Articles

A Landmark Modernist House Needs a Home

by Allison Meier on June 27, 2013

Plan for the Aluminaire House in Sunnyside Gardens, Queens (courtesy Aluminaire House Foundation)

Plan for the Aluminaire House in Sunnyside Gardens, Queens (courtesy the Aluminaire House Foundation)

A small house that once heralded the arrival of Le Corbusier–style architecture in the United States needs a home, but its potential new neighbors aren’t terribly keen on the structure’s stark modernism.

Aluminaire House (courtesy Aluminaire House Foundation)

Aluminaire House (click to enlarge) (courtesy the Aluminaire House Foundation)

The Aluminaire House made its debut in the 1931 exhibition of the Architectural League and Allied Arts and Industries Association in New York. Designed by the Le Corbusier–apprenticed Albert Frey with then Architectural Record Managing Editor A. Lawrence Kocher, it was the first all-metal prefabricated house on American soil, and it introduced the prefabrication techniques of Le Corbusier’s modernism in its sturdy aluminum and steel form. The house was meant to be a model for mass production, but it’s still the only one of its kind. And now it needs a home, but a potential location in Sunnyside Gardens, Queens, has met with opposition from local parties, including members of the Sunnyside Gardens Preservation Alliance, who would prefer a park and see the Aluminaire House as clashing with their brick-house neighborhood.

The proposal for the relocation to Queens comes from the Aluminaire House Foundation,  formed in 2010 by architects Frances Campani and Michael Schwarting of Campani and Schwarting Architects to relocate, restore, and maintain the house, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places (apparently those are allowed to be transient places). They agreed last week to postpone relocation so that the local community board could fully review the plan, which would still have to be approved by the Landmarks Preservation Commission this fall, since the neighborhood is a landmarked district.

“We feel the Aluminaire House is a perfect fit with the history, ideology and scale of the surrounding work by Henry Wright and Clarence Stien [on the] Sunnyside Gardens and Phipps Houses,” Campani explained to Hyperallergic.

Blueprint for the Aluminaire House (via Wikiarquitectura)

Blueprint for the Aluminaire House (via Wikiarquitectura)

The survival of the compact house has been helped by the fact that it can be (relatively) quickly dismantled and reassembled by design. Before it got to its current wandering state, the five-room cubic structure spent many years as a guest house on the estate of Wallace Harrison, a prolific architect himself. But after Harrison passed away, in 1981, the house fell into disrepair, to the point where it was almost demolished and then saved at the last minute by those interested in its preservation. In 1987, under an initiative by Schwartling with New York Institute of Technology (NYIT) Dean of Architecture Julio M. San Jose, it arrived at the NYIT campus at Central Islip and was rebuilt on campus. (Both Schwarting and Campani have worked as architecture faculty at the school.) When NYIT closed a large part of that campus, though, the land on which the house stood was put up for sale, and it was once again on the move, entrusted to the Aluminaire House Foundation.

Other modernist homes have had their own wanders, such as the Dymaxion House by Buckminster Fuller that could be built on site from a kit and easily assembled and disassembled, a prototype for which eventually found its way into the Henry Ford Museum. Le Corbusier’s Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau from 1925 was reconstructed in Bologna, Italy. Jean Prouvé’s creations have also journeyed around the world due to their refab nature, including his La Maison Tropicale. “Mostly houses are moved when their site is threatened,” said Campani. “This happened immediately to the Aluminaire House when the exhibition [of the Architectural League and Allied Arts and Industries Association] ended.”

Aluminaire House cut away illustration (via Wikiarquitectura)

Aluminaire House cutaway illustration (via Wikiarquitectura)

While aesthetically the blocky Aluminaire House may have little in common with the simplified Colonial Revival brick homes of Sunnyside Gardens, they do share some history. Both were part of the 1932 MoMA exhibition on the International Style. Both are also based on the idea of having a repeatable design for dense suburban areas. Yet decades later, there’s still not the same embrace for metal houses as there is for brick in the United States, perhaps an induced nostalgia for the feeling of the old when we tend to have only the new.

If the Aluminaire House project for 39th Avenue and 50th Street in Queens is successful, it will include an eight-unit residential building to support it financially and to make the metal house open to the public as a museum. For now, though, the house is disassembled and stored away, waiting for a new home.

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  • Severine7

    Fascinating!

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