6.5 Residential Speculation. Architectural experiments and real estate in the formation of postwar American suburbs – Daniel Díez Martínez

Residential Speculation. Architectural experiments and real estate in the formation of postwar American suburbs

Daniel Díez Martínez1 

1 Profesor, Escuela Técnica Superior de Arquitectura, Universidad Politécnica de Madrid (ETSAM-UPM), Madrid, España. danieldiezmartinez@gmail.com


Housing is at the crossroads between architectural and real estate speculation. However, such an encounter is not always virtuous. By analyzing the housing production in the United States during the postwar period, this article shows how the power of real estate developers, and their strong lobbying within state agencies, ended up strangling architectural speculation.

Keywords: speculation; critique; design; essay; competition

The end of the Second World War marked the beginning of a development frenzy that would forever change the landscape of the United States. The need to relocate more than ten million veterans,10 the postwar ‘baby boom,’11 and the pressing need for housing that the country dragged since the Great Depression12 created a scenario that experts forecasted as “the greatest home building and buying activity on record in America” (Davis, 1944:33). In fact, between 1940 and 1950, a total of 8.7 million new houses were built in the United States. Housing construction grew 23.6 % in these ten years, although in specific areas such as California, the figure climbed to 57.2 % (Hine, 1989:176). The country had left behind economic difficulties and new possibilities opened up for the middle class. Thus, while in 1940 only 43.6 % of the Us population owned the house they lived in, a decade later, in 1950, the rate of proprietors had increased by 11.4 points and amounted to 55 %. During the following decade, in 1960, it would reach 61.9 % (U.S. Census Bureau, 2011).

This frantic rate of housing construction was accompanied by a model of urban development that offered a center devoted to financial and commercial activities, connected through a network of highways to a periphery of spacious, low density residential areas, thus combining the functional zoning principles of modern European urbanism reflected in the Charter of Athens with the American ideals of individualism in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City. The suburban single-family house for a couple with one or two children13 became the national standard and was held as “the spatial representation of American hopes for the good life” (Hayden, 2002:55). The domestic sphere ceased to be a trivial question and was transformed into a laboratory for architectural experimentation that allowed architects and designers to venture into the formal and tangible expression of the post-war ‘American Dream’ myth.

The following article explores the tension derived from the coexistence of initiatives with clear experimental features – such as the project for building houses in MoMA’s sculpture garden New York or the Case Study House program promoted by Arts & Architecture magazine – with the business activity of large real estate developers, who were in the end the actual people in charge of building the new neighborhoods of postwar American suburbs. Thus, this text intends to demonstrate the understanding that existed between theoretical approaches and business practice, especially so in the construction techniques and serial manufacturing deployed in the building of these developments. Moreover, the article also explores the imbalance of forces between both worlds, which resulted in these settlements becoming the maximum expression of the greed of builders and house sellers, instead of entities representative of their dwellers needs or an actual reflection exercise on behalf of architects of the time.


imageSource: Photographic Archive, Exhibition Albums, 151.7. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York. IN151.7. © The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Figure 1 Installation process of Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion Deployment Unit (DDU) in the garden of MoMA New York, October 1941. 


Reconversion experiments: towards a new industrial prefabricated domesticity

The war greatly altered the image that Americans had of large corporations in the country. Its role in the manufacture of weapons had been key for the Allies victory,14 which led to a collective spirit of unconditional support to private enterprises. Likewise, postwar design culture incorporated a blind faith in American industry and its mechanization processes, so that everything related to technical and technological issues acquired an unprecedented relevance.


imageSource: Ezra Stoller, 1949. The Museum of Modern Art Exhibition Records, 405.3. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York. IN405.12, IN447.5. © The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

built for the exhibition The House in the Museum Garden (MoMA, New York, 1949); 2B) Gregory Ain, House built for the exhibition Exhibition House (MoMA, New York, 1950). 


The real estate fever unleashed after the war placed the domestic space at the center of a new technological, economic, and cultural revolution, so, the architectural thought of the time defended the thesis that the housing market had to absorb all of this new technological capital. By 1945, serial production applied to housing, assembly lines and new prefabrication systems were consolidated. New materials emerged while existing ones were improved; ideas such as programmed obsolescence were indoctrinated, whereas air conditioning, aluminum carpentry, double layer glass, fluorescent light tubes, steel profiles, plywood, or plastic materials immediately became the main characters in postwar domestic architecture. Architecture and the industry were finally progressing next to each other, which led to the emergence of convincing arguments in favor of a truly mechanized Modern Movement.

Sponsored by the Army, architecture magazines, cultural institutions, or business associations, the forties featured a proliferation of essays with a clear experimental vocation and theoretical tone, although with their roots embedded in the country’s reality and technical possibilities available at the moment. The MoMA New York bet heavily on this type of initiatives during the 1940s, launching an exhibition agenda focused on the interweaving of industrial design, architecture and war,15 complemented with the building of prototypes in its sculpture garden. In October 1941, Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion Deployment Unit (DDU) became the first full-scale structure built in MoMA’s garden. After the war, two more would follow, designed by Marcel Breuer (The House in the Museum Garden, 1949) and Gregory Ain (Exhibition House, 1950). On the other side of the country, in California, Arts & Architecture magazine launched competitions such as Design for Postwar Living (April 1943) or the legendary Case Study House (January 1945), which stimulated the cooperation between architects and construction products manufacturers, in a joint research venture that shared he idea of a military-industrial reconversion applied to architecture (Entenza, 1945:39).

For a country dealing with a gigantic demand for housing, reaching an efficient method for mass production that reduced both budgets and execution times became an obsession resulting in countless experimental projects that explored the possibilities of standardized solutions and typified designs. Thus, the Eames bragged that the steel profiles frame in their dwelling, the Case Study House 8, had been assembled by five men in only sixteen hours (Eames, 1950:94), a record that would soon defeat Raphael Soriano with his prototype for the construction company Eichler Homes: “three workmen needed only two and a half hours to erect the modular framework and roof decking on the 5-room, 2-bath Eichler home,” stated an advertisement for the United States Steel company published in Arts & Architecture magazine on December 1955. On the other hand, Walter Gropius and Konrad Wachsmann patented The Packaged House, a housing project entirely prefabricated according to a strictly modulated but flexible system, based on the repetition of standardized components of easy assembly and transportable in packages (A&A, 1947). Architects ran all kinds of projects that filled the pages of architecture magazines and patent offices to fuel the debate on the middle-class house of “194x”, as Architectural Forum called the initial post-war period. However, the experience that was yet to come posed a quite different scenario from the one designed on their drawing boards.


imageSource: «House in industry. A system for the manufacture of industrialized building elements by Konrad Wachsmann and Walter Gropius» (Arts & Architecture, Nov. 1947).

Figure 3 Walter Gropius & Konrad Wachsman, The Packaged House. 


Companies take command: housing for all and the configuration of a new suburban landscape

Implementation of mass-production processes was undoubtedly a determining growth factor for housing construction and sale rates during postwar years. Communities such as those developed by the Levitt & Sons company, known as Levittown, refined a constructive method that provided really low prices and execution times. In 1950 Time magazine devoted a cover to its president, William Levitt, who was treated like a true national hero for having dared “to be the most potent single modernizing influence in a largely antiquated industry” (Time, 1950: 68). The magazine analyzed the construction of the Levittown at Long Island, New York:

On 1,200 flat acres of potato farmland near Hicksville, Long Island, an army of trucks sped over new-laid roads. Every 100 feet, the trucks stopped and dumped identical bundles of lumber, pipes, bricks, shingles and copper tubing-all as neatly packaged as loaves from a bakery. Near the bundles, giant machines with an endless chain of buckets ate into the earth, taking just 13 minutes to dig a narrow, four-foot trench around a 25-by-32 ft. rectangle. Then came more trucks, loaded with cement, and laid a four-inch foundation for a house in the rectangle. After the machines came the men. On nearby slabs already dry, they worked in crews of two and three, laying bricks, raising studs, nailing lath, painting, sheathing, shingling. Each crew did its special job, then hurried on to the next site. Under the skilled combination of men and machines, new houses rose faster than Jack ever built them; a new one was finished every 15 minutes (…). Levittown is known largely for one reason: it epitomizes the revolution which has brought mass production to the housing industry. Its creator, Long Island’s Levitt & Sons, Inc., has become the biggest builder of houses in the U.s (Time, 1950:68-75).


imageSource: Tony Linck. The LIFE Picture Collection/ Getty Images.

Figure 4 Workers posing next to materials and furniture necessary for the construction of a house in New York’s Levittown, June 1948 


As a result of the low cost manufacturing of these houses combined with mortgage subsidies and tax deductions for the new dwellers promoted by the government, buying a two-bedroom house in Levittown was much cheaper than renting an apartment in New York. Thus, many Americans did not hesitate: the day the homes of the New York Levittown went on sale, eleven million dollars in absolutely identical two-bedroom houses were sold (Hayden, 2002:23).


imageSource: Meyer Leibowitz. The New York Times.

Figura 6 Aerial view of New York’s Levittown in 1957. 


Levitt was not the only one who applied prefabrication techniques in the construction of large-scale residential neighborhoods. In Southern California, the extraordinary postwar demographic growth – encouraged by the 850,000 veterans who moved to the Golden State in response to housing promises made by the state and local governments (Starr, 2002:193-194) – offered a true architectural urgency scenario. Los Angeles County population was 2,785,643 people in 1940. In 1950, once the war ended and after the period of greatest growth immediately after, the population had increased by 49 % and reached 4,151.687 people The nearly 50 % growth rate remained stable for a decade, and in 1960 population had reached 6,038,771 people (Time, Census Bureau, 2018). In only twenty years Los Angeles inhabitants had multiplied by three, a growth driven by initiatives such as the Kaiser Community Homes,16 which at its peak in 1947 built twenty houses a day (Cuff, 2000:257), or cases like Lakewood, that turned from a small town in Los Angeles County in 1950 to a city of over 70,000 inhabitants in less than three years – an urban operation that earned it the name of ‘instant city.’ But Lakewood was not the only one. That pattern was accurately repeated following avaricious real estate operations that in record time prompted a constellation of satellite cities orbiting Los Angeles, in a seemingly unstoppable process that enriched a few, while “altering forever the map of the Southern California” (Dear, Schockman and Hise, 1996:99).

Architecture without architects and urban planning without urbanists


imageSource: Dick Whittington Studios. The Huntington Library

Figure 7 Kaiser Community Homes in Los Angeles, assembly line, c. 1946. 



imageSource: Los Angeles Times

Figure 8 Newly built neighborhood by the Kaiser Community Homes in North Hollywood, 1948. 



imageSource: William A. Garnett, 1950. © Estate of William A. Garnett

Figure 9 Building process of a residential development in Lakewood, California. 


It is fair to acknowledge that operations by Levitt, Kaiser, or Lakewood managed to answer the huge demand for homes that existed in the United States in an unprecedented democratization of housing. However, its quality was arguable. All the talent and research eagerness in these developments focused on issues related to construction efficiency or speed, while only rarely in exploring solutions that offered unconventional spatial and formal resources. The search for greater pragmatism banished the figure of the architect to the point that the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) drafted a regulation for the design of its homes according to which any builder who opted for a sophisticated architecture that did not conform to its rigid design standards would be penalized with a reduction of mortgage values in homes for sale (Wright, 1981:251).

Of course, there were exceptions and not all housing developers were the same. In California there were cases like Joseph Eichler, who between 1949 and 1966 hired renowned modern architects like Raphael Soriano or Archibald Quincy Jones to build over 11,000 homes, most of them located in the San Francisco Bay area (Adamson, Arbunich and Braun, 2002:22), or that of Robert and George Alexander, whose field of action was Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley, where between 1955 and 1965 they built a total of 2,200 Alexander Homes for the middle class (Niemann, 2006:177). “Develop a relationship with a builder, do good work, and you won’t need to go ringing doorbells to get new clients” (Newman, 2009) said William Krisel, the main architect behind the Alexanders developments. However, this type of actions constituted a drop in an ocean of architectural mediocrity.


imageSource: Jim Heimann

Figure 10 Lakewood: The Future City as New as Tomorrow, 1950. Advertisement 


Critical voices raised in the sixties, such as that of David Travers, Arts & Architecture director between 1962 and 1967, who in 1966 felt sorry that “the house has been abandoned to commerce at a time when suburban land surrounding major cities from Los Angeles to Philadelphia is being covered with tract developments like oozing Camembert” (Travers, 1966:9). Travers justified the situation with fundamentally economic reasons: individual and customized houses were much more expensive than houses built by large real estate developers, whose processes for the repetition and mass production of houses greatly reduced construction costs and, therefore, sale prices. In his opinion, the situation was worrisome:

Only three percent of the new homes that are currently built are architect designed (…). Moreover, the usual large developer lacks faith in the architect’s ability to design a saleable product. At a recent depressing seminar, three of Southern California’s most successful developers said emphatically that architects were too far removed from the marketplace. “Floor plan, o.K., but stay away from elevations and specifications. We know what will sell.” (Travers, 1966:9).


imageSource: Ernie Braun. AIA San Mateo

Figure 11 Housing prototype LJ-124. Fairhaven, Eichler Homes (Orange, California, 1961- 1962). Architects: A. Quincy Jones & Frederick E. Emmons. 



imageSource: Julius Shulman. Julius Shulman Photography Archive. Research Library at the Getty Research Institute. © J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10)

Figure 12 Urbanization Smoke Tree Valley Estate, Alexander Homes (Palm Springs, California, 1957). Architect:William Krisel. 


On the urban scale, the scene was equally devastating. North American cities kept growing, yet the plans that regulated the form of postwar residential fabric were timid, if not nonexistent.17 Thus, urban development was left at the mercy of real estate operations that promoted improvised and convulsive growth, spurred by a period of prosperity and protected by a speculative economy supported by the aid that state agencies in charge of housing regulation provided to the country’s largest developers. Private developers received state funding to buy farmland in remote locations away from consolidated metropolitan areas, where hopefully no urban plan existed, and could thus “raise houses instead of potatoes” (Hayden, 2002:61). The construction of roads would connect these new residential neighborhoods with the areas of economic activity in the cities, and although the government’s official position was that this suburbanization process had positive effects on society, the truth is that the adoption of such model also answered to a direct request from the largest car manufacturers (Conn, 2014:175). Corporations such as Ford or General Motors had made great efforts in the production of weapons during the war, which allowed them to establish as a powerful lobby in the post-war economic scenario. The ideal of suburban life and the daily use of cars guaranteed the growth of their interests.18

In the second half of the 1960s, critics began to raise their voices against the decentralized and sectorized city that prevailed in the United States, arguing that the economic costs, energy consumption, environmental impact, and social imbalances derived from this model could no longer be ignored. The architect and ecologist James Marston Fitch lamented that cars were dissolving the cities’ urban fabric to the point that American society was “persistently unable to see the difference between the street and the road” (Fitch, 1961:17). His words were especially harsh against the great metropolis of Los Angeles, where in 1961 two thirds of the urban surface was occupied by roads, highways, and parking, which shaped – in his view – a “frightening spectacle” (Fitch, 1961:28). This model of urban development ignored aspects of the city that were acquiring major relevance in those years, especially in postmodern proposals to recover the meaning of cities and the architecture defended by architects such as Robert Venturi or Aldo Rossi, on either side of the Atlantic. The cities’ urban center, dense and complex, was for Fitch the point of greatest concentration of human creativity throughout history. However, the growth patterns adopted endangered the existence of these centers and, therefore, also the cultural development of civilization itself: “the creativity of the urban center will no more survive subdivision and dispersion across the countryside than would the human brain survive a similar distribution across the nervous system” (Fitch, 1961:17) .


imageSource: Robert Spence (Spence Air Photos). Getty Research Institute, Aerial Photographs of Los Angeles (2011.R.12). UCLA Department of Geography, Benjamin and Gladys Thomas Air Photo Archive, The Spence Collection.

Figure 13 Aerial view of Los Angeles center in the mid-fifties, with the four level intersection of the Pasadena and Hollywood highways (built in 1949) 



Although the suburban house has been installed in the collective imagination as ‘the American Dream house,’ it would be more precise to associate it with the consummation of the desires and aspirations of the houses’ manufacturers and sellers, rather than to those of their dwellers and buyers, or those of the architects back then. The destiny of domestic postwar architecture was conditioned by the enormous demand for housing accumulated over the decades. Therefore, it did not have much to do with a revolution in the way of conceiving the house as with a change of a business paradigm that transformed the way of managing its construction and sale: the multitude of small contractors and local retail building companies prior to the war was reorganized into a small number of gigantic real estate developers that operated on a national scale implementing an iron grip on a solidly articulated construction industry. Therefore, it were these companies, with the approval of the state agencies, were the ones that took control of the course of postwar American cities.

The limited disposition of real estate entrepreneurs to take risks led them to bet on traditional homes, far from any attempt of architectural experimentation. In 1956 Levitt & Sons commissioned a housing prototype for its next Levittown in Willingboro, New Jersey, to Richard Neutra, who during the war had gained an experience in the design of low-cost prefabricated workers housing for the Los Angeles military industry. Levitt ended up dismissing Neutra’s proposal, as he considered that its markedly modern appearance would throw back potential buyers – not so much for a taste issue, as for the simple fact that the FHA could refuse to grant his coveted tax aid for purchasing a house that moved away from the conservative design criteria they had set (Longstreth, 2010:171-172).


imageSource: Richard and Dion Neutra Papers. Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

Figure 14 Richard Neutra, Levittown, Willingboro, Nueva Jersey, 1956. Sketches for housing prototype. 


Such a conservative climate inhibited any possibility of experimentation. As regards the MoMA experience, we know now that the first attempt to build a prototype in the museum garden – a Usonian House, as part of the Frank Lloyd Wright exhibition, American Architect exhibition program, opened in November 1940 – was aborted by John D. Rockefeller, who had imposed certain restrictions on what could or could not be done on the plot he had donated to the museum, located in front of his own house (Fullaondo, 2010:61). Later on, Ain and Breuer’s houses would be built, which although turned out to be brilliant examples of avant-garde residential architecture, did not pay any attention to criteria based on the economy of means or serial production. The prevailing pragmatism relegated them to the category of useless and capricious projects, and the program of housing construction in the museum was canceled.

Even experiments such as the Case Study House program, which had been planned from the beginning as a collaborative exercise between the architects’ research capacity and construction products manufacturers, was harmed by such an approach. The program’s implementation depended entirely on private investment, so that none of those houses could be executed if they did not have the financial support of manufacturers. Materials, therefore, ended up playing a role related to the financing of housing construction and advertising that guaranteed Arts & Architecture’s viability rather than to actual experimentation. In fact, some manufacturers decided to become clients and commissioned their own homes to the program, such as Bethlehem Steel or the furniture distributor Frank Bros. The Case Study 28, the last one built within the program, is a clear example of the extent to which the balance of forces was decompensated and the experiment perverted. Its sponsors, a real estate developer of luxury homes (Janss Corporation) and a bricks and ceramic manufacturer (Pacific Clay Products), took control of the entire process and distorted the very essence of the program with a gigantic and luxurious housing completely lined with brick, a system alien to the program’s material identity. The houses were no longer a celebration of constructive experimentation or the way of inhabiting California, but a sign of the power of the American company.


imageSource: The Philadelphia Inquirer, July 20, 1958, 32

Figure 15 Advertising by Levitt and Sons promoting the New Jersey Levittown, showing the conventional housing model that the developer chose to build. 



imageSource: Arts & Architecture (October 1962)

Figure 16 Bethlehem Steel advertising with the design it sponsored for the Case Study House program: Case Study House 26 (San Rafael, California, 1962- 1963) by Beverley “David” Thorne 



imageSource: Julius Shulman. Julius Shulman Photography Archive. Research Library at the Getty Research Institute. © J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10)

Figure 17 Conrad Buff III & Donald Hensman. Case Study House 28 (Thousand Oaks, California, 1965-1966). 


The business anxiety of the great real estate companies and constructors buried the reflection and experimentation exercises of the ‘little’ architect, who could not find his place in the business gear that was defining the American suburb: (real estate) speculation had strangled (architectural) speculation.



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Daniel Díez Martínez Architect, Universidad Politécnica de Madrid, 2010. Doctor in Architecture, Universidad Politécnica de Madrid, 2016. Awarded the Extraordinary Doctorate Prize by the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid for his thesis “Ads & Arts & Architecture. Advertising in Arts & Architecture magazine in the construction of Southern California architectures image”. Professor at the Department of Architectural Composition of the School of Architecture of the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid (ETSAM-UPM), at the Design Center of the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid (CSDMM-UPM) and at the School of Architecture of the Universidad Europea de Valencia (UEV). Fellow at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles. Regular editor at The New York Times Style Magazine.

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