Alfred Lawrence Kocher & Albert Frey New York, USA 1930.

In 1930 Walter Sweet, co-chair of the joint Allied Arts and Industries and the Architectural League of NY exhibition, asked A. Lawrence Kocher to come up with an idea for the biannual buildings products display. The Aluminaire House was a pilot project of a single family housing prototype that could be constructed easily and economically in series showing the latest technologies and materials.It was the first house built by one of Le Corbusier’s disciples in the United States of America. Its architects, Albert Frey and Kocher shared views on new construction methods and standards for prefabricated housing.

This project emerged as part of the Allied Arts and Building products exhibition, in conjunction with the Architectural League in New York and was the only building on natural scale on show. The reception of this project was not entirely positive, the house received derogative nicknames such as “the house rack” due to the speed it takes to build and dismantle, or the “canned home” in reference to the metal used for the exterior.

Aluminaire House Sketches, by Manon Vilagines

At the close of the exhibition, the architect Wallace K. Harrison bought the House for $1,000 and moved it to his property in Huntington, Long Island. This is the location in which the house is best known, as here was where it’s owner started adding onto it. Around the year 1940, the house was moved to a new location on the same property. As the new site was found on a hill, it required changes to the ground floor; a basement was created and the original ground floor was removed. Moreover, a terrace was added projecting from the living room in order to follow the sloping topography. To increase the number of bedrooms, the roof terrace’s open ceiling was closed and the double height  living room was filled to create two separate spaces. The property, including the Aluminaire House, was sold to Harold and Hester Diamond in 1974 and then again in 1986 to Dr. Joel Karen who was granted a demolition permit for the house to be removed. However, a vast amount of architects, historians and preservationists protested against this decision. In 1987, Professor Michael Schwarting  from the New York Institute of Architecture received permission, from both the owner and the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT), to dismantle and rebuild the house on the Central Islip campus of NYIT by students as part of the curriculum. The existing house was documented and an official report was produced to rebuild it identically. Due to lack of funding the work was paused in 1996, the proposed land was sold and consequently the NYIT relocated the house to The Aluminaire House Foundation (2010) to restore and maintain it as a museum. In 2012, the house was once again dismantled and was stored in a container. From 2012 to 2014, there was a project of rebuilding the house on a site plan designed by Campani and Schwarting Architects in New York but the proposition was not supported. In February 2017, the Aluminaire House Foundation had raised enough money, the house was re-erected in Palm Springs during palm Springs Modernism Week to celebrate Albert Frey’s oeuvre.

Aluminaire House Orthographic Drawings
AR322 Moodle, Kent University

As mentioned above, the architect did not intend the house for one specific site but for it to be reproduced in series and assembled on any type of site and adapted by the owners. The house’s final destination was palm Springs where Frey spent most of his life and completed his work. The house is  arranged in three floors. The ground floor is composed by a garage situated at the back and towards the front a compartment for the boiler and an open porch, with entrance and stairs which lead to the first floor can be found. Once upstairs, to the right of the staircase is a kitchen, to the left is a small dining room with a foldable cupboard designed by Frey which adapts into a dining table, a double height living room (5m tall), a master bedroom, and a bathroom. Finally, on the third floor there is a library, a spacious bathroom and a partially covered rooftop terrace.

Original Aluminaire House model by Albert Frey

The main structure of the house, in modernism style, are the ground floor steel pilotis which hold the weight of the two upper floors. The walls were made of corrugated aluminum sided with insulation boards. The doors and window frames are made of steel with the floors similarly using pressed steel plates with an insulating layer and covered in black linoleum. The structure faced an unusual problem; how to fixate the ground floor pilotis of the house which supported the integrity of the house without using concrete. The applied solution was to use steel flanges which were bolted to the floor of the lobby of the building that held the exhibition. The Aluminaire House was originally designed to be Original Aluminaire House model by Albert Frey made entirely of ‘off the shelf’ materials which could be easily, rapidly and economically acquired (e.g. aluminum, glass and mild steel). Originally, Albert Frey had made a 1:50 model of the house that he showed to popular suppliers, such as Aluminum Company of America and Pittsburg Plate Glass, with the intention of convincing them to donate the building materials.

Due to the 1929 Stock Market crash and consequently the depression of the 1930s, the levels of unemployment were unprecedented, industrial production was down to one third of its level in 1929, and national income had dropped to less than half. Americans were in no way ready to invest in real estate. American architects were facing issues which implicated the need to design economical, easy, practical and fast ways of creating housing spaces. Thankfully, this decade also saw the proliferation of new technologies which were mainly used in aviation, radio and film but also in architecture.

Alfred Lawrence Kocher (1885-1969), American architect, editor and teacher was one of the pioneering advocates of modern architecture and preservation of historic landmarks. It is said that Kocher’s success was primarily linked to his forward thinking view of consolidation between old and new; this leading him to become Director of the McIntire School of Art and Architecture at the University of Virginia and can be explained by his rich education. He gained degrees from both Stanford University and Pennsylvania State College in his field. From 1827 to 1938, Kocher worked as managing director of the “Architectural Record” where he shifted the magazine’s focus from historic European style architecture to modern building design and methods. He built a strong partnership and friendship with Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus school. They both advocated in favor of affordable housing and started planning the implantation of the equivalent of the Bauhaus school in the United States. His second important partnership was with Albert Frey, they created one of the few firms working in international style in the US. They were both seen as the face of the practice although Frey had a primary design role and Kocher was more of a mentor and was in charge of final analysis.

Albert Frey (1903-1998) is a Swiss born architect. He lived in Palm springs for most of his life which is where he pioneered the “desert modernism” movement. He received in 1924 his Architecture diploma from the Institute of Technology in Winterthur, Switzerland. There, he was trained in traditional building instruction, he received a technical instruction in Beaux-Arts style. Whilst studying, he apprenticed with architect A.J. Arter and worked in construction. He was influenced by the Dutch De Stijl movement, German Bauhaus school and the modernism movement developing in Brussels. From 1924 to 1928, Frey worked on different projects in Belgium, he then moved to Paris where he  worked with Le Corbusier in the International Style, for instance on the Villa Savoye in Poissy, France. By 1930, after his move to New York City, he started working with A. Lawrence Kocher, they collaborated up to 1935 and briefly again in 1938. Together, they built four infrastructures includingcthe Aluminaire House in 1931 and an office/apartment dual use building for Kocher’s brother the “Kocher-Samson” building in Palm Springs for which, according to the desert environment, he createdca universal machine entirely made of concrete, glass and steel. This influenced his move to California. From 1937 to 1939, he worked on the Ney York Museum of Modern Art before returning to Palm Springs where he worked with J. Porter Clarck for twenty more years. Frey seems to have left a legacy
in Palm Springs with his style which included butterfly rooflines, glass walls, rock facings and exposed ceilings. In his oeuvre, Frey shows his embracing of the American lifestyle whilst incorporating Le Corbusier’s modernist influence.

To compare The Amuminaire House one can look to Jean Prouvé. Originally a furniture designer, he uses the same principles in his furniture as he does in his “8×8” dismountable house: practicality, simplicity and style. As Frey was pushed to create an economical, easily built house after WWI, Prouvé faced the same problem after WWII. The Aluminaire House could thus be seen as an antecedent for the “8×8” which shows a more advanced modernism. In the latter, the pilotis have been replaced with a central compass which supports the roof and gives even more freedom to the plan as well as an  illusion of having a wider space. Also, the liberty for the façades is not lost as, when built, the panels may be mounted in different orders. However, the “8×8” house does not include a bathroom or a kitchen. These facilities will have to be posteriorly added to the house. With the evolution of technology, Prouvé’s form of construction has become faster and more effective than Frey’s. What I believe shows the most improvement is the palette of materials which Prouvé has chosen. The more ecological wooden walls seem to set the house in the period also helping it release a more elegant and warm ambiance complimenting his furniture designs.

Steps to the construction of the “8×8” house by Jean Prouvé

The 1930s were indeed the apogee of the Art Deco Style in America, with the erection of the Empire State Building in New York which held the global title of the tallest building for 35 years. Art Deco is characterized by monumental art and the use of new materials. The Chicago school lead to a revolution of structure, with non-bearing facades due to columns or pilotis systems and so buildings are now held up with a steel bone structure. The fire of 1871 in Chicago which influenced the rebuilding and new structuring of the buildings after their destruction. However, it can be said that it was Frey’s European education and influences that led to his style i.e. the Aluminaire House design. In fact, we will notice that Frey’s design is a conjunction of Le Corbusier’s principals and the instructions of the Bauhaus; the modernist movement.

Piet Mondrian
Composition B (No.II) with Red 1935

The De Stijl movement was one that responded to the chaotic atmosphere created by World War I, it is a comeback to order. Lead by Dutch artists Theo van Doesburg and Piet Mondrian, De Stijl was an opposition to pre-war decorative tendencies such as Art Nouveau, reverting back to the simplest, most basic design components: vertical and horizontal lines and primary colors. In architecture, this movement is demonstrated through the Schroder House built in 1924 by Dutch architect Gerrit Rietveld. It’s simple superposed geometrical shapes, and the use of primary colors would make its façade’s elevation similar to one of Mondrian’s paintings. We can recognize, through the window panel on the west elevation of the Aluminaire House, the De Stijl inspiration of Frey. The window, made of 72 different glass panels forms repetitive geometrical shapes (rectangles) and creates an opening on the double height living room enlightening the house.

Picture of the Villa Savoye by night, primary example of modernism by Le

The birth of modernism has revealed the potential of beauty in form. Designs and patterns are no longer used, the beauty is found within the shape itself. Many modernist structures no longer involve curves and glass, amongst other industrial materials becomes one of the main ones used in these creations. The modernist movement we know today arose from a variety of genres and movements. Brutalism with its harsh designs and extreme use of concrete, Expressionism with its many curves and emitted emotions and, the International Style which is the beginning of the modernism we know today (see Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier). Le Corbusier defines architecture as “ The masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light.”1  He considers a house as a “Machine for living” for which he researches new solutions. In his book Toward an architecture2 he enunciates the five points of a new architecture: a structure on pilotis (strong thin columns) , a flat roof usually used
a terrace or rooftop garden, a free plan concept (the bearing walls were replaced by the pilotis), the free façade and the “fenetre bandeau” (long horizontal windows). His work adapts to new practical and aesthetical demands yet, sometimes its rendering has been defined as not refined or sophisticated. Indeed, the Aluminaire House follows Le Corbusier’s five points of modern architecture. The ground floor’s pilotis support the whole structure, the flat roof partially covers a half-open terrace, the bearing walls being replaced by the pilotis, each floor’s plan is independent, the free facade and  the “fenetre bandeau” on the South and east facades. The house also lacks any type of ornament: the beauty of it purely emanates from its shape and volumes.

Bauhaus School designed by Gropius

The Bauhaus is the fusion of the Académie des Beaux-Arts and crafts in a school in Weimar created by Gropius in 1919. Based on the conciliation of art and industry, the Bauhaus offers the learning of design, crafts and methods of mass production as well as theatre, architecture and the creation of objects and furniture. With the expansion of Nazism in Europe, the Bauhaus was developed worldwide. Bauhaus designs consist of minimal decors, geometrical lines, new technics, hygienism and the use of new materials such as glass, steel and concrete. This style shows a new expression: large spaces with no ornaments, smooth exterior surfaces and a certain regularity, recognized in the Aluminaire House. The house being entirely made of steel glass and aluminum, the new practical materials of the period, the smooth aluminum facades accentuating the lack of ornaments, and the windows’ repeated patterns show the Bauhaus influence that Frey put into this house. Albert Frey evidently presented a Bauhaus, De Stilj and Modernist influence in the ensemble of his work and particularly whilst designing the Aluminaire House. The 72 glass panels of the house’s West façade’s window which forms repetitive geometrical shapes show the De Stijl influence, the pilotis, roof terrace, free plan concept, free façade and long horizontal windows show Le Corbusier’s influence on the design, and the choice of materials as well as the very abstentious facades remind us of the Bauhaus instructions. Bauhaus School designed by Gropius “International Style, is an architectural style that developed in Europe and the United States in the 1920s and ’30s and became the dominant tendency in Western architecture during the middle decades of the 20th century. The most common characteristics of International Style buildings are rectilinear forms; light, taut plane surfaces that have been completely stripped of applied ornamentation and decoration; open interior spaces; and a visually weightless quality engendered by the use of cantilever construction. Glass and steel, in combination with usually less visible reinforced
concrete, are the characteristic materials of construction.”3 The Aluminaire House is thus evidently part of the International Style movement.

Original Aluminaire House Sketches by Albert Frey

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