Industrialized Urbanism

Prefabricated Planning

If you want a prime example of prefab housing well, here it is. Back in 1943, the federal housing act (FHA), a result of the New Deal and the newly introduced G.I. Bill, played an important role in the postwar suburban boom. The FHA and VA granted millions of Americans the ability to buy suburban homes on credit. These agencies insured private bank mortgages to both home builders and buyers. These federal housing policies contributed not only to middle-class prosperity, but also to the formation of segregated suburbs. Rules and regulations set forth by the agencies only insured home loans to communities they deemed “credit-worthy”. They were barred from investing in poor communities. The FHA published an annual survey of credit worthiness to enforce this regulation and as a result of this survey, neighborhoods with minority or mixed populations were given the highest risk ratings. A perfect example of this is Pruitt Igoe. Because of this newly implemented system, the rise of Levitt Town houses started up in full force.

Abraham Levitt and his two sons, William and Alfred, were the first to apply and use industrial production methods to home building. By constructing simple, four bedroom homes, they were able to build a house per day. After the war, they built a total of 140,000 homes-40,000 of which were on a potato farm in Hempstead, Long Island, making it the largest private housing development in the United States. These homes became the model of postwar suburban housing. They were simple homes, segregated from business and industrial districts, that were mass produced and sold on credit.

In America today, many neighborhoods have shifted from having different, diverse housing structures, to cookie-cutter housing developments.  Cookie-cutter neighborhoods first appeared in America during the heavy industrial periods of the 1850’s (the industrial revolution) when there was a shortage of housing for the influx of new workers.  These cookie-cutter neighborhoods appeared once again in the early parts of the 1900’s when WWI and WWII took place since there was again, a shortage of housing due to the influx of factory workers. 

In these cookie-cutter neighborhoods, all of the houses are built on the same model, with very few changes, if any, between houses.  With prefabricated parts, these houses can be assembled on site, in very little time, and with little complication.  That type of building allows the architects to maximize the output of properties, in essence, industrializing architecture itself.  Following the rational/hardline path of functionality, cookie-cutter neighborhoods are not designed to be that aesthetically appealing (although the ones today due have some aesthetic aspects and look better than the earlier models), but rather to house vast quantities of people in a confined area.

These are two of the pictures I took of Lafayette Park in Detroit. This development is very interesting because it’s been called the only successful urban renewal project in America. That being said, it’s still urban renewal. By definition, many residents were displaced and old homes destroyed in favor of modern, pre-fabricated housing for the upper middle class in a time of disastrous urban planning focused on automobile-heavy ideas of how the world would progress. It is isolated, it is exclusive (if not by race, by economic status) and it has not “renewed” Detroit in the slightest. Still, it is pretty beautiful, and the architecture must be admired for being a fantastic showcase of Mies’ modernism.

I have included a panorama and the plan of the Hansaviertel in West Berlin. This housing project was meant to be not only in tune with the idealized themes of CIAM, but also as a Western response to the slab housing common in the Soviet bloc. There are seven or eight towers rising up out of Berlin’s Tiergarten park, a few mid-rise buildings, and a small model suburb that looks like it could be straight out of America. All the buildings were designed by prominent architects of the time for a huge modern housing exhibition, although Le Corbusier’s planned building was actually built in Marseilles because it was deemed inappropriate for the sight for whatever reason. The people who live here are said to love it, and there are long waiting lists to get apartments in the area, which is an interesting juxtaposition to the “utopia” housing in America, which are now notoriously known as “the projects.” To that extent, the Hansaviertel could be described as perhaps the only successful iteration of utopic, functionalist modern living that Corb and CIAM envisioned would be limitlessly successful. 

During the post-war period, there was a great need for social housing. Pruitt Igoe in St. Louis is a great example of social housing during this time. It also exemplifies how pre-fabrication can be successful on paper, but not always successful in practice. At first, Pruitt Igoe part of the rebirth of St. Louis, but this social housing quickly became like all of the projects that had fallen apart. This video was very interesting because it really showed how sometimes what architects think is a great idea and will fix a problem may not be the right solution. It also pointed out several ideas as to why this didn’t work such as, the residents, the government, and the architect. Many times people may look to the building or only to the people utilizing the building for its destruction, but in reality many things are working together against its successfulness.