detailed drawings of the models meant for mass production (Gropius talks at an early stage of an output of ten houses per month29), and into revisions in the tooling and flow chart of the factory itself. As notes made by Gropius after a meeting with Hirsch Kupfer at Eberswalde, on 21 October 1931, indicate, the final drawings for types K and M depended on the results of the Wolfwinkelerstrasse experiment, talks with technicians about manufacturing problems, and decisions about assembly flow lines. These notes included a list of problems needing attention, some for technical reasons, others (relating to the internal and external skins of the wall panels) for aesthetic reasons. Gropius concluded, cautiously and characteristically: “All improvements must be done successively, after testing, because the process in the factory cannot easily be altered.” As much as he wanted to see the “gradual alteration of dwelling types in both their technical and formal aspects, considering the customs and tastes of other countries,” it would be best, he felt, to wait and see if sufficient houses were sold to make this worthwhile.30

This considerable effort in the copper house venture, together with the houses then being considered for the next Berlin exhibition (of which we shall have more to say later), compelled Gropius to give serious thought to the organization of his own office and the division of responsibilities between himself and Hirsch Kupfer. This he formalized in a memorandum early in January 1932.31 As he saw it, the Berlin office of Hirsch Kupfer should be responsible for calculating all quantities for the foundations and superstructure, structural calculations, cost estimates and flow charts, formal presentations to building inspectors, negotiations on materials, the preparation of detailed assembly manuals, and the preparation of sales catalogs. Gropius of course would provide the drawings for the catalogs, as well as the preparatory drawings for all estimates of costs and quantities. The main work of his office would naturally be the preparation of all necessary drawings. He suggested setting up a special atelier, under the direction of Herr Dustmann, with six assistants: Goetz to work generally on details; Fieger on sketches for types IV (“Juwel” or type D in the original list) and V (type R), as well as detailed studies; Luderer, concentrating on type M, with all its variants; and Hadda, Gumberz, and Okamura principally engaged on the K types. Gropius rather hoped that Hirsch Kupfer might be able to spare a draftsman to help out in his office, and he thought it desirable that there be coordination between his office and the man from Hirsch Kupfer responsible for production design. One can sense in Gropius a deep concern over the responsibility of documenting designs for industrial production. In craft buildings, he pointed out, measurements and adjustments could always be made on the site but production in factories demanded absolutely accurate documentation, as an error was reproduced not once but innumerable times.

4.10 Walter Gropius, type K1 house for Hirsch Kupfer, 1931

4.11 Walter Gropius, type M2 house for Hirsch Kupfer, 1931

Gropius, then, was heavily involved in the ongoing design process for the copper houses as well as in their technical evolution and perfection. But this was by no means the sum total of his commitment to Hirsch Kupfer and the copper house project.

The Selling of the Copper Houses

Before the war, when Gropius had worked in the office of Peter Behrens, he had been aware of the full range of services—advertising, industrial design, architecture—which his mentor had provided for his client, the AEG. Now Gropius was similarly called on by Hirsch for many services beyond the purely professional, and he became deeply involved with the promotional aspects of the copper house business. He maintained contact with the daily and professional press and was consulted by Hirsch on poster design and other advertising material.32 He took a central role in the design of their proposed new catalog. He prepared drawings, had models constructed and photographed, designed the layouts, and negotiated with the printers over such details as paper types and cost. His interest in graphic design went back of course to his Bauhaus days, and it was perhaps natural for a universal designer such as Gropius to be engaged in these matters. But his involvement went much deeper, into the financial and organizational aspects of the business, and in the active promotion of the copper houses as products for the home and foreign markets. It must be stressed that in this he played as much the role of entrepreneur as that of designer: indeed, it would have been difficult to separate the two aspects.

We do not have any accurate measure of the extent of the trade in copper houses at this time, for although we have some of Gropius’ records, none of Hirsch Kupfer’s appear to have survived. During the first half-year or so of Gropius’ connection with Hirsch Kupfer, that is, until the end of 1931, we have firm knowledge of 30 houses actually produced by the copper house division. Of these, 13 were for their own use—6 for the exhibitions at Paris and Berlin, 6 for the model settlement at Finow, and a further test model built there according to Gropius’ K type. In addition, from various sources,33 we know of 17 for one family (M1, M3) or two families (M2), with an external stair serving the upper of two superimposed three-others built for private customers and erected in Germany, mostly in the Berlin area. Of these, the most popular was the large “Kupfercastell” model, with some interest also in the “Juwel” and “Fruhlingstraum” types. These were types, according to a letter from Hirsch Kupfer to Gropius, which, because of their functional design, were in use all the time at the copper house division.34 Gropius, thinking back,35 thought that some 53 copper houses had been erected, presumably during the period of his active association with Hirsch Kupfer.

4.12 Walter Gropius, drawing of type M1 copper house prepared for Hirsch Kupfer catalog, 1931

4.13 Walter Gropius, dummy layout of catalog page, 1931

In addition to these certain examples, we know of many more potential cases, few, if any, of which could have materialized. In Gropius’ own records we have notes of many deals being negotiated, some for considerable quantities. Shortly after the commencement of the Berlin Building Exhibition (in May 1931) we have notes (exchanged between Gropius and the sales department of Hirsch Kupfer) of discussions with Scher and Littauer, owners of a tract of some 2.5 million square meters near Glienicke, who were interested in starting a finance company to deal with the copper houses; with Lindemann, interested in erecting 8 six-roomed houses in Grunewalde; with the magistrate of the town of Cottbus, for 12 six-roomed houses built under a guarantee from the town; for the Heika (Heiga?) project in Berlin, which spoke of a large number of different types in the RM 5,000 price range, with 50 to 100 houses of each type; with Israel and Schulzendorf of Eichwalde, interested in similar houses for their large subdivision of land; with Professor Lazarus, who had on 15 June 1931 requested a special price for an offer to buy 33 houses; and for the erection of a small-house Siedlung in Berlin, consisting of several hundred low-cost houses. These numerous inquiries were very encouraging. Nor were they a mere flash in the pan, because as late as April 1932 Gropius—not ever given to easy optimism or to exaggeration—could write of the relatively large number of inquiries (several hundreds per month) which indicated the interest of the buying public in the copper houses. This interest moreover was not confined to Germany alone. “Numerous foreign connections have shown a lively interest abroad (Belgium, America, France, Rumania, South Africa).”36

The international connection of Hirsch Kupfer and Gropius’ involvement in the major effort to export the copper houses make interesting reading. We may assume that from the very outset, with their decision to exhibit at the Paris Colonial Exhibition in 1931, Hirsch Kupfer looked abroad for a large potential market. Even before houses were actually produced, in fact even before proper publicity material was ready, at the end of 1930, Thiess & Co. of Hamburg, who represented Hirsch in Latin America, had promoted the copper house idea “as a novelty” in Buenos Aires, evoking the interest of experts and estate agents. It had been decided to leave the matter in abeyance until May or June 1931, when Hirsch hoped to be ready with the necessary material.37 In July 1931 Gropius, apparently unaware of the previous activity, suggested to Hirsch that a Herr Moller, who was going to Buenos Aires to open a branch office for Gropius, might handle all the copper house business in South America.38 This suggestion stirred up something of a hornets’ nest, both in Thiess & Co. and in the sales department of Hirsch Kupfer, but an exchange of firm letters soon settled matters and left the South American business in Thiess’s capable and experienced hands. What materialized from this transaction, in the form of actual exports of copper houses, we unfortunately do not know, and there is this same tantalizing gap in our records in nearly all the following incidents. They are important, and are here recorded, if not for the tangible results (which presumably were negligible), then for the light they throw on the interest overseas in the copper houses and the strenuous efforts made by Hirsch Kupfer and by Gropius to exploit this interest and promote further the export of their prefabricated products.

In this search for overseas markets we have some incidental cases: a cryptic reference to houses for the Princess de Ligne, for Sir Robert Williams in Africa, and a “Juwel” type house for a Mr. Hoboken in Holochem (Hollochne?), in Belgium, which was under construction in July 1931.39 The Belgian connection is significant because the giant copper firm of Union Miniere of Haut Katanga, with headquarters in Brussels, were shareholders40 in Hirsch Kupfer-und Messingwerke. There is some discussion between the partners, examining the possibility of exporting copper roofs in component form (of the type made for the copper houses) and the copper house itself. This latter was examined in some detail by the Brussels firm, which had established its own Copper House Department, and a translation of their findings, which including criticism of some technical details and the ventilation of the houses, was kept by Gropius in his files.41 Another associate, Anaconda Copper Mining Co. of New York, also showed interest in these new products. They ordered, probably in June 1931, two models of the “Fruhlingstraum” house and one of the two-story “Kupfercastell.” By August, letters and cables were exchanged, because of the nondelivery of the necessary specifications and other documents and—more seriously—because Anaconda, after submitting details of the houses to its experts, concluded that changes were necessary to adapt them to the American market. These changes centered on the need to increase the window area, to improve the interior design to meet the high standards demanded by the American housewife, and to alter the electrical installation to meet the requirements of the National Electric Code. New York, Los Angeles, and Houston were considered the likely locations of the three houses, and Anaconda asked Hirsch Kupfer to supply detailed shipping information.42 From this information, which had already been meticulously worked out, we learn that the “Kupfercastell” house was shipped in 34 packages, weighed 15,513 kg, and occupied 69.68 cu m of shipping space, whereas the “Fruhlingstraum” was packed in 31 packages, weighed 15,901 kg, and had a shipping volume of 73.48 cu m.43

In August 1931 a Mr. Malletke, a business associate of Gropius’ (whose interest in the copper houses had come about through the intervention of Gropius’ kinsman, Alfred Gropius) brought Gropius into contact with the Budapest office of The Union Guarantee and Industrial Trust Limited, the foreign division of a British financial company. To them Gropius wrote, as head of the Copper House Department of Hirsch Kupfer, sending the old catalog, the folder containing details of his new types, and many prints and photographs. He drew attention to the economy and high quality of the copper houses, their light weight and ease of transportation, and the short and guaranteed delivery date (two to three months, including all the time necessary for government formalities and financing arrangements). An immediate and encouraging reply stated: “We are so much interested in the project that the undersigned will come to Berlin either this or next week and will talk to you about the matter.” Triangular negotiations between Berlin, Budapest, and London went on for some time, but the final outcome is not recorded in the Gropius files, only a highly optimistic note from Union Guarantee suggesting that all the details had successfully been negotiated between Gropius and their Mr. Tilley.44

The last of these international episodes in which Gropius was heavily involved was left equally unresolved, but it throws fascinating light on the relations between the Soviet Union and its well-wishers in the west, before the heavy hand of Stalin severs the links. On 2 August 1931 Gropius reported an interesting encounter to the sales department of Hirsch Kupfer:

On Saturday the president of the section of Foreign Specialists of RKI in Moscow, Herr Ing. S. J. Rutgers and Dr. F. Frankl, Moscow, came to consult me on houses that can be quickly manufactured as dwellings for foreign specialists in Russia. I gave them detailed information on the construction of the copper houses and showed them all the types. They were greatly interested, and asked for an immediate proposal, which I shall describe more exactly. The idea of these people is the following. Because of the difficult foreign currency situation in Russia they want to ask engineers from outside Russia to bring with them their own houses, which will be paid for in German currency, for which they will be refunded in rubles. Because of the urgent need for such dwellings a guarantee by the state of the payment in cash in foreign currency may be possible. These gentlemen asked me for an immediate quotation for types K, K1, M2, M1, and they want a proposal for one or for fifty units, sent to Stettin or to the Polish-Russian border.

Gropius then goes on to discuss various detailed changes that would be necessary, especially because of the great cold in Russia. Although the Russians themselves would be responsible for the assembly of the houses, they wanted data “on the number of assemblyworkers and hours of erection, according to our calculations.”45 As these proposals were being prepared by Hirsch Kupfer, and a proposal was being considered to send to Munich for tests of the insulation for a possible temperature of—25°C, Gropius pressed his case directly in Moscow through the mediation of his old friend Ernst May. The former Frankfurt architect had gone to the Soviet Union as the head of a task force of architects and planners,46 some of the many “newly engaged specialists from America and Germany” to whom Gropius referred in his letter. As he explained the situation to May: “I think that the copper houses of my newly developed project are especially suitable, after we have eradicated some small faults, which you too have remarked on. Since you left I have had several tests made in various institutes, with very good results, and because of the extraordinary insulation capacity of the wall I do not hesitate to recommend these houses for Russia. . . . I ask you to support this matter, so that a shipment of our first series, perhaps a trial shipment, may be realized.”47

None of these international ventures seemed to come to maturity, despite Gropius’ active participation in their promotion. It is true that economic conditions in the world as a whole were not, in these early years of the Great Depression, conducive to grand experiments and new ventures. In fact Gropius’ enthusiasm and ambitions somewhat alarmed the more conservative heads at Hirsch Kupfer. A memorandum of July 193148 notes the hopes of Gropius and Malletke, supported by René Schwartz of the Hirsch Kupfer directorate, to sell houses on a big scale during that year. They believed their good connections, and the resultant financial means, would enable them to carry out the project. Hirsch Kupfer, however, favored restraint, suggesting that no massive sales campaign be undertaken until the winter tests had been successfully negotiated. In preparing carefully for launching the house on the market, many points had to be considered, including discussions with companies responsible for rural and municipal housing estates (of which there were more than a hundred in Berlin alone), negotiations with estate agents specializing in housing, negotiations with the authorities, assurances of credits and proper financial agreements entered into, advertisement abroad, and organization for selling. It was considered that Hirsch Kupfer would not really be ready to commence selling houses until April 1932 and that considerable money had to be invested in the effort before then. It was possible, concluded the memorandum, that a trading and finance company, on the American model, should be set up for this purpose. Schwartz himself looked into the question of the financial arrangements with savings banks. Although attention was drawn to the possibility of difficulties in raising mortgages, or arranging insurance, for the copper houses, “their being so easily transportable,”49 this did not prove to be an intractable problem. Mortgages of 60 to 70 percent of the cost were attainable,50 and insurance against fire and burglary was available at the same rates as for the brick houses.51

The Wachsende Haus Competition

In Gropius’ account of the advantages of his prefabricated copper houses, we find three recurrent themes, all indicating the flexibility and dynamic nature of the system. These themes are mobility, or the ease of transportation and adaptation to various locations and climes; adaptability, or the capacity to generate many house types and variations, through the interplay of standardized components;52 and growth, or the expandability of the house, horizontally through the addition of further rooms, or vertically through the addition of another floor. We have already seen how the question of flexibility in the design of the dwelling was a significant area of innovation at this time. The question of staged growth, from initial core to expanded dwelling, had by 1931 become a topic of absorbing interest to many architects in Germany.53 This interest was now to be focused on an event that gained considerable professional and public attention.

In response to the government program for encouraging the development of the Stadtrandsiedlung, or peripheral urban settlement,54 a competition for “Das Wachsendes Haus” was announced in Berlin in October 1931, with designs to be submitted by the end of the year. Martin Wagner, Stadtbaurat for the City of Berlin (whose Bureau for Fairs and Exhibitions was the principal sponsor of the competition) played a major role in its administration. As it was intended to incorporate the results of the competition in the Berlin Summer Exhibition of 1932—“Dwelling for All” (Sonne Luft und Haus für Alle), as it was somewhat optimistically to be called—Wagner expanded its scope by setting up a working group (Arbeitsgemeinschaft) of twelve eminent architects to produce additional designs.55 This group, which included Gropius, Otto Bartning, Mendelsohn, Max and Bruno Taut, and Poelzig, were set the same task as the competition entrants: to design an expandable house, with a core of 25 sq m and at a cost not exceeding RM 2,500. The increments of growth should be small, it was specified, and expansion should be accomplished without disturbing the “livability” of the house to the occupants. It was hypothesized that industrialization would be used to reduce costs—but the ultimate test of this, it was realistically concluded, would be when the houses were actually built. Standardization was desirable, but the individual needs of each owner should not be sacrificed. In all, it was an eminently sensible and humane brief, and for its day a remarkably forward-looking one. It brought together two main lines of development: dwelling flexibility and industrialized building systems.

The architects’ response to this challenge was encouraging. Despite the short time allowed (six weeks from announcement to judgment, six months from judgment to the opening of the exhibition) over 1,000 competition entries were received from architects in Germany. We must remember, however, that the architectural profession was desperate for employment at this time, with massive unemployment in the building industry generally and over 90 percent of architects without work.56

When the Growing House exhibition opened at the Berlin Exhibition Grounds in May 1932, there was eventually to be seen not only a comprehensive display of drawings and models but complete houses at full size designed by 23 architects, including submissions by the working group and prize-winning schemes from the competition.57 A wide-ranging debate ensued in the architectural journals on many aspects of the problem, including the principle of growth; the economic questions raised by deferred investment, and the effect on mortgage policies; the detailed comparative analysis of alternate building systems especially in terms of performance; and the question of self-help.58 The extensive publicity deriving from the exhibition, the comprehensive catalog, the coverage in the professional press, and Wagner’s subsequent book helped to generate a climate of interest.59 Further work was done in the field, and a similar Growing House exhibition was mounted in Vienna.60

In the Wachsende Haus exhibition in Berlin in 1932, many of the demonstration houses used industrially produced systems. Some were based on modular structural systems, with lightweight steel or timber frames. Others utilized panel systems, wooden framed with wood, asbestos or metal cladding as infill panels to the structural skeleton or as independent self-supporting structural wall elements. The ingenuity and sophistication of these systems is impressive. At least three architects—Alfred Gellhorn,61 Erich Mendelsohn, and Rambald von Steinbuchel-Rheinwall used the by now well-known steel system of Böhler-Stahlbau, of Berlin, to which we earlier referred. The Taut brothers, Max and Bruno, each contributed a house erected by the contractor Philipp Holzmann, the builder of some of the earliest steel-framed apartment buildings in Germany, notably for Mebes and Emmerich at Berlin-Britz, in 1926.62 At the Berlin exhibition Holzmann was again to work with Mebes and Emmmerich, using the Dawa63 system of lightweight concrete as against the “Müller-Holzmannschen Methode” of steel framing and concrete panels for the Tauts, or a more radical arcuated system for Hans Poelzig. Bartning’s “Werfthaus System Bartning” is of especial interest for its ingenious use of triangular steel studs to which the modular copper-coated steel wall panels are attached structurally but separated by a rubber buffer strip—a sophisticated technology deriving from Bartning’s collaboration on the project with “the engineers of an airplane factory”—at least according to Wagner.64 Wagner himself was particularly impressed by two schemes: those of Bartning and Walter Gropius. Despite Gropius’ long-held interest in steel-based systems, including the Montagehäuser houses, it was obvious, and inevitable, that for the Wachsende Haus exhibition he would work in collaboration with Hirsch Kupferund Messingwerke. It was in a sense the logical climax to the intensive months of design and development they had undergone in partnership.

The first specific reference in the Gropius records to the “Wachsende Haus” is found in a letter of 5 March 1932 when, in discussing the possible replacement of the inner steel wall linings with aluminium sheet, he suggested to the aluminium company concerned “cooperation on both of the experimental houses which I will be exhibiting with Hirsch Kupfer at the Building Exhibition.”65 Now, although this letter shows that the specifications of the exhibition houses were still far from settled in March, we must assume that the design of these houses commenced much earlier, perhaps in December 1931, when Wagner included Gropius in his Arbeitsgemeinschaft. These sketch plans in any event were ready by January 1932, when the work of the group was first published in the professional press.66 Although none of the drawings prepared in the Gropius atelier for this project are dated, several prints bear the approval stamp of the Hochbaudeputation Berlin (signed: Klieberswirth) and dated 15 December 1931. The design itself, basically an L-shaped plan, unusual for Gropius,67 underwent many permutations—some remarkably inept—before the final solution was evolved. Over 20 sheets of working drawings and details were then prepared, mostly during March 1932.68

4.14 Otto Bartning, prefabrication using “Werfthaus System Bartning,” at Berlin exhibition, 1932. Top: construction method; bottom: stages of construction.

Time was now running out, if the exhibition deadlines were to be met. The soul of efficiency and dependability as always, Gropius prepared a detailed work schedule covering all subcontractors with a timetable extending from 18 April to 10 May 1932, a minimal period indeed. The formal contract for the erection of the houses was signed late, toward the end of April 1932, which did not give much time to have everything ready for the May opening. Hirsch Kupfer, the official exhibitors, wrote to Gropius, defining his responsibilities: “We have signed the application for the erection of two copper houses at the Building Fair, and are therefore obliged to erect these houses. We instruct you to carry out the erection of these houses according to the agreed drawings, and put at your disposal a budget of RM 8,000. . . . You have taken upon yourself to handle the deliveries in our name, and to cover the bills out of this budget. It is also your task to negotiate with potential agents. Naturally you will see that our interests will be served. . . .”69 By mid-May this task was honorably fulfilled. The site layout was planned, the foundations were built, and from the factory arrived the trucks bearing the components which were duly erected by a trained team of men. Two handsome houses stood in the Berlin exhibition grounds, complete in every detail, and Gropius received a well-earned note of thanks from Hirsch Kupfer for the trouble he had taken on their behalf.70

4.15 Walter Gropius, Growing House using Hirsch system, transportation of components, Berlin exhibition, 1932

4.16 Walter Gropius, Growing House using Hirsch system, showing erection process, Berlin exhibition, 1932

Of all the houses shown at the Growing House exhibition of 1932, there is no doubt that those of Gropius were the most widely acclaimed and publicized.71 Not only did his by now formidable reputation lend credibility to his experiments, but the technical quality and fine appearance of the houses won for them considerable approval. They were of course based in principle on the original Hirsch system and utilized the basic patented panels and jointing methods of Förster and Krafft. It is perhaps necessary to stress this dependency on the basic invention of Förster and Krafft because, where the original patent is mentioned as in Wagner’s account of the exhibition, there is a tendency to treat it as a formality and not as a matter of substance.72 Gropius, who had put so much effort into developing the project, may be forgiven for occasionally neglecting to give the originators of the system due credit: it is an overstatement of his role to claim, as he did in a lecture, that “a big metallurgical firm in Berlin employed my patent and drawings for the insulation of walls for manufacturing copper houses on an endless chain.”73 This does justice neither to Förster and Krafft nor to Hirsch. Gropius’ contribution lay, not in initially developing the system, but in refining it technically and aesthetically. He planned the interior on efficient, functional lines in the best Bauhaus tradition. He replaced the inner wall lining of steel with aluminium and improved the thermal, acoustic, and other properties (corrosion, hygiene, fire resistance, etc.) of the system after the most rigid testing by the most competent scientific authorities of the day. Moreover he simplified the external appearance, used a horizontally ribbed corrugated copper sheet instead of the rather clumsy original, replaced the pitched roof by a flat roof (mandatory, it would seem, for the International Style), improved the proportions, and transformed the rather mundane and traditional-looking Hirsch prototype into a prefabricated house of some elegance, which clearly expressed its modular nature. For Gropius it was a matter of no small satisfaction at last to be able to put into practice the doctrine of prefabrication which he had so consistently advocated since 1910, that doctrine which sought to unite the advantages of maximum standardization with the desired goal of variability.74 However, the degree to which that goal was achieved in the Hirsch system is limited. There is inherent flexibility in the system, with a freedom to locate inner partitions freely, certainly at the planning stage, but with much more difficulty after construction. The possibility of planned growth is dramatically exhibited in the Berlin exhibition houses. Finally, there is in the system the inherent potential to generate many different house types, as the large number of types and variants developed in Gropius’ studio demonstrate. Yet despite this, there is in Hirsch’s approach, and in that demonstrated in Gropius’ own design and development for Hirsch, a concentration on the house as a total product, and little if any evidence of a desire to develop a set of standardized components, as a language of design, out of which houses could be freely generated. This is true even of Gropius’ most independent designs, at the Berlin Growing House exhibition.

Although these two examples were acclaimed at the exhibition, Gropius’ hope that he had at last produced a prefabricated house “to the point of salability,” as he put it, was not to come to fruition.75 The dream of the factory-made house, apparently within his grasp, was still to prove elusive. Professional acclaim was not enough: what mattered was the failure to achieve commercial success. We must examine the reasons for this disappointing culmination to the copper house venture. An indication that all was not well may be seen in the somewhat acerbic tone of Hirsch Kupfer’s letters to Gropius, at the time of the exhibition. There is constant bickering (albeit in a restrained and dignified style) about the erection and exhibition accounts. This pettiness must be regarded as a symptom of stress rather than a cause, for although Gropius often acted independently and on his own judgment, there is no suggestion of extravagance, and his final account for all exhibition works—from bricklaying to sign writing—still came within the RM 8,000 budget allocated.76 The relationship of Gropius to Hirsch became uneasy, and until Gropius made the express wish, Hirsch Kupfer’s directors did not even visit the exhibition stand. On 25 May 1932 a circular notice informed Gropius that a Herr Ebeling had been appointed head of the Copper House Department at Hirsch Kupfer and was to be regarded punctiliously by all concerned as the sole source of authority in all actions concerning the copper houses. The honeymoon with Gropius was over; however, a new romance at Hirsch Kupfer did not appear to be threatening. It soon became clear that Ebeling’s function in the Copper House Department was not to develop it further, capitalizing on the triumph of Gropius’ tour de force at the exhibition but—surprisingly—to wind it down, as painlessly as possible.

4.17 Walter Gropius, Growing House using Hirsch system, showing revised construction details, Berlin exhibition, 1932

4.18 Walter Gropius, Growing House, using Hirsch system, view, Berlin exhibition, 1932

We say surprisingly, and yet with the benefit of hindsight, that the collapse of the copper house venture appears inevitable. Its failure is not the function of personal issues between Gropius and Hirsch, nor technical or aesthetic problems with the copper house. Its proximate cause is financial, and its inevitability stems from the macrocauses of German politics and international economics. In the second half of the 1920s the German economy had made an incredible recovery. Runaway inflation was halted, the currency stabilized, and real economic growth took place. In 1929, when the copper house project was about to be initiated, industry for the first time since World War I appeared soundly based; the Weimar government had achieved a somewhat precarious stability, and prospects for the future looked bright. The Great Depression in the United States, however, soon undermined this optimistic picture. The next three years, 1930 to 1933, are the critical years of our story: they have been characterized as years of “crisis and deflation.”77 Production fell rapidly, and unemployment grew. There were over 5 million unemployed in Germany in 1931, and in 1932—when the tremors of the economic earthquake hit Hirsch Kupfer—over 8 million were jobless. Housing in Germany reached a peak in 1931 (an optimistic year for Gropius and Hirsch), but this represented investments made at least two years earlier, when “the capital gains of industry were increasingly invested in housing.” By 1932 the bubble had burst. “House building was cut back although the need for housing among the poorer classes had increased. . . . Demand and purchasing power declined. The number of empty flats increased.”78

Much more than the housing market was threatened by 1932. The economy as a whole was in jeopardy, and the metal industry—of which Hirsch Kupfer-und Messingwerke was one of the giants—became increasingly vulnerable, and not only to economic threats. The economic chaos was matched by political turmoil. The frenetic struggle for power culminated in the inexorable march of Hitler toward the Chancellery and eventual dictatorial authority, black events which—as we talk of the fate of the copper houses—lie in the months immediately to come. One must remember here that Hirsch Kupfer was a Jewish firm, by which is meant that not only was it controlled and directed predominantly by Jews but that the Hirsch family, the dynasty which shaped it, proudly proclaimed its Jewish identity. The Hirsches of Halberstadt and Eberswalde maintained a prominent Jewish profile, rather than seeking (as had done the Rathenaus of AEG) to assimilate with the mainstream of German society. The Copper House Department moreover was, for Hirsch Kupfer, but one division in an industrial empire with worldwide ramifications, all of which was now threatened. When we see it in these proportions, in the light of the massive economic turndown and with National Socialism now standing on the very threshold of power, the whole copper house venture has for Hirsch Kupfer dimensions of significance necessarily less than those Gropius ascribed to it. Hirsch was beset by troubles on a wide front.

Even as the copper houses were being triumphantly erected in the Berlin exhibition grounds, in April 1932, an examination of the state of affairs at Hirsch Kupfer was being undertaken at the request of the major foreign shareholders, including Haut Katanga and the British Chemitrust.79 This urgent review revealed a sound technical basis to the firm, as might be expected, but also a shortage of capital of about RM 10 million, which almost equaled the existing share capital. Major reconstruction of Hirsch’s financial structure would obviously have to take place immediately. In such a situation the Copper House Department, because of high costs and a shrinking market, could obviously show no short-term prospects of profitability. And it was the immediate future that counted. The financing of copper house production, so optimistically viewed but a year before, had now become not only an embarrassment but an outright liability. Hirsch did not conceal this view from Gropius but wrote to him, on 3 May 1932, telling him with almost brutal frankness that for them the only solution of the problem was one “according to which we shall not have to carry out the manufacturing of the copper houses and their financing.”80

The decision was taken in principle in May. It became public knowledge a month or two later, when Bauwelt magazine published an article, regretful in tone, entitled “Nicht Mehr Kupferhäuser.” The Hirsch company, it pointed out, had suffered many financial setbacks during the Great Depression. They were forced to write off many losses, and—as one of many economy measures—they decided at the beginning of 1932 (at the very time the Gropius houses were being assembled) to stop production of the copper houses which were, alas, not profitable. As they explained, “the possibility of selling these houses . . . were very few indeed. The copper houses are not much cheaper than houses produced in the ordinary way, and therefore they have not created a great flurry of demand.” The two copper houses developed by Gropius, and so prominently featured in the Berlin exhibition, were thus in fact the last of the run. The hope was expressed, however, that they might “bridge across to a time when there will be a demand for such houses that can be built in workshops, which are easy to transport and which can rapidly be assembled on the building site.”81 This hope was soon to be realized, modestly, and in a strange and oblique manner.

The Search for a Viable Alternative

When the representative of the overseas investors, Dr. Lauber, reported on the parlous state of Hirsch’s finances and recommended a basic reorganization, Gropius hurriedly sought from him an undertaking that no new arrangement would be entered into during the next three months. This moratorium was needed, Gropius explained, to give him a chance to complete negotiations he had begun on Hirsch’s behalf which were in a sensitive state. Even before the crisis in the copper company’s affairs broke, Gropius had been seeking ways and means of putting the financial organization of the Copper House Department on a more solid basis. From the very outset of his relationship with Hirsch he had been advocating the establishment of a separate marketing and finance company, and Hirsch had in principle accepted that view, on the basis of similar successful American models. In January 1932 Gropius and René Schwartz of Hirsch Kupfer had conducted talks with a Herr Moufang, in which they raised the possibility of creating a financial company, with all those interested in the copper houses participating. A capital sum of RM 10 million was mentioned, a large sum for those days. Also in January Gropius began an extensive series of exchanges with Otto Mandl, a Berlin man of business, with whom he had first established contact, on behalf of the Copper House Department, the previous July. In asking for the opportunity to continue these negotiations, he informed Lauber in confidence that “Mandl has made serious promises that he will do everything to bring about the financing.”82 This was at the end of April 1932; Hirsch agreed to give him until 26 June, a grace period of two months, on the condition that they could in the meantime forward any offers of people interested and that Gropius would take it upon himself to investigate their seriousness. Gropius turned to Mandl with some urgency: “I now ask you to look for a suitable way to put the construction of the copper houses on a healthy financial basis.” Gropius himself would spare no efforts, he assured Mandl, to help him achieve this end, whether by means of more documentation, travel, or participation in further discussions.83

The search for a new parent company now moved to France, and Mandl put Hirsch and Gropius in touch with the French Aluminium Trust, part of the Péchiney Group of Lyons, one of the most important concerns of the French chemical industry.84 Hirsch Kupfer were asking a considerable sum85 for the rights to the production method, and a series of complicated exchanges between Paris and Berlin took place to examine the exact situation of the patent rights. The legal department of Hirsch Kupfer spelled out the details of the situation to Gropius: “We inform you that we started the cancellation of the contracts with the inventor of the method for the production of houses of copper sheet with effect from 31 December 1932. We have also canceled the contract with Dyckerhoff for insulation foil, also from 31 December 1932. . . . For the new people who will be interested in the field of copper houses, only the patent of Förster and Krafft seems to be important.” The sad story of the winding up of the Copper House Department seems to have begun. “If Mr. d’Auvigny [of the French Aluminium Trust] is a serious interested party, we shall be ready to give him the necessary documentation through our patent department, and we shall inform him of our experience in the field of copper houses. We shall point out that we shall not carry out the production of copper houses any more. However, we shall be ready to put our experience at his disposal, and perhaps we will be ready to rent out to him the existing department for the production of copper houses.”86 For Hirsch, the decision was unequivocal—they would not be directly involved with the copper houses in any fashion. For them it was the end of the road. And as the arrangements with the French Aluminium Trust failed to materialize, so it proved for Gropius’ involvement in this project as well. Despite continued discussions on the obdurate question of patents—Gropius is inquiring of Mandl in September 1932 whether there is any progress with Förster, and we even see him referring to a patent lawyer, on behalf of the German Copper Institute, as late as February 1934—no solution involving Gropius is to be found for the copper houses.

The last act of the drama is played out. By the end of 1932, beset by financial troubles and in an era of growing political tension, the giant Hirsch combine went into liquidation. From December 1932 onward Gropius’ correspondence from Finow came not from Hirsch, but the Berlin llsenberg Metallwerke A.G., a successor, or holding company perhaps, to Hirsch.87 Old Aron Hirsch, the patriarch of the firm, was removed from the directorate of the copper concern and involuntarily retired by the Nazis, early in 1933.88 It was in fact at about this time that all Jewish members of the Executive of the German Metal Industry were removed from office.89 Only Emil Hirsch’s Erze und Metalle Hirsch A.G. of Berlin (and Amsterdam) continued to operate, until the Berlin branch was eventually closed down (or taken over) by the Nazis. The copper industry was of great strategic importance to a Germany illicitly rearming; moreover, as we have seen, the Hirsch family had played a proud and prominent role in German Jewish affairs and were a natural and conspicuous target for Nazi discrimination.

As a footnote to the history of Hirsch Kupfer-und Messingwerke, it is interesting to note that today the company still exists, as a fully owned subsidiary of AEG, the giant German electrical combine.90 There had long been loose commercial ties between AEG and Hirsch. From about 1922 these links began to consolidate, and by 1927–28 the relationship between the two companies, the one a major producer of copper products, the other a major consumer, had become so close that, in the interests of the rationalizing of production, they shared each other’s production facilities. It is not clear from the records, presumably lost in the chaos of war, exactly when—between the reported bankruptcy at the end of 1932 and the re-establishment of Hirsch Kupfer after the war91—AEG became the sole proprietors of Hirsch. But there is an historical irony in the situation. It was in a memorandum to Emil Rathenau of AEG (it will be recalled) that Gropius first articulated his visionary concept of the factory-made house, and it was through Hirsch Kupfer that he came close, with the evolution of the copper house, to realizing this dream.

In November 1932, as the family business of Hirsch Kupfer finally ceased to exist, one of its directors, René Schwartz, a leading figure in the Hirsch Copper House Department,92 took an important decision. Walter Gropius learned of this unofficially and wrote to Schwartz with his characteristic generosity of spirit: “A little while ago I heard that you have taken over the direction on your own of the development of the copper houses. I wish you success and hope that you are on your way to overcoming the difficulties which you had encountered at Hirsch Kupfer-und Messingwerke.”93 The development to which Gropius referred was made public in a circular letter,94 issued early in December 1932, under the printed heading: “Deutsche Kupferhaus Gesellschaft.” This letter, addressed to all those interested in the copper houses, announced: “We have the honor to inform you that we have founded a company under the above name, which has taken over the rights and production facilities of Hirsch Kupfer-und Messingwerke for the production of copper houses.” An exhibition and sales room was opened at 65 Unter den Linden, and sample elements and models of houses were on display to the public from mid-December. After this initial announcement all references to Hirsch are dropped, but the indebtedness to Hirsch prototypes and practices is everywhere felt.

This is evident in the catalog published by Deutsche Kupferhaus Gesellschaft. The entire construction method, according to the catalog, is based on the Förster and Krafft system, and it is identical to the original (pre-Gropius) Hirsch house. Even the very photograph of the Hirsch house at the 1931 Berlin exhibition continues to be used in the advertising brochure of Deutsche Kupferhaus. The selling effort is directed to Germany itself. The prices are quoted within a delivery radius of 50 km from Berlin, and letters of recommendation from satisfied customers in various German districts are published. Some of these, at least, are from customers of the old Hirsch era. Thirteen house types were illustrated, with prices ranging from RM 16,850 (for the seven-roomed, 164 sq m “Favorit”) to a modest RM 3,900 (for the one-roomed, 25.5 sq m “Neues Leben,” a core house designed to expand in stages to an ultimate size of 80 sq m). Of the houses illustrated, many were types originally listed and named in the Hirsch price lists of 1931; others appear to be new and were printed in the catalog with the name Deutsche Kupferhaus Gesellschaft included on the page. We will look in vain, however, for any sign of the Gropius types—the product of so many months of intensive development—or the models that had been featured at the Growing House exhibition. The reason for this surprising omission of the most highly developed of the copper houses was soon conveyed to Gropius, in an oblique manner which only compounded his distress. Either directly, or through Gropius’ good offices, several enquiries about the copper houses had come to Schwartz. Some of these referred specifically to the Gropius types. Schwartz’s reply to these potential customers was brought to Gropius’ attention by one of them. “The Gropius houses mentioned by you,” wrote Schwartz, “were only an experiment by Hirsch Kupfer-und Messingwerke, which was, however, not followed up. We produce the old copper houses which found greater acceptance among our circle of clients.”95

4.19 Deutsche Kupferhaus Gesellschaft “Favorit” type, 1932

The Deutsche Kupferhaus Gesellschaft had risen, phoenixlike, from the ashes of Hirsch Kupfer. For a while, it appeared as if the saga would continue; but Gropius’ connection with the copper house, a product he had labored so mightily to improve, was now finally severed. Gropius viewed the future of this new company with some skepticism, but nevertheless his disappointment must have been deep.96 However, the fate of the copper house venture was even then being overshadowed by events of a much more tragic dimension. These events not only destroy the Hirsch industrial empire, they engulf the Hirsch family itself. Ironically, they are also the proximate cause of the next, and last, chapter in the history of the copper houses.

No comments here
Why not start the discussion?