Keck Crystal House by George Fred Keck (1933-1934)

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The 1933 Century of Progress Exposition capitalized upon Chicago's reputation as the most architecturally progressive city in the United States by committing a very large portion of the mammoth exposition to contemporary architecture. A handful of architects and manufacturers was charged with designing housing prototypes that would conceptualize ways in which new technologies could change the housing industry, particularly of the prefabricated variety.

The most audacious of the houses, all built at full scale, was George Fred Keck's Crystal House. Keck had a keen interest in the burgeoning International Style, which had been identified and promoted in an exhibition and book produced a year earlier by Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson at The Museum of Modern Art. The house both reflected this interest and arguably canonized a distinctly new housing type: the glass house. Equipped with a four-point manifesto, Keck defines not only a formal typology but also many architectural issues that were completely new. The first point discusses the open plan in relation to cost effectiveness; the second references the house as the servicer to its inhabitant, not vice versa; the third focuses on the importance to one's health of passive heating and the modulation of natural light; the final point outlines the need to design within the boundaries of mass production without relinquishing the "opportunity for individual expression" tastefully and affordably.

Completely glazed on all sides, the house's three levels were supported by an exterior prefabricated steel truss frame that allowed for a completely open interior plan. All glass panels and mullions were of standardized sizes, a provision that, despite the fact that the house was built as a one-off, implied future potential for prefabricated manufacturing and assembly. Keck described the house as one of a number of "laboratory houses that were designed not primarily to be different or tricky but to attempt seriously to determine whether better ideas and designs for living could be found." He went on to comment, "probably the most important function of the Crystal House was to determine how a great number of the people attending the exposition would react to ideas that entirely upset conventional ideas of a house." While the house did succeed on that level, it was not a commercial success and was never replicated. Nevertheless, the house's influence on architects generations later remains palpable. The house was one of five from the exhibition that were relocated to the residential enclave of Beverly Shores, Indiana, where it still stands.

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

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