Prefabricated industrialized building of the 1960’s – in the light of the ’new industrialization’
A great epoch has begun.
There exists a new spirit.
Industry, overwhelming us like a flood which rolls on towards its destined end, has furnished us with new tools adapted to this new epoch, animated by a new spirit.
Industry on the grand scale must occupy itself with building and establish the elements of the house on a mass-production basis.
We must create the mass-production spirit.
The spirit of constructing mass-production houses.
The spirit of living in mass-production houses.
The spirit of conceiving mass-production houses.
(Le Corbusier: ”Mass-production Houses”, from Towards a New Architecture (1923))1
In the 1920’s Le Corbusier dreamt about the impact of modern technology on human beings and their dwellings. He criticized the traditional house erected stone by stone of being static and unchangeable and stressed the importance of modern technology as a means of building flexible contructions with floating decks supported by only a few columns. For the first time in the history of architecture the architect could gain optimum freedom to shape the house independently of old structural constraints. Already in 1914 Le Corbusier had created a paradigmatic answer to this vision: the Dom-ino project consisting of a standard framework of reinforced concrete which was suitable for infilling in various ways in order to provide different types of accommodation.
As a plan and a section diagram, Dom-ino seems a rather simple and straightforward statement. Perhaps for this very reason – its apparently extreme clarity – it is often taken as an icon and a structural paradigm, an example of the potential of the then new technology, a prototypical unit expressing ideas of mass production, repetition, and so on.2 Le Corbusier got right to the essence with his Dom-ino project creating an icon through which simplicity expressed not only the modern dream of the open plan and the free facade, but also the potential of industrialized construction methods. Le Corbusier created a strong and pronounced architectural vision, but he also developed and concretized the vision in close relationship with the contemporary industrial complex. He expected the structural Dom-ino frames to be mass-produced by one contractor and the house to be completed by another, who by using standardized windows, doors and partition units could provide for a variation of plans adjusted specifically to the single user.3 In a similar way Le Corbusier developed his mass-produced houses of Pessac (1925) i close relationship to the ideas of ’Taylorism’ concerning sequential work processes and a strictly calculated output per worker.
As early as 1914, a strategy for mass-produced architecture was conceived which dealt with the relationship between rational production methods and an architectural vision of freedom and flexibility.
In industrialized building of the 1960’s, which is the strongest manifestation of technology and industrialization ever in the Danish building sector, hardly anything from the Le Corbusian dream can be recognized. The freedom of the architect – by the mediation of industry – to form the building free from constraints seems very distant from the monotonous, fixed housing estates of the 1960’s. A closer look at the specific circumstances and conditions of the development in the Sixties might explain why it seems to be the industrial production apparatus rather than the architect’s vision which dictated building activities. An acute lack of housing, of building materials and of skilled labour created a situation within society which exerted decisive pressure on the building sector.
In 1946, one year after the end of World War II, the lack of housing units in Denmark was calculated to be about 50,000. Simultaneosly there was a noteworthy lack of building materials and skilled workers. How can great quantities of housing be built when there is not only limited access to traditional building materials such as brick and wood, but also when there is a shortage of skilled labour? The first years were characterized more by tests and experiments than by conscious, coordinated development, but first of all there was a definite conviction among the different parties within the building sector to collaborate and try out new directions. The Ministry of Housing was founded – as well as a governmental institute of building research - and the political focus was centred on so-called ’non-traditional building’. Industrialized building methods based on concrete were an attractive alternative to traditional methods. Like brick, concrete consisted mostly of local materials, and moreover, it could be handled by unskilled workers. In 1947, a new law was passed which made governmental economical support possible for building projects where new building materials or construction methods were being used.
The development started with the project of ’Bellahøj’ (1950-57), followed by the ’Ballerupplanen’, ’Sydjyllandsplanen’, ’Gladsaxeplanen’ and ’Albertslundplanen’, all of which were based on the ’Montagecirkulære’, a montage programme, which was formulated in 1960 as a concretization of the ambitious governmental strategy for efficient industrialization of the building sector. In the montage programme it states:
Moreover, the programme expects that the planning of specific projects is organized to provide the greatest possible use of serially produced, generally applicable building parts, made through continuous production. This demands among other things that the building programme is simple, that the planning is made on the basis of the concept of modulation, that the feature of repetition is used as much as possible, most of all through the use of similar (standardized and typified) building parts, and that the chosen plan solutions are clear and generally applicable, and that the buildings have a simple design.4 The montage programme demanded a continuous serial production on a modular basis, an exploitation of the principle of repetition and simple building. Housing estates had been regarded as singular events. They now had to be part of a continuous production based upon the notion of repetition. When studying the built housing projects of the Sixties one can read a strict development in the industrial production system: The ’Ballerupplanen’ project (1962-63) was concerned with developing an optimum building component size – big enough to give productional advantages, but not so big as to hinder variation in apartment types. The ’Gladsaxeplanen’ project (1962) used the types and sizes of building components developed for Ballerup and emphasized instead the planning of all details, phases and trades, which resulted in an impressive speed of construction. The ’Albertslundplanen’ project (1963), which was the first low housing estate (1-2 floors), developed prefabrication not only of wall and roof, but also of foundation and deck. The ’Sydjyllandsplanen’ project (1963) consisting of housing estates in five different cities, was focused on the increasing problem with the planning of building procedures, logistics and interdisciplinary collaboration.
Through the progress from ’Ballerupplanen’ to ’Sydjyllandsplanen’, the demands of the governmental montage programme were fulfilled, however the development continued. A number of new housing projects were built during the following years. To start with, the projects were based on the same principles of construction (supporting partitions, and non-supporting facades of wood or concrete), and it was the same uniform, gray housing areas which dominated. But when the new building methods became well known and the details were fully developed, the desire for experimentation resulted in projects with a more free spirit. Terraces were added to the blocks, the repetition in the facades included variation, and the plans showed new examples of spatial organization. Two of the most notable projects from the late Sixties were the ’Brøndby Strand’ project with its characteristic varied facades, and the ’Farum Midtpunkt’ project with its big terraces, the cor-ten steel cladding and the organizational experimentation with internal public areas. These newer examples illustrate the extent of advancement from the gray monotony of early industrialized building achieved in the Sixties.
The housing block as building type was brought to increased competition with the single-family house, and the Building Societies focused still more on creating variation and quality in housing developments. Demands for greater variation in building components appeared to be in strong opposition to the economical dependence on long production series. An increase in variation within component types resulted in higher prices, and with the onset of the Oil Crisis in 1972, industrial development definitively came to a halt.
However, the crisis not only affected production and growth, it was also an opening for a reaction against the architecture of huge systems, against monotony and uniformity. With an architectural competition concerning ’low/dense housing’ in 1972, the counter-reaction became a fact. These new ideals were based upon ideas of individual freedom, democratic processes and small scale environments fulfilled through heterogeneous architecture. Within a very short time the new architectural vision gained power, and the production system could hardly catch up with the many variations. Building methods based upon craftsmanship were partially re-established while the development of building systems and montage methods ceased, leaving the structural and architectural potential of montage building unexplored.
The 1960’s – success or failure?
The Danish politics of industrialization in the 1960’s had been successful. Successful when measuring the amount of new housing units and their high technical standard. It was a dynamic period characterized by the will to change, which unified the whole building sector. Some of the results of this were: a pronounced increase in productivity, a doubling of the amount of new housing units built in a period of less than ten years, establishment of a great number of new companies producing building components, increased international awareness of the achievements in the Danish building sector, a huge export of know-how and systems. This period represents one of the greatest shifts in Danish building development – a development which is usually characterized by evolution rather than revolution.
But this same period, the 1960’s, is also considered a failure - attacked for creating housing made for standardized people and standardized families which did not exist in reality. The vast green areas between the housing blocks were accused of creating distance rather than attracting outdoor social activity. What is normally considered the modern dream - the vision of huge blocks on a vast green plane, of quality housing for everybody - resulted in criticism so harsh that it became dogma: endless monotony, building failures and extensive social problems became the stigma of the Sixties.
Repetition – industrial consequence or architectural vision?
The dreams of Le Corbusier about freedom created by modern technology are hardly recognizable in this decade of industrialized housing production. The building sector was bound by a specific task: to build a huge amount of housing in a very short time, while developing new building methods and using new building materials, which could be handled by unskilled workers. The task was precisely formulated in the ’Montagecirkulære’: building activities had to fulfill a number of exact demands, and there was a direct order to build in a simple and straightforward manner.
However, this development might also be considered a materialization of the modern dream regarding quality housing for everyone, of the democratic notion of egality, built in 1:1. Repetition was not only dictated by the dependence on vast numbers of elements in the production line, it was also a manifestation of a new lifestyle based upon the uniform products of mass-production. Repetition was a means to instant growth, to rationality and creation of universal frames for the multi-facetted lives.
But repetition as an architectural vision was never realized. It remained uniform and monotonous and thus became more a proof of the constraints of industrial production, rather than an illustration of its possibilities. Innumerable examples from the history of architecture – starting as far back as the architectural orders of antiquity - prove the potential in the principle of repetition. The principle of repetition as a direct consequence of industrialized mass-production has also been discussed in the 20 century. James Strike describes how repetition as an architectural design parameter was considered in the period around the school of Bauhaus:
It was recognized that there would be a new relationship between the designer and the object and that the phenomena of anonymity could be realized as an exiting design concept. The issue of repetition, inherent in mass-production systems, led to other interesting design explorations. The relationship between identical units was explored through the geometry of transformation, translation, rotation and reflection, together with the notions of stacking, nesting and fitting. The issue of linear repetition was considered as something which would modify the historical idea of rhythm in architecture.th And Alison and Peter Smithson do thoroughly regret the lack of exploration and experiment a couple of decades later:
Yet both American and European architects appear to have lost the old secrets of repetition just when they use it most. (…).
We have the same sort of number of ’like-parts’ that were common in the past; only now we have the miracle of making them so easily. Looked at it this way we have incredible means available to us. With these everyday numbers we could use repetition as Bernini did – turn it off and on – change gear with it, so to speak…the idea of repetition is not something to be fought against.5
We now face a ’new industrialization’ based upon information technology and advanced production technology. Low productivity and high prices in the Danish building sector have drawn attention to the need for an increase in efficiency, and the building sector is now debating new industrial production methods, new organizational and collaborational patterns, new levels of industrialization, and so on. This situation is even called a change of paradigm based on radically new conditions – but the changes are hardly ever discussed as architectural visions for a radically new building culture.
In several ways this new situation is similar to the point of departure during the Sixties. Like then, we also face political demands for productivity, and like then, there is also a danger of the architect losing control to other groups within the building sector, and to the industrial production system. But unlike the Sixities we do not face a lack of housing nor of building materials. Hopefully this means that efficiency and rationality will not stand alone, but will be accompanied by an increasing demand for architectural quality. Another important difference is that the individual is now in the center. Recent debate within the Danish building sector focuses on how to satisfy the customer. It is no longer enough to build soundly – the building must fulfill the demands and needs of the user and demonstate value and quality.
The new production apparatus based on information technology and advanced production technology indicates a totally different industrialized architecture than what we met in the Sixties. The production system no longer demands large series of identical building components, but opens up for individualization and differentiation of each standard building component. Through the tools of information technology the production system can handle individual solutions within one production process, so that it is no longer the product which is standardized but only the process. This adds new dimensions to the concept of standardization and challenges the notion of prefabrication.
While the concept of repetition characterized the Sixties, montage is the keyword to the present situation. The individualized building components do not imply sheer repetition, but might be added in a more free and temporary composition. Individualization demands dynamics, adaptation and the possibility of changing building parts over time. One could say that we now finally approach a possible redemption for the architectural freedom provided by technology and industry which Le Corbusier anticipated almost a century ago.
(Here quoted from the translation of the thirteenth French edition with an introduction by Frederick Etchells). From: Essential Le Corbusier L’Esprit Nouveau Articles, by Le Corbusier (Architectural Press, Oxford, 1998)
2 Peter Eisenman: Aspects of Modernism: Maison Dom-ino and the Self-Referential Sign
First published in Oppositions 15/16 – 1979, here quoted from: Oppositions Reader (Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 1998) p. 191
3 James Strike: Construction into Design. The influence and methods of construction on architectural design 1690-1990 (Butterworth-Heinemann Ltd., Oxford, UK, 1991), p. 127
4 The quotation is translated by the author of this paper. The quote in Danish:
Programmet forudsætter endvidere, at projekteringen af de enkelte byggerier tilrettelægges således, at der i videste udstrækning bliver mulighed for at anvende seriefremstillede, generelt anvendelige bygningsdele, tilvejebragt ved en kontinuert produktion.
Dette kræver bl.a., at byggeprogrammet er enkelt, at projekteringen udføres på grundlag af modulordningen, at der i så stor udstrækning som muligt sker en udnyttelse af gentagelsesmomentet, bl.a. ved anvendelse af ensartede (standardiserede og typiserede) bygningsdele, at de valgte planløsninger i det hele er afklarede og almindeligt anvendelige, og at byggerierne gives en ukompliceret udformning.
Here quoted from: Sven Bertelsen: Bellahøj. Ballerup. Brøndby Strand. 25 år der industrialiserede byggeriet (Statens Byggeforskningsinstitut, Hørsholm, 1997), p. 61