Copper Houses by Walter Gropius & Associates (1931-1942)

Model Overview: 

Due to the housing crisis in Germany during the 1920s, the Eberswalde-based firm Aron Hirsch and Son, a global player in the copper and brass industry, became interested in the business of mass-produced housing. It acquired a patent for transportable, insulated metal walls, developed by the architects Friedrich Forster and Robert Krafft, and set up a special division to manufacture prefabricated copper houses. Various types of houses were designed. Their exterior walls and roofs were made of copper, insulation was provided by aluminum foil and asbestos roofing paper, and the framing was of wood. Their interior walls were sheet metal ornamented with intricate patterns. The whole structure consisted of prefabricated, easily transportable elements, which could be assembled within twenty-four hours on site. In 1931 a small model subdivision was erected not far from the factory in Eberswalde. The houses, technologically quite modern but aesthetically eclectic, were given flowery names: "Copper Castle," "Source of Life," "Spring Reverie," "Jewel," "Sunshine," "Fairy Tale in Copper," and "May Morning." At the 1931 Colonial Exhibition in Paris the six copper houses Hirsch displayed were awarded a Grand Prize.

In the same year Walter Gropius was hired to refine the existing models. In 1932 he presented two of the prototypes he had developed at the Second German Building Exposition, held on the Berlin fairgrounds and displaying the slogan "Sun, Air, and Housing for All!" Boasting that with regard to "technology and organization" he had helped to make the Copper House eminently marketable, Gropius claimed credit for several improvements, including "corrugated sheet-copper for the outer walls, aluminum instead of steel for the inner, a simpler corner joint and an altered appearance." Gropius, who by then was signing himself as director of the copper house division, sought to contact possible investors and customers both within Germany and abroad. He envisioned large housing projects with as many as fifty to two hundred copper houses. Various domestic firms were interested, as well developers and planners in the United States and the Soviet Union. But in 1932 the Hirsch company went bankrupt. When Réne Schwarz, Aron Hirsch's son-in-law, then set up the copper house division as an independent undertaking he ended the collaboration with Gropius and concentrated on marketing the villa-style models "Favorite" and "Copper Pride." The sales pitch emphasized the speed with which the houses could be erected rather than their modest price: theoretically they could be assembled in only twenty-four hours.

Then in January 1933 the National Socialist came to power, and suddenly a new market for the copper houses arose: Jewish émigrés to Palestine. Beginning in March 1933, the company placed advertisement in the Jüdische Rundschau, the Zionist Federation's weekly newspaper. They touted the company's products as offering "first-class privacy, hygienic living, and superb investment" and urged readers to " buy copper houses for Palestine." In August 1933 the company put out a special catalogue, with models designed specifically for the Palestine market, called "Haifa," "Jerusalem," "Tel Aviv," and "Sharon." The largest model, with a living space of 2,800 square feet, was called "Lebanon." Soon a branch of the German Copper House Company was opened in Haifa. At least fourteen houses found their way to the British Mandate of Palestine, but the copper houses did not catch on any more than did other types of economic dwellings.

When the National Socialists began to rearm, copper came to be in short supply, and its export was forbidden. It is said that the last copper house delivered was immediately melted down on arrival in Tel Aviv, the value of the copper being greater than the cost of the house. The further history of the German Copper House Company remains somewhat vague.

Copper houses erected in Germany were also threatened by Germany's war of expansion and annihilation. In 1942 all homeowners were required to notify the authorities of any structural elements made of copper. In some cases the copper was removed and turned over to the armament industry. Other owners, unwilling to sacrifice their homes for the sake of "total war looting," disguised their copper houses by painting them white.

Today, few people know the story of the copper houses. Since 1984, when Gilbert Herbert wrote The Dream of the Factory-Made House, no major study has been published. Herbert himself never saw the copper houses in what was then East Germany. Inasmuch as the copper houses are relatively unspectacular structures in terms of aesthetics, they have as yet found little notice in standard histories of architecture. This may be in part because although technologically advanced, they are conservative in design and by no means fulfill the claim to the "unity of art and technology" advocated by Gropius. They have nothing to do with the radiant, white modernism of such World Heritage sites as the Bauhaus in Dessau or the White City of Tel Aviv. On the contrary, they are almost black. They are architectural documents of German and Israeli history. Recorded in the copper houses are stories of the expulsion and annihilation of German Jews, of the barbarity of modern times, but also of the salvation of the Alijah. It is precisely this ambiguity that constitutes their special value.

(Source: Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling by Barry Bergdoll and Peter Christensen)


Design Style: 

Housing Newsletter Tracker