Anthony Paletta is a freelance writer located in New York City. He's contributed to the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, Metropolis, Architectural Record, and other publications.
Aluminum City Terrace was a project of the Federal Works Agency and the only multi-tenant housing taken on by Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer in the U.S.
A steep hillside site in a mill town 25 miles from Pittsburgh is an unlikely site for the one housing development in the United States designed by Bauhaus luminaries Marcel Breuer and Walter Gropius.
But perhaps so would anywhere else.
Aluminum City Terrace in New Kensington, Pennsylvania, manages to be equally unique and ordinary. Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus, and Breuer, his student-turned-professional-partner, achieved enduring fame largely for their individual works, but had a brief and excellent partnership between 1937 and 1941. Aluminum City Terrace was Gropius and Breuer’s one joint foray into multi-tenant housing. For all of their interest in introducing Bauhaus rationalism, prefabrication, and mass housing to the United States, together they mainly produced single-family home commissions (including the Frank House in Pittsburgh).
The 250-unit Aluminum City Terrace was a project of the Federal Works Agency’s Division of Defense Housing, which was charged by the 1940 Lanham Act with remedying housing shortages in centers of defense-related production. The FWA built some 700,000 units of housing between 1940 and 1945. The design and execution of most were far more disposable than Aluminum City Terrace, and a considerable majority were demolished after the war. Notable modern architects were hired to design a few of these complexes. Richard Neutra designed Channel Heights in San Pedro, California, and Avion Village in Grand Prairie, Texas. Oscar Stonorov designed Audubon Village in Camden and Pennypack Woods in Philadelphia.
Breuer and Gropius were given no requirements as to the form of their plan beyond cost per unit. They conceived of Aluminum City Terrace with great speed and delivered it under budget. It was a striking design; flat-roofed, low row units fronted with brick on one side and vertical cedar slats on the other. There were small windows in the brick front and larger windows in the rear, with ribbon windows running the width of the two story units, each topped by wooden sun-shades on both the lower and upper levels. Small sheds and wooden panels divided each unit’s backyard. The units featured relatively generous bedroom sizes and an interior layout that was unusually open for the time. Kitchens were separated from living rooms by merely a half-wall (which contractors, reportedly bewildered by the idea, initially completed to the ceiling).
Just over 200 two-story, two-to-three bedroom row units, 38 one-story rows, and eight one-story duplex cliff units—which were built on some of the steepest terrain of the entire site and were supported on pillars—were completed. Gerard Damiani, associate professor of architecture at Carnegie Mellon University, praised the cliff units as the most innovative. “You’d think that they could have been in Dwell last month,” he told CityLab. The development also includes an elementary school (now repurposed as a church), a community center, and a maintenance building.
The buildings are strictly rectilinear but their arrangement is dictated by the site’s steep western Pennsylvania setting, with slopes of up to 30 percent. The buildings were sited to take advantage of the vertiginous landscape and to showcase the dense woods just yards from nearly every unit. About half of the units face the road, half face away from it. The “rear” is unquestionably more picturesque and used as a principal entrance to many of the homes, orienting their more open backside to the sunnier south, with brick girding against the north. Damiani compared the seemingly random arrangement to a Paul Klee composition. “It’s really painterly in a kind of Bauhausian way in how it’s composed,” he said. “You look at Klee and you look at that plan and you’ll see it.”
Damiani said that this still wasn’t quite all to plan, noting that the original idea for a main entrance road to the complex was never realized. “Look at the historic plan; they never built the entrance road so the whole gateway sequence is screwed up.” A majority of funds originally slated for landscaping were also cut before completion.
The development raised eyebrows and hackles. A successful mayoral candidate in the early 1940s derided the development as a chicken coop. After he was elected, he refused to build an access road with municipal funds. Kristin Szylvian, an associate professor at St. John’s University, wrote in the essay, “Bauhaus on Trial: Aluminum City Terrace and Federal Defense Housing Policy During World War II” that “few workers were familiar with apartments with huge windows, a half-wall partition between the kitchen and dining and living area, and doorless storage units.” Some residents were also dismayed with inadequate space for the swelling expected postwar arsenal of large furniture and appliances.
Aluminum City Terrace did win the enthusiasm of many residents, however. So much so that when the development was threatened with demolition after the war, residents banded together to buy the project as a co-op. It remains highly popular to this day. One resident, who asked not to be named, said she has lived in Aluminum City Terrace for 67 years, “starting at the age of two and a half.” She praised it as a great community and noted that the development is hard to leave. “We’ve had some people who have actually left and come back years later,” she noted.
As the community has aged, it has remained quiet and well-kept amidst the broader economic misfortunes of New Kensington since the 1960s. Aluminum City Terrace is quite affordable, with a co-op share—equivalent to the right to one unit—costing just a one-time payment of $5,000 plus monthly maintenance fees that run between $330 and $350. There are waiting lists for all sizes of units. Tom Ansani, the complex’s property manager, noted that turnover “is...not high, let me put it that way.”
A considerable renovation of the terrace occurred in 1965, including the removal of full walls between kitchens and living rooms in an era when the American kitchen had become a welcome family member, no longer an orphan to be cloistered from view. The cedar used in the original construction had weathered badly in most cases. The slatted wooden overhangs were replaced with diagonal roofs over each terrace and wooden partitions replaced with brick. The upper wooden sun-shields were replaced by a long aluminum louver. A number of these changes were modest and retain the spirit of the Breuer original. The sun shades were not particularly useful in dealing with anything but sun. As a resident commented, “We used to have slatted pieces of wood there so when it would rain the rain washed right through.” The upper aluminum louvers are particularly attractive, a unitary and useful flourish atop the two-story units.
The one substantial mar of the complex is the heavy use of vinyl, although that’s no different than so much of American suburbia. There have also been expansions of the units permitted into their rear yards which have spoiled some of the rows. Damiani commented, “I don’t think the Bauhaus converted these people, I think these people kind of converted the Bauhaus.” There have been some efforts to restrain expansions: aluminum louvers will be replaced and repainted in uniform style, and there are efforts to restrict door colors to a relatively limited range of color. Damiani noted that despite considerable changes (some of which are clearly lamentable from a design standpoint) it still retained a greater sense of its original appearance than much else of its period. “Contemporary architecture of the period was typically mishandled to the point that it’s unrecognizable,” he noted.
The quandary of Aluminum City Terrace is in many ways that of the Bauhaus colliding with general taste and aspirations, which did not produce a trainwreck but did result in a fairly odd set of carriages. While it may be aesthetically preferable if vinyl was removed, its use in the first place was a durable low-cost replacement for a material that had decayed. Aluminum City Terrace was not built for residents with extra cash for material experiment or aesthetic caprices.
A stronger general awareness of the aims and interests of modern architecture would surely be a broader benefit and might well induce a greater interest in fidelity to the original design of Aluminum City Terrace. But it’s doubtful it would encourage residents to prefer sun slats that leak over their terrace to a roof that does not—and it’s not clear that Breuer or Gropius would insist otherwise were they still around.
Aluminum City Terrace is a relic of a mostly defunct era of co-operative housing whose abidingly low costs might prove an inspiration to housing reformers today. It’s also an example of modern design that has managed to remain highly popular generations after its inception. One can hope that someday a unit or row might be restored to an appearance resembling its original. But until then, an important role of the Bauhaus aims is still being fulfilled. Said Damiani, “Part of the mission of modern architecture of the era was to better the lives of people, and it did that and it still does that.”