Industrialized building

In the second half of the 1920s the modernist architects of Europe, perceiving an urgent need to reform city planning and especially public housing policies, sought to address the social changes resulting from industrialization. At a 1928 meeting at La Sarraz, Switzerland, architects from Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Holland, Spain, and Switzerland formed the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM), agreeing that rationalization and standardization were the chief ways to solve the housing problems each country then faced. CIAM reconvened in Frankfurt in 1929 to discuss the pragmatic issue of existenzenminimum—low-cost residential units. That “unit” should replace “house” in its lexicon is an indicator of pervasive socialist thinking; indeed, politics could not be excluded from any debate on urbanism and housing policies. In its Athens Charter, derived in 1933 and published ten years later, CIAM offered modern technology as the generic solution to the urban problems that would be exacerbated by World War II. That is, they called for a new way of building, and that displacement of conventional thinking with a “problem-solving” approach was an architectural feat in itself. Success is a different matter.

It is one thing to theorize, quite another to find real solutions. Designers on both sides of the Atlantic were investigating industrialized construction techniques as a means of making better, affordable housing. As early as 1910 the German architect Walter Gropius advocated the industrial production of interchangeable housing components, and in 1914 Le Corbusier’s Domino house system employed a standardized framework. It was perhaps inevitable that many of the resulting products were mechanistic and austere, emphasizing structure and detail at the expense of esthetic considerations. This new, efficient way of making architecture was grasped as an opportunity to realize the house as “a machine for living in.” The first half of the twentieth century is replete with designs for systems and components, too numerous to include here. Suffice it to identify a few key individuals.

The French blacksmith and steel fabricator Jean Prouvé (1901–1984) began experiments with prefabricated construction in 1925, in partnership with Aluminium Française and the car manufacturers Citroën and Renault. Given impetus by electric welding technology, after 1931 he produced building components and entire prefabricated structures. In collaboration with the architect Eugene Beaudouin and engineer Marcel Lods, Prouvé built a transportable structure for the Rolland Garros Aeroclub in Buc, France (1935), a forerunner of their Maison du Peuple in Clichy (1936–1939). By adjusting its movable floors, sliding partitions, and openable roofs, the Maison could be adapted within an hour to become a covered market,