In 1930 the Allied Arts and Industries and the Architectural League of New York exhibition turned to architect and managing editor of the Architectural Record A. Lawrence Kocher to present an idea for the biannual buildings display. Kocher had just started working around the same time with a young architect, Swiss Albert Frey, recently arrived in the United States, after ten months spent worked with Le Corbusier in Paris.
The two came up with a prefab futuristic model house, inspired by Le Corbusier's principles, but also by mass production materials, with just that visionary touch that somebody like Buckminster Fuller may have had.
Among the main materials employed to make it there were aluminum (used for the columns, girders, beams and exterior panels; the frame was also bolted together with aluminum bolts) and steel and the building was therefore dubbed Aluminaire, a reference to the core material behind the house and to the fact that the structure was luminous.
The boxy three-story structure, assembled in ten days in the Grand Central Palace, was one of the main attractions of the event: it was visited by over 100,000 people, all of them fascinated by the possibility of glimpsing what their lifestyle may have been in the house of the future.
The Aluminaire was also part of the 1932 event "Modern Architecture; an international exhibition" organised by Henry Russel Hitchcock and Philip Johnson at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).
Bought by architect Wallace K. Harrison, the house was disassembled and reassembled on his property in Huntington, Long Island, and, since 1987, The Aluminaire has been through several vicissitudes: it was saved from demolition and it is currently into storage in a container in Palm Springs (it should be rebuilt in an area of the new downtown city park designed by Rios Clementi Hale Studios, estimated to open in 2020).
This fascinating construction is one of the protagonists of Jake Gorst's documentary "Frey: Part 1 - The Architectural Envoy", on today at the Architecture & Design Film Festival (ADFF) currently on at the historic Los Angeles Theatre Center (514 S. Spring Street; you can check out the full programme for the festival here). The documentary focuses on Frey, the architect who came to represent the international style of European modernism in the USA.
Born in Zurich in 1903, Albert Frey studied architecture at the Institute of Technology in Winterthur, Switzerland, where he focused on the more traditional and technical aspects of buildings and constructions.
Between 1924 and 1928 he worked on architectural projects in Belgium, becoming acquainted with the modernism movement in Brussels, before moving to Paris where he worked for ten months at Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret's studio (with colleagues Josep Lluís Sert, Kunio Maekawa and Charlotte Perriand).
During this period of time Frey collaborated with the studio on key plans, such as the Villa Savoye project, and, in 1930, he moved to the States. Despite times were hard as New York was going through the Great Depression, Frey managed to work for different architects, starting with Lawrence Kocher. Their first project together, The Aluminaire House, revolved around Le Corbusier's five principles (pilotis or supports, roof garden, free plan, free facade and long horizontal sliding windows), reinvented and adapted with American mass produced materials.
It was followed by another ambitious small project, the Canvas Weekend House. Approached by the Cotton Textile Institute to design a house made out of cotton, Frey and Kocher came up with a structure that looked metallic from the outside, but it was actually wrapped up in cotton and it was used like a weekend house in the woods by Kocher (it survived a big 1938 storm, but it was eventually torn down by developers in the '50s).
In 1932 Frey travelled through the States, discovering America and taking photographs of utilitarian buildings, gas stations, shopping centres and high tension wires, looking for the heart and soul of modern America.
Frey had a dichotomic approach: he was attracted by technology and new materials, but he was also fascinated by nature and indigenous architectures and the juxtaposition between crowded cities and empty deserts.
In 1939, Frey moved to Palm Springs to work on a house for Kocher's brother, Dr. J. J. Kocher. He fell in love with the desert and with the possibility of shaping a brand new city in California.
He began working with another architect with whom he shared an affinity for modernism, John Porter Clark, but briefly went back to New York to work on the Museum of Modern Art, invited by Philip Goodwin and Edward Durrel Stone (Frey had worked on the drawings and technical aspects of Le Corbusier's Centrosoyuz Administration Building in Moscow and MoMa was built around the same principles). After his work in New York, he went back to Palm Springs where he developed some of his most iconic buildings.
The documentary explains through interviews (with architecture critic Paul Goldberger and historians Joe Rosa, Michael Schwarting, Frances Campani, Alan Hess and Sidney Williams) and archival images why Frey is a significant force in the story of modernism in the United States prior to World War II.
The film also highlights the differences between Frey and other architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright: the former had a vision for the new world and responded with his experiments to new needs, locations and climates; the latter was instead more interested in creating new buildings that could adapt to the old world.
Frey's fans will have to wait for Part II (set to be released next year) to discover more about Frey's "desert modernism", embodied by the architectures he created in Palm Springs, such as the City Hall, the Raymond Loewy, the Tramway Valley Station and Gas Station and his homes - Frey 1 and Frey 2.
The documentary confirms that there is a renewed interest in Frey's designs: an exhibition that closed in January at the Palm Springs Art Museum juxtaposed indeed Albert Frey and Lina Bo Bardi, two different architects reunited by their passion for designing iconic modernist architectures that sparked a dialogue with the natural landscapes surrounding them.
Image credits for this post
1. The Aluminaire House, Courtesy of Design Onscreen
2. Albert Frey, Jean Farrar Collection
3. Model of Canvas House with Car, Jean Farrar Collection
4. CGI Model of Canvas House, Courtesy of Design Onscreen
5. Kocher-Samson Building, Jean Farrar Collection
6. Tramway Gas Station, Courtesy of Design Onscreen
7. View of Palm Springs from Frey II, Courtesy of Design Onscreen