Skip to main content
SearchLogin or Signup

10. End of a Venture, End of a Dream?

Published onApr 23, 2021
10. End of a Venture, End of a Dream?

General Panel: The Final Phase

During 1947 General Panel, embarking on the great adventure of the Burbank factory, sought to present to the outside world a picture that stressed its positive achievements: the excellence of the design, the high standard of the production plant. Two major articles in the national architectural press, the Architectural Forum and Arts and Architecture, reinforced this favorable image and painted a highly encouraging picture of the immediate future and long-term prospects of General Panel.1 Attracted by the potential of General Panel, as it was perceived, and by the reputation of Gropius and Wachsmann, a press of highly qualified individuals, professionals who had formerly held office in the National Housing Administration, and architects with interesting backgrounds (one from the Bauhaus, another who had worked with Buckminster Fuller) offered their services to General Panel.2

But the optimistic picture was far from accurate. Although from time to time there had been articles probing the difficulties of the prefabrication industry,3 yet in discussing the work of specific designers, especially architects as celebrated as Gropius or Wachsmann, they showed a reluctance to go below the surface of the problem, to enter too deeply into fundamental issues. In presenting a review of General Panel, they relied too heavily on material provided and too little on an independent critical analysis. Moreover they failed to relate the specifics of General Panel to the broader issues, and especially to the question of economic constraints within which the prefabrication industry operated. In their understandable attempts to do justice to the obvious merits of the Packaged House, they obscured the fact that all was far from well within the organization.4

In part the problems were personal, generated by the division of responsibility resulting from the establishment of the new company, and the ambiguity of Wachsmann’s continued centrality to the project. He no longer had overriding control and differed strongly on several policy issues with the California directorate. As a case in point, the expedient of producing conventional floors and roofs, though undoubtedly making good sense economically, even technically, and intended only as an interim measure, caused Wachsmann great distress, as it detracted from that universality of the system which was, in a sense, its ideological justification.5 Then, he was interested in exploiting new materials and methods (metal framing, plastic cores) which technologically had become much more exciting for him,6 but although Southwell also advocated a shift to steel framing for the panels as a long-term move, the factory was irrevocably committed to wood. Wachsmann felt constrained and frustrated by what he saw as shortsightedness on the part of the administrators. They, in turn, though recognizing his undoubted genius,7 were impatient of his eagerness to step beyond the realities of the day. Wachsmann was always willing to supersede his own inventions with something newer and better; the rigors of economic necessity committed the California factory to the status quo of the system as originally designed.

Indeed, it was the economic situation that now pressed most heavily on General Panel. Personal friction, philosophical disputes, could perhaps, with goodwill, be overcome. But the financial situation appeared threatening, almost desperate. The initial private investment and subsequent share issues, the mortgage from the War Assets Administration, the Reconstruction Finance Corporation’s loan, the sum total of these funds proved completely inadequate for the development and equipment of the lavish Burbank factory. General Panel had been one of the few of the larger prefabricating firms to have raised capital through public stock subscriptions and loans. As Burnham Kelly pointed out, of the better-known prefabricators, “many owed either their original formation or much of their capitalization to large industrial empires.”8 General Panel had no such backing, and without these large reserves of capital, production was held up throughout the second half of 1947 by lack of working funds. This difficulty in securing the necessary financing, it was later explained, resulted from “the expiration of insured manufacturing financing provisions of the National Housing Act.”9

The problem was twofold. The RFC loan was essentially short term and fell due, as Albert Wohlstetter explained, “before any substantial amount of manufacturing and constructing had been performed, and there was no means of repaying this debt from sales.”10 In addition the post-Wyatt interpretation that the marketing guarantee was valid for one year only failed to take into account the time necessary, in Wachsmann’s view, “to buy carloads of material, produce, sell, ship and erect 10,000 houses.”11 This complaint may have been justified, in principle; Gropius, more sober and realistic in his judgments, also expressed disappointment at the failure of the government bureaucracy to understand the nature of the processes of industrialized building and how they differed from conventional methods in timing and financing. “The General Panel Corporation is somewhat stuck,” he wrote in frustration to friends in Europe, “since the authorities are too backward and not geared for prefabrication. For that reason the financing of houses is very difficult to overcome.”12 Nevertheless, there were obviously other problems. It may have been impossible to produce 10,000 houses in the time available; but when Gropius was writing this letter, early in 1948, only fifteen houses had in fact been produced and sold, with a large number of incomplete sets of assorted panels also in stock.13 Among reasons for production delays were techical problems, due to the fine tolerances and high accuracy demanded by the system, and to running-in difficulties generated by the “rush to production.” Had time and circumstances permitted, it would obviously have been desirable to test the design and system in a pilot plant of limited production, before the final decisions on tooling the complete factory were taken.14 Sales were also going slowly, due not to resistance to the product per se, but rather to its high cost. This went against all predictions of the great savings to be made (15 percent “across the board”) by industrial production. But the hard fact remained that, until full production was achieved, materials costs were out of all proportion and the overheads (deriving from the expensive plant installation) prohibitive. Even Southwell’s “worst case” assumption, that initial production, until full volume was achieved, would have to be subsidized by the corporation and sold at cost, proved overoptimistic.15

The financial crisis came to a head at the end of 1947. To avoid bankruptcy, there was a complete reorganization of the board of directors and officers of the corporation, in February 1948.16 Carl Dahlberg resigned as president, and withdrew altogether from the affairs of the General Panel. Wendell had earlier resigned, and now Southwell also withdrew, effectively ending the direct Celotex connection. Albert Wohlstetter took over as president and general manager. He brought to his task a rich and varied background of industrial experience;17 in addition he had for five years been associated with the prefabrication industry, not only through his connection with General Panel of New York since 1944 but, indirectly, through his position as program director of the NHA.

Konrad Wachsmann moved to California, on leave from the New York firm, and became vice-president. He was joined in this rank by Paul M. Fisher, who had served on the War Production Board (dealing with priorities in construction projects) and had then been chief of the Lumber and Plywood Section of the National Housing Agency, before joining General Panel in June 1947 as director of production and material control. With this reorganization of the administration of the corporation, a committee of creditors, who had anxiously met in January 1948, extended an opportunity for a recovery operation, by agreeing to a moratorium on debt repayment until 1 April 1948.18 Wohlstetter responded by undertaking to try and renegotiate the RFC debt repayment, as well as to reschedule the payments to the principal suppliers, and by this means to shore up the shaky financial structure, while looking again at the problems of production and marketing.

In February 1948 production was diversified “to include contract milling, door production, manufacture of movie flats and a variety of other wood products.”19 There is, we suggest, an irony in this improvisation in the face of crisis, in a factory planned as a model of integration between product and production system. Production of the houses resumed, and the volume of production increased during 1948; but despite optimistic reports of “a large backlog of orders,”20 it never reached significant proportions. Nor did the export market materialize, although such a development had always been actively considered. We will recall that, in 1945, books of data had been prepared for Sweden and Canada and, in 1947, there had been high hopes of establishing assembly plants in Honolulu and Mexico City.21 Later in 1947, prior to the establishment of the State of Israel, there had been approaches from Palestine, where the Near Orient Company, perhaps recalling the episode of the Palestine prefabs of the 1930s, explored the possibility of importing the General Panel components, on the basis of joint production in Palestine, in association with the Jewish Agency.22 Overseas, after the war, this was a time of reconstruction, of resettling, of rehousing. From Germany, in 1948, a contact of Gropius suggested that the General Panel house could play a part in the reconstruction of the ravaged land of his birth.23 But these approaches, tantalizing in the prospect they held of an ultimate breakthrough, all came to nothing.

Throughout 1948 and into 1949, the struggle for survival continued, and the financial problems multiplied. A scattering of houses were sold in California and Arizona. Associates of the company loyally supported it. Rudy Wolf, the chief draftsman, moved from New York to Los Angeles, and erected a General Panel house for his own use, which he occupies to this day; Nathan Mendelsohn, assistant treasurer, put up five in Riverside; and Josef van der Kar, an architect, who took over after Wachsmann left as technical director in January 1949 and remained in this capacity until December 1951, built a house using the General Panel system for a client in Pacoima.24 After an excellent report on the quality of the General Panel house by the Corps of Engineers, the army erected a number of prefabs in Santa Monica, California, and shipped a special group with extra insulation and knockdown roof trusses to Alaska.25 But the total number of all General Panel houses produced probably did not exceed 150 to 200, and financial limitations inhibited the acceptance of new business in an unbreakable vicious circle.26

10.1 Rudy Wolf, house for himself, Los Angeles, using General Panel components, c. 1948 (photographed in 1981)


Many of the problems that had initially troubled General Panel, problems with the unions, with local acceptance, were gradually solved. FHA structural approval was extended to cities across the United States, eventually to New York early in 1949.27 But all these positive developments could not rescue General Panel, chronically underfinanced and unable to generate a market sufficiently large to justify the investment already made in its development and plant, still less the vast further investments required to put it on its feet.28 Debts increased, tax liens were issued, suits were filed, eventually Wachsmann’s precious machines themselves were mortgaged. For all practical purposes, by 1950, the end of the road was reached.

Konrad Wachsmann’s own connections with General Panel Corporation were severed at this time. He left the California firm in 1948 or 1949, and his contract of employment by General Panel of New York, by which he had received a handsome weekly salary in addition to possible royalties on sales, expired on 11 September 1949, on the same day as his legal obligation to reveal to the corporation any improvements he might devise to the Packaged House system.29 In a technical sense he was now free of his obligations; free, for instance, to answer a call by the Institute of Design in Chicago to head their Division of Advanced Building Research and start a new creative career. But in a real sense he was, in Gropius’ bitter words, “brutally squeezed out,”30 if not by his business associates, then by the harsh realities of the business world. Gropius, himself, had long ceased to play an active role in the corporation. He and Wachsmann retained their stockholdings, but by 1950 these had lost all real value; their loss was much more than a financial loss, it was the final dissolution of a long-cherished dream.

The General Panel Corporation went into liquidation probably at the end of 1951. The California corporation was suspended by the Department of the Secretary of State, California, on 1 July 1952, “for not complying with statutory requirements”; and the New York corporation was dissolved by proclamation on 15 December 1952, “for non-payment of franchise taxes.” The Packaged House saga had come to an end: it lived on, however, in architectural myth and legend.

Failure of the Packaged House Venture

As a commercial venture the Packaged House of the General Panel Corporation was a resounding failure. A decade of dedicated work, an investment of $6 million, resulted in a trifling number of houses being produced. The causes of this failure were not, in any substantial degree, in the architectural conception, nor in the technological means, nor in the translation by industry of that conception into the reality of building components. Technically, according to both internal and objective external assessments, the Packaged House was a first-class product. Architecturally, it generated housing solutions which were, within reasonable limits, aesthetically acceptable to the prevailing taste and which were functionally more than adequate. The direct causes of failure lay elsewhere. Some of the causes were specific to General Panel; many were generic to the whole movement for the industrial production of houses and combined to doom many a promising venture to failure. It must be stressed that there is no single cause, no simple formulation, but in all cases complex interactions of many factors often cumulative in effect. This is especially true when we are dealing, not with the subsidized mass housing of Europe but with the production of that most emotionally charged, personal of possessions, the one-family house.

The inherent promise, in industrialized building, of significant cost reduction, in which Gropius and Wachsmann so firmly believed, was obviously only realizable in terms of mass production. It was on this premise that the Packaged House was conceived and the Burbank factory designed. But the problem was to reach this critical mass. In the late 1940s, as now, the United States was no socialist society, no welfare state, with a directed and subsidized program of mass housing, but a vigorous and highly competitive free-enterprise system. The prefabricator of houses in such a system could never begin to deal with the housing problems of the urban poor. Instead, he directed his attention to working- and middle-class housing in suburbia. He could try to provide for the less well-off, if not the really poor, through the provision of a minimum product, sited with little concession to space and amenity, at a very low cost; initially, at least, this was the preferred market sector of the mobile-homes manufacturer. It was a neglected sector in which neither the major developers nor the architects were active. Alternatively, the maker of prefabs could aim directly at the more ambitious, but hardly affluent, lower strata of the middle-class market, hoping to produce a factory-built product competitive in quality with the traditionally built houses of the tract developer, at a significantly lower price; this was the goal of General Panel, as it was of most other prefab firms. In this formidable task, where the high costs of research, development, and tooling could only be offset by large-scale production, the advocates of the factory-built house turned again and again to the paradigm of the automobile for encouragement and for justification. But this analogy was a false one. Car prices initially were high, to cover high tooling costs and disproportionate overheads, while production slowly increased. But as a generic product the car was unique, and its manufacturers had a complete monopoly; one either paid the high price or did not acquire a car. Eventually, of course, production rose to levels where prices could significantly be reduced, generating even larger demand. In more recent times one could see a parallel in the manufacture and marketing of computers. But industrialized housing did not produce a unique product, the competition of the traditionally built house was an ever-present factor, and the industry was denied that sheltered growth period it needed to reach the critical level of mass production. Wartime conditions blurred this essential truth for a short while, as did the massive support to the prefabrication industry given by the Wyatt program of the immediate postwar era. Yet when the General Panel house, after its long gestation, was eventually ready for production, even this temporary favorable condition no longer held.

In a sense the very high quality of the product contained within it the seeds of failure. What an irony is here! Held up by constant redesigning, in a search for an ever-better technical solution; by a perfectionist attitude to documentation; by the perceived need for the long-term testing of experimental models, one at least of which was laboriously handcrafted; by the determination to have a completely equipped model factory instead of a compromise ad hoc solution of improvised manufacture: delayed at each stage by this search for the ideal, it took much too long to move from initial concept to the final stage of actual production. This long drawn-out process proved costly in time and resources, and its consequences were disastrous.

The preliminary stages of design, and then the elaborate detailed follow-up in both the product itself and the production system, ate up vast amounts of capital (half a million dollars on research and development alone) and left both New York and California without financial resources when the critical production phase started. The long years of unprofitability deterred massive investment, and without adequate production capital the venture collapsed. Of course it could be argued that the scale of investment required was never really realizable for an independent company and that the whole venture was therefore in any event foredoomed to failure, “a gallant but quixotic enterprise,” as Wohlstetter characterized it. This was true of normal times, but the housing crisis of the war and the immediate postwar period created abnormal conditions, where government subsidies and the unprecedented volume of demand were sufficient for those able to supply, to break through the constraints of limited venture capital. But because General Panel was not ready when the call came, because production only got underway, in a limited manner, in July 1947, the wartime boom was missed completely, and the postwar phase was caught too late, when the situation was rapidly reverting from crisis to normality.

The traditional housing industry, by 1947–48, was coping more than adequately with the housing demand, at least in the medium-price, middle-class market. It had learned to operate with considerable efficiency, incorporating many pre-made elements, utilizing much-improved methods of site mechanization, and organizing its flow of labor and materials with precision. In its on-site operations, at least in California, it was not penalized by inclement weather; its overhead costs were relatively low; and it could adapt to the vicissitudes of the market, in terms of numbers and in terms of architectural style, with more flexibility than could any production-belt system. The General Panel Corporation, on the other hand, was, from the point of view of production, much less responsive to market fluctuations and change, and there is doubt if it would have made economic sense even if it was able to exploit its full productive capacity, working three shifts a day, to make 30,000 houses a year.

At a more modest level of production General Panel Corporation could certainly not effectively compete with the houses of the building industry. Its houses were well designed and well made, using only the best materials, demanding precision in manufacture and erection, providing high levels of environmental performance, and with a structural redundancy inherent in a universal system: in other words, at low production levels, they were costly. But even at maximum levels of production, the factory-made house, where it was conceived, as was General Panel, as a closed system, was not likely to be cost competitive. Tract housing of a conventional nature could benefit from the economies of scale inherent in the mass production of nationally or regionally distributed building products and components; it could also benefit from the competitive nature of the building materials industry. Prefabricated houses predicated on open systems could also participate, if to a more limited degree, in these benefits. But a closed system such as General Panel could not freely incorporate elements from the competitive open market, and for all of its major components, its economies were limited to the scale of its own production. In other words, even with increased production, General Panel houses would probably not have been cheaper, to any notable degree, than conventional housing. In the climate of opinion that prevailed in the United States in 1948, a prefab house which was not demonstrably cheaper than its traditional competitor (as, for instance, the mobile home was to become) had little chance of capturing a significant segment of the middle-class housing market. This was not only an economic fact but a psychological one. A prefab such as the General Panel house might be of higher structural and performance standards than its conventional competitor, but it was perceived as inferior, because of the “prefab” tag, by the buying public. Similarly, although the General Panel house offered a real degree of flexibility in response to user needs unheard of in tract housing, it was perceived as being standardized and stereotyped. The term “prefab” had a pejorative connotation, which had to be discounted in the sale price. This was the bitter lesson which should have been learned by Gropius in his experience with the Hirsch copper houses in 1932.

But, in the final analysis, lack of public response was not the decisive factor. It is instructive in this respect to compare the failure of General Panel with the collapse of that other venture in high-technology house-manufacture, Lustron Homes. The Lustron steel-paneled house was reputed to be popular with the public and, despite increasing prices, sold well once production got properly underway.31 Lustron Homes was an ambitious undertaking initiated and directed by Carl Stradlund of the Chicago Vitreous Enamel Co. Originally set up before the war, it finally acquired a war-surplus factory, the Curtis-Wright aircraft factory near Columbus, Ohio, in 1946, in the program initiated by Wyatt, who, until his exclusion from government housing matters, backed the company strenuously. They were financed by a prodigious RFC shortterm loan, which by 1949 had been extended by the government to an astronomical $32.5 million. The scale of support is larger, and the projected production more extensive (a planned output of 100 houses a day), but the parallels with General Panel are obvious. Like General Panel, Lustron had a long gestation period and a late postwar start, and like General Panel, Lustron had a fully mechanized, highly complex, and very expensive production system. The reasons adduced for the failure of Lustron in 1950–51 are an echo of the problems bedeviling General Panel: high production costs leading to escalating prices; difficulties with organized labor; problems generated by the diversity of local building codes and a lack of sympathetic understanding in their application; the necessity of devising an adequate and properly financed distribution system; the unsuitability of bank mortgaging procedures when applied to an “instant” product rather than an extended building process; insuperable difficulties in raising sufficient capital, which short-term loans failed to alleviate; and, ultimately, the lack of a guaranteed and continuous market of adequate volume inherent in a free-enterprise housing system. All this occurred in the case of Lustron as with General Panel, notwithstanding the quality of design and technical excellence of the product. Because of the extent of the administration’s involvement with Lustron, its ultimate collapse was spectacular; it contributed to the undermining of confidence in other prefabrication firms and eventually overshadowed in public attention the demise of General Panel.

In the eventual failure of both firms, as in their successes, personal factors were at play. Genius, creative imagination, willpower, and drive have a personal dimension, with both positive and negative connotations. Our account of the rise and fall of General Panel has amply demonstrated this truism, even if we do not go as far as Emerson in declaring: “There is properly no History—only Biography.”32 Yet the evidence indicates more than the thrust, creative or obstructive, of powerful and highly motivated individuals. It also points inevitably to the wider elements, the suprapersonal factors, the web of political, economic, and social issues, characteristic of culture, time, and place. And over and above the objective matters, there is the all-influencing if intangible spirit of the times, the Zeitgeist to which both Gropius and Wachsmann were dedicated.

Prefabrication: The Turning Point of Housing?

In the transition from traditional building methods to industrialized building, Konrad Wachsmann saw a critical point in the evolution of homo fabiens. “In discarding many of our old ideas about building,” he contended in 1961, “we have reached a turning point. The decisions about what constitutes the formative energies have been made and the principles that will guide the developing forward movement are now apparent.”33 Despite the fact that this was written ten years or more after the General Panel debacle, and despite the fact that no other proposal of Wachsmann for industrialized building had reached a practical consummation,34 his certainty about the ultimate goal, and his chosen path toward it, remained unshaken. He was absolutely convinced that a “turning point in building” had been reached, and that this was a point of no return. He believed that not only he personally but the building industry was irrevocably committed, in the long run if not in the immediate future, to the path of industrialization.

As Wachsmann penned these essentially hopeful thoughts, a more somber conclusion was being reached in Great Britain. At the war’s end, a sweeping and courageous program had been initiated to tackle the short-term housing crisis through industrialization of the building process. Now, by the early 1960s, that program had come to an end, and in various forums, governmental and professional, it was being assessed. R. B. White, a British historian of prefabrication, gives the consensus view:

Out of all the verbal confusion and the years of experience, there is perhaps one outstanding fact that emerges: the illusory character of the assumptions that lower costs would inevitably and immediately follow the mass production of houses (or other buildings) through widespread standardization and prefabrication. Circumstances have not so far combined with sufficient benevolence and constancy to warrant these assumptions. So far as this country is concerned, if experiments in alternative methods have proved anything positively, it is rather that “traditional” methods in building (particularly in house building) still commands a wide measure of support. . . .35

These conclusions were a somewhat reluctant obituary notice for a program that by the standards of Hirsch Copper, Lustron, or General Panel, even by the standards of eminently successful American prefabricators like National Homes,36 had considerable achievements to its credit.

In this program three products were particularly prominent:37 Uni-Seco structures, utilizing timber framing and asbestos cladding; the Arcon house, designed by a consortium of architects and comprising an open system based largely on a wide range of existing materials and components; and the most sophisticated and completely industrialized system of all, the Aluminium Bungalow. This latter house was the result of the initiative of AIROH (Aircraft Industries and Research Organization on Housing), an organization sponsored jointly by the British Ministry of Aircraft Production and the aircraft industry to exploit the by then redundant capacity, in both manpower and industrial plant, of the wartime industries. The house was made in four segments, or modular units, each 7’6” wide (to comply with road transport regulations), which were joined together on the site. At the heart of the house was a mass-produced service core comprising kitchen and bathroom. Despite minor technical defects which later developed—the eternal problems of corrosion and condensation—White was of the opinion that “the Aluminium Bungalow must be recorded as a great historical achievement in prefabrication.”38 This of course was a qualitative judgment of what was designed to be a house of limited life. Equally impressive was the quantitative performance: 29,000 Uni-Seco houses, 40,000 Arcon houses, and 55,000 Aluminium Bungalows, in the ten years of the program. To put this in perspective, we must recall that during the war, 104,826 family dwellings were built under the Lanham Act by all American prefabricators, and of these only 1,428 were regarded as permanent.39

10.2 Aluminium Bungalow, assembly line production, c. 1947


In Europe in the postwar period, the main thrust of construction was neither in the direction of these lightweight systems nor in low-density, single-unit, housing schemes. High-density housing developments were preferred, employing substantial construction systems, mainly in reinforced concrete. Throughout Europe, in the social-democrat welfare states of the west and the communist-dominated east, extensive state-sponsored housing programs made considerable use of precast concrete structural systems, prefabricated floors and story-height wall panels, and eventually complete boxlike housing modules. The technology was far more sophisticated, but the design and construction principles went back in essence to Ernst May’s experiments in Stuttgart of the early twenties.

In the United States, in the 1950s and 60s, there was no such massive state intervention in the housing process, no assured and continuous market, and no large-scale development of comprehensive building systems. Nor did later governmental encouragement, as in the much-vaunted “Operation Breakthrough”40 succeed in generating practical, economical, and viable industrialized building systems. There was, however, a lively theoretical interest, especially among architects and systems specialists, in the subject of systems building generally, and particularly in the development of prefabricated dwelling modules, the “new building block.”41 Wachsmann had little interest in these systems. He was looking, not for an economic solution to the housing problem, but to the elegant exploitation of advanced technology. He was drawn, philosophically, aesthetically (in the sense of a mathematician seeking the beauty of an elegant, minimalist, equation) to the materials of tomorrow, as revealed at the frontiers of metallurgical and chemical knowledge, rather than to the cumbersome and crude mass materials of yesterday; he was fascinated by the finesse of machine production, not by the quantitative bulk output of the concrete mixer. Gropius too did not embrace the “new building block,” although he had not only pioneered the concept but had also, in his Baukasten project of 1923, given it its name. He saw in the repetition of large units, or of total dwellings, a perversion of technology, exploiting its mechanical potential through soulless multiplication of identical units, without the saving grace of variability and individual choice.

Gropius, more than half a century after his memorandum on prefabrication of 1910, returned to his original theme in an address at the Boston Architectural Center in February 1964.

Genuine variety without monotony could have been attained if we had taken greater interest and influence in the development and design of an ever more comprehensive production of standardized, component building parts which could be assembled into a wide diversity of house types. Instead the idea of prefabrication was seized by manufacturing firms who came up with the stifling project of mass producing whole house types instead of component parts only. The resulting monotony further deepened the horror of a nostalgic, sentimental, unguided public of a prefabricated future.42

Two points emerge from this notable address, which illuminate not only Gropius’ philosophy but also his character. We are first reminded of the unswerving consistency of Gropius’ thinking about prefabrication, for he here reiterates a theoretical position spelled out in 1910 and reinforced in a series of notable papers, as we earlier recounted, in the 1920s. And then once again we see the breadth of his vision, for his advocacy of prefabrication goes far beyond technical and economic considerations and embraces urban design, city form, and, eventually, what are for him the key issues: cultural integration and harmony in a world of diversity. Wachsmann recognized, and admired, this breadth of perspective in Gropius; the proper platform for the exercise of Gropius’ extraordinary skills of synthesis, he later proclaimed, was as a minister of culture, or, within Unesco, as “cultural secretary general” where “he would have electrified the civilized world, the arts and probably even the sciences like a renaissance nobleman of his time. He would have done superb job.”43

In the early 1960s, Gropius stood at a crossroads. Two vistas stretched before him, neither of which led to his desired goals. On the one hand, there was the road toward large-scale prefabrication, essentially practical only in terms of mass housing on the European model. In rejecting this approach, Gropius presents us with a paradox. Although he had been one of the principal advocates in Germany of high-density mass housing and had designed notable examples, he turned his back on this line of development when he migrated to the United States. In fact both he and Wachsmann at no time concerned themselves with the prefabrication of any form of large-scale housing blocks or dwelling clusters; instead, they remained faithfully wedded to the concept of the one-family house, made in component form in the factory. In this loyalty to the private house they were, despite their European background, more American than many native architects of their adopted land. Indeed, perhaps it was this very identification with the American way of life that they were trying, subconsciously, to prove.

The other road led to the production of the complete dwelling unit, generally utilizing lightweight systems. This form of prefabrication Gropius abjured on ideological grounds. In attacking it, his criticism was directed to two fronts: the developers like Levitt, mass-producing stereotyped houses by on-site methods, and the manufactured house industry, embracing both the traditional prefabricators like National Homes, and the newly emergent mobile homes industry, both catering to the public taste by offering complete units differing only superficially, through what Gropius considered to be trivial stylistic frills.

10.3 Betonwerk Nedersachen, prefabricated heavy concrete construction, c. 1960


It is interesting that neither Gropius nor Wachsmann ever seriously related to the mobile home industry, for it was to prove to be, according to informed judgment, “by far the most efficient building industry in the United States and probably in the world.”44 We can only assume their reasons for this lack of interest: Wachsmann because the mobile home, although fully industrialized, was technologically primitive and conceptually impure, thereby not challenging his creative abilities; Gropius, because the idea of a total product was abhorrent to his life’s philosophy. And yet, in turning their back in indifference to the mobile home, they were ignoring the only really successful outcome of their search for the factory-made house. The reasons for the phenomenal success of this industry lay not only in the economy and utility of the product but in a much wider realm: the understanding that industrialized housing is not merely a technological system, but a total system. Arthur Bernhardt has spelled out this lesson in meticulously detailed analysis, in his important study of the industry. He summarizes his findings succinctly:

The mobile home industry has become the world’s most efficient building industry because it has thoroughly and strategically manipulated virtually all the important functions that operate in or affect the larger building industry . . . . The fruit of the industry’s labors is a comprehensive nationwide system, a total production-distribution-land development network effectively synchronized with its supporting and regulatory environments.45

10.4 Mobile homes, 8-ft wide models. Top: early 1940s; above: early 1950s.


Bernhardt uses two diagrams to illustrate this thesis. The one, entitled “Success Model,” shows a complex system with all subsystems fully developed and in a balanced relationship; the other, the “Failure Model,” shows neglect of several subsystems, and an overall imbalance in the total picture. We could adapt these diagrams as a pictorial representation of the Packaged House venture.

The success model, delineated in the balanced diagram of a total, complex, and integrated system, was the result of the foresight and pragmatic cooperation of many individuals and firms in the various branches of the mobile house industry. It was the outcome of a slow evolutionary process rather than the single masterstroke of a brilliant mind. A similar process did not take place in that branch of the prefabrication industry in which Gropius and Wachsmann, through General Panel, were involved. They could not be held to account for this. Their roles were essentially limited and specific. Wachsmann, naturally, devoted his energies to the technological base; and Gropius, from a very early stage, became detached from the broader policy issues, and his ability to influence policy formulation diminished, as he found himself on the sidelines of the affair. There is a deep irony in this, for if any man had, in principle, understood the necessity for an integration that went beyond technology, it was Walter Gropius. The idea of total synthesis, of a unity of art, industry, and society, was his life’s philosophy, and the basis of his theoretical approach to every endeavor and, above all, to prefabrication. This he had made explicit in perhaps his most comprehensive theoretical statement, his “Systematische Vorarbeit für rationellen Wohnungsbau” of 1927, which we analyzed earlier, and in this amazing paper, with its emphasis on the varied and interlocking factors of industrialized building, he anticipated Bernhardt’s major conclusions by more than 50 years. With the General Panel venture he failed, through his isolation in Cambridge from the center of events and perhaps through a failure to understand the essence and intricacy of the American scene, to carry that theory into practice.

10.5 Bernhardt’s scheme of industrial organization for homes production, adapted to show General Panel’s areas of weakness


Both Walter Gropius and Konrad Wachsmann, in the years that followed the collapse of General Panel, went on to achieve great things in America: Gropius in the field of collaborative architectural practice; Wachsmann in the development of innovative structural technology, both of them as educationalists at the highest level, with an influence that continues to pervade creative thinking in architecture. Neither actively continued the struggle toward, nor saw the realization of their long-held dream of the house produced in its component form by industry, of high quality, low cost, and infinite adaptability to the changing needs of man. But they believed, to the end, that the dream was valid, awaiting the proper enabling conditions for its realization. These conditions embrace not only the proper tools for the comprehensive and rigorous analysis of the housing system, for as a complex system it is not given to the kind of intuitive analysis brought to bear even by such great men as Gropius and Wachsmann, but also a society more amenable to logical discourse, rational decision making, and creative human interaction than we at present appear to be. Yet, if the techniques and tactics of Gropius and Wachsmann were faulty, and their understanding of the intricacy of western industrial society limited, their basic insight into the ultimate necessity for industrialized housing seems valid. Gropius’ optimism in this respect never diminished, despite the disappointments, despite the defeats, despite the many times he had “bloodied his nose”—to use his own, homely idiom46—in the conflict. “If your contribution has been vital, there will always be somebody to pick up where you left off, and that will be your claim to immortality.”47

Comments
0
comment

No comments here