Architect as Developer: Designers, FHA, and Postwar US Apartments
Hunter College, New York, NY, USA
Much has been made since the 1990s of design-build: architect as contractor. This paper considers a slightly different blurring of professional boundaries: architect as developer. Architects operating as developers, while never prohibited by ethnical considerations, has long been frowned upon. Meanwhile, development-oriented agencies like FHA were shaped in explicit opposition to the architectural sensibilities of reformers like Catherine Bauer and Clarence Stein. The mid-century built environment, however, reveals a more ambiguous relationship, especially in housing—and, in particular, multifamily housing. We have long known, for example, that Levitt & Sons' houses were designed by son Alfred. But after two Levittowns, Alfred went on his own: designing and developing Levitt House, a complex of modernistic high-rises with extensive community facilities. Levitt was not alone.
New links between architecture and FHA’s multifamily housing program in the 1930s have recently been unearthed. This relationship continued after WWII. Through the 1960s, fact, FHA encouraged architects to develop—at least in the field of multifamily. By lowering financial barriers to entry, anyone who understood how to navigate FHA could develop apartment complexes. With ready access to professional networks and trade papers like Architectural Record and House & Home, which publicized policy changes, architects were well positioned to take on this challenge.
In addition to Levitt, this paper explores the development work of three other architects between the late 1940s and mid-1960s: Erwin Gerber, a prolific designer and developer of garden-apartment complexes in suburban New York; Ross Cortese, who originated the Leisure World retirement cities in California; and Brown & Guenther, socially progressive architects who developed dozens of affordable high-rises in New York City. Unlike typical postwar production architects who worked at the service of mainstream developers, these designers took an active role in shaping—and re-shaping—the look and feel of mass-built postwar housing.