Making Prefabrication American: The Work of A. Lawrence Kocher

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Journal of Architectural Education

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This article discusses the work of A. Lawrence Kocher in order to capture the relationship between the social and technical commitments of early twentieth-century architectural modernism in the United States. It analyzes Kocher's professional activity, scholarship, policy advocacy, design-build pedagogy, and editorship at Architectural Record (1927–1938). In these realms, Kocher helped introduce prefabrication and standardized detailing to the American architectural profession. He emphasized the accessibility of prefabrication in both historical research and cutting-edge material experimentation. In so doing, Kocher provided a version of modernism that appealed to an American audience. While his vision of design as a social good differed from that of his European social democratic contemporaries, it represents an important and too little studied conception of the potential of building technology to support democracy and the fair distribution of housing for all.

In a review of William Lescaze's 1942 book On Being an Architect, A. Lawrence Kocher reflected on his profession's efficacy in moments of crisis. “It is a curious inconsistency in modern life that the architect contributes so little to the devising of statutes or other instruments of action which would further the elimination of squalid slums in cities and within the shadow of factories.” In light of these concerns, which emerged in response to the deprivations brought about by the Great Depression and World War II, Kocher committed himself to developing methods and material strategies that could address the nation's pressing housing problems. He embarked on what he would later call a “fact-finding investigation of the meaning of ‘architecture’ and ‘the architect’ with a view of discovering how architectural design may best be produced.” Ultimately, Kocher concluded that architects could best serve humankind by coordinating with industry and by designing homes that everyday Americans could easily build and modify. Following this conclusion, he committed himself to promoting prefabrication in every realm of professional practice and culture.

Drawing from archival research, this essay analyzes three related aspects of Kocher's career. First, it describes his activity as a professional architect experimenting with prefabricated building technologies in the 1920s and 1930s. Second, it documents his promotion of prefabrication and modernist architecture as a scholar, editor of Architectural Record (1927–38) and policy advocate. Finally, it discusses Kocher's work as an educator at Carnegie Technical University (now Carnegie Mellon University) and at Black Mountain College, where he directed students in full-scale “design-build” projects using experimental prefabricated materials. Through his coordinated work in these three areas, Kocher argued that prefabrication was not only appropriate for the American context but was a necessary step if the profession hoped to address the nation's Depression-induced housing crisis.

After being neglected for many years, Kocher has recently begun to receive much deserved attention for his contribution to the American modernist movement. Kocher's story is significant because it adds to a body of literature that provides a more nuanced picture of how European modernism intersects with social and technical commitments already at work in the United States. Kocher produced his most influential and compelling work during the Great Depression and the first years of World War II. These events shaped not only Kocher's career but also the fate of the American architectural profession. The prolonged lack of commissions that resulted from these two events pushed architects to explore new realms of possibility. As a social and political statement, Kocher's advocacy for prefabrication was less flashy and more pragmatic than the polemical positions of many well-known European modernists. Nonetheless, in all his work, he pursued a material architectural practice that he hoped would provide a better future for all Americans.



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