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How Did A Prefabricated Steel Building Change Architecture?

Practicality is at the core of why businesses opt for prefabricated steel buildings. They take a fraction of the time of a traditional building, have all of the space and features a company could require and reduce the downtime that could have considerable consequences.

However, that does not mean that the choice between practicality and aesthetics is binary; there are many supposedly temporary steel structures that become so identifiable with a company and a brand that they become permanent.

One temporary steel building in particular managed to shape the world’s skylines for decades, although its own fate was far more complex.

Aluminaire House

Built in just ten days from borrowed materials in April 1931, Aluminaire House immediately grasped the architectural world’s attention and took some attention away from even the newly constructed Empire State Building.

Part of the reason for that was that it was the very first all-metal building constructed in the United States, and whilst kit-build construction was hardly out of the ordinary in the country, typically it would primarily involve timber rather than metal.

Another part was that it was a small but impactful example of the future of architecture. Its designers were Albert Frey and A. Lawrence Kocher, a design partnership that whilst short lived would be a critical part in the evolution of what would become known as the International Style.

The development of the International Style coincided with the evolution of major industries and the interconnection of engineering and art that had started with forward-thinking designers such as Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus School.

It immediately grabbed public attention, particularly given that it was intended to be a potential design for the home of the future; it was a work of art that could easily be mass-produced for a very low cost using components that anyone could get at a DIY store.

Aluminaire would become a notable part of the 1932 book The International Style by Philip Johnson and Henry Hitchcock, named after a Museum of Modern Art show where the Aluminaire House was once again showcased.

It would serve as such a direct inspiration for architect Wallace K Harrison’s later work (which included contributions to the United Nations Secretariat Building) that he would buy the building soon after its early exhibitions for $1000 (around £20,000 adjusted for inflation).

He would take it down and move it to his estate in Long Island, New York, where it played many roles in his home, from a weekend getaway house to a place for guests to stay.

It would remain there until 1981, when Mr Harrison passed away and the International Style had dominated landscapes and remained a discussion point for designers for decades.

Once the estate found a new owner, Aluminaire House was poised for demolition and fell into disrepair, only restored later thanks to a concerted effort by the New York Institute of Technology to preserve it.

It is perhaps one of the only historic landmarks to ever be designed to be disassembled and rebuilt. It would move from Long Island to Queens and then finally to Palm Springs, California, where it would be a major part of the Palm Springs Art Museum.

For decades, skyscrapers would try to emulate a prefabricated building, and entire architectural movements would respond to that trend, all started by a single steel building built in less than a fortnight.


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