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Konrad Wachsmann: the greatest architect of the twentieth century

Thirty years ago the architectural historian Peter Blake wrote that it was as impossible to imagine modern architecture without prefabrication as to imagine Christianity without the Cross. Now, in the last days of 1999 with the book still open to nominations for the architect of the century, it is worth remembering his words. For most of the last 99 years Blake was right: the dream of buildings coming off a production line was always the Shangri-La of the Modernist movement; the ultimate goal of every progressive architect from Sant 'Elia to Cartwright Pickard.

The most dedicated believer in this dream, and the man who thought most deeply about the needs and benefits of an industrialised architecture, was Konrad Wachsmann. His is a name seldom heard in architectural circles these days although he died less than 20 years ago. Wachsmann was a pioneer theorist, practitioner and teacher of industrialised building all his professional life and must surely be a contender for the title of architect of the twentieth century.

Born in 1901 in what was later to become East Germany and is now Poland, Wachsmann first gained attention by designing a house for Albert Einstein on the outskirts of Berlin. Like Mies van der Rohe and Richard Neutra, he had become an architect under the old German system of trade apprenticeships, training as a joiner and carpenter before studying in Dresden under Heinrich Tessenow, as did Albert Speer. Later he became chief architect to the largest manufacturer of timber buildings in Europe, where his interest in panel and connector systems was first kindled. After working in Italy and France he contrived to escape to the United States in 1941, just before war broke out between Germany and America. There his real claim to fame was his role in the massive development of prefabrication that accompanied World War II and the years of reconstruction that followed.

Wachsmann's wartime years were dominated by his partnership with Walter Gropius in the development of the Packaged House System and the formation of the General Panel Corporation. By 1945 General Panel had become the NASA of the prefabricated housing industry in America. Wachsmann himself took out nearly 100 patents for jointing and panel systems and was also responsible for the design of enormous space-frame hangars for the United States Air Force.

After 1950 Wachsmann left the prefabrication industry and became professor of advanced building research at the Illinois Institute of Technology, demonstrating - a generation before computer analysis - the economic and performance potential of panel and space-frame systems using standardised multifunctional connections. In his seminal 1961 book The Turning Point of Building: Structure and Design, he illustrated a single repetitive- element structural system capable of supporting a five-storey building as well as a 200m space-frame roof built using one standardised type of connector. He also published designs for a complete production plant with a high-frequency press capable of stamping out enough aluminium components for 500 houses a year.

Although some Wachsmann space-frame structures were built in the 1960s - perhaps the best-known survivor being the terminal building at Baltimore- Washington International airport - the architect aimed his most advanced studies squarely at the future. He was convinced that, in time, all building types were destined to converge. Architecture would then become a process of multiplying cells and elements in obedience to the laws of industrialisation. 'The boundaries between product, building element and structure will vanish,' he predicted, 'and buildings will be recognised as parts of a greater whole that is continuously shaping the landscape of civilization.'

Wachsmann died, as did so many uprooted European thinkers of his generation, in California, an ornament to the serendipity of the American university system.

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