Packaged House by Konrad Wachsmann and Walter Gropius (1941-1952)

Model Overview: 

Rather than representing a revolution in prefabrication, Konrad Wachsmann and Walter Gropius's Packaged House (General Panel System) represents the zenith of the wood-frame, panelized houses that were, by 1942, fairly common on both sides of the Atlantic. What is more relevant is the nature of the partnership between two influential architects with their own distinct interest in collaborating on such a project. Despite the cachet of its authors, the house, like so many before and after it, would ultimately fail as a commodity, remaining influential today by virtue of its conceptual underpinnings, rather than for its commercial success.

Escaping interment in Germany virtually penniless in 1941, Wachsmann arrived at Gropius's American home in Lincoln, Massachusetts, homeless and without work. Gropius, an old friend, was in a position to help as he was both practicing and teaching at Harvard and had recently severed ties with his longtime collaborator, Marcel Breuer. He provided Wachsmann with a place to stay, draw, and discuss architecture late into the evening. Gropius endorsed Wachsmann's desire to embark on a charrette for an industrialized housing system, which they eventually called "The Packaged House." Gropius would later acknowledge that his role was more that of facilitator and mentor, providing Wachsmann with the financial and intellectual resources to pursue the project, including patenting the system in 1942. Wachsmann, on the other hand, was at the helm on the drawing board, feverishly setting his mind to the task of producing a set of twenty-four drawings that functioned as the blueprint not only for a housing system, but for an entire house-making corporation. In many ways it was the light at the end of the tunnel for Wachsmann in the very dark days of the height of World War II. The project seems to have offered Wachsmann his most exciting design opportunities since his important exploration in prefabrication, his house for Einstein at Caputh, near Potsdam, completed in 1929, and timber houses produced for the Berlin Building Exhibition in 1931.

Wachsmann had already produced some drawings in exile in France and he spent his first several weeks in the U.S. converting the drawings from meters to feet and inches in the hopes of making the project commercially viable in the United States. The system had no ideal arrangement, and Wachsmann chose not to draw any definitive house models. Instead he developed a palette of ten different types of 40-by-120-inch panels laid out in 40-inch three-dimensional space-frame panels forming all horizontal and vertical surfaces. The panel system overall was not of sufficient originality to gain the patent that Gropius sought. It was, in fact, the X-shaped wedge connectors that linked each panel vis-à-vis a set of metal plates housed in the panel edge that proved to be the inventive, and consequently commercially noteworthy, element of the system. The wedge, which was essentially flat, replaced the standard Y-shaped connector that, because of its three dimensionality, proved harder to manufacture and easier to damage. Wachsmann prepared a set of remarkable and refined drawings that he would eventually depart with as the relationship between house-guest and host became increasingly strained. Gropius and Wachsmann parted amicably, and Wachsmann continued to consult Gropius as he pursued investors in New York city for what he now called the General Panel System. The two held very different conceptions of the system's potential. Gropius believed that the technological progress that enabled a system such as the Packaged House was, essentially, an immutable force that inevitably had to be harnessed by humans to achieve their own goals. Gropius, considered a humanist by many, saw the machine as a potentially dehumanizing force that man had to control. Wachsmann, who is quoted as saying, "Tomorrow is everything," had a very different perception of technology as a liberating force in architecture. The debate of technology's role in architecture continues today and is uniquely embedded in the fabric of this modest proposal for a prefabricated house.

Teetering on bankruptcy, Wachsmann found investors and, after much scrambling, mounted a prototype in Somerville, Massachusetts, in 1943. Although praised by critics, the house failed to gain reliable investors. Finally, in 1946 the Celotex corporation of Burbank, California, acquired both the design and a former airplane engine factory, forming the General Panel Corporation. A plan to produce 8,500 houses per year in a burgeoning post-war housing economy proved unsuccessful when the facility's equipment failed to provide the proper tolerance needed for the system to work, ultimately affecting output and, consequently, the bottom line. In 1952 the corporation went bankrupt, and the "dream," as Gilbert Hebert labeled it in his 1984 book, of the Packaged House would become yet another failed endeavor in the history of the prefabricated house.

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


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