The Monuments Men

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Albert Carl Koch, Jr. ( 1912-1998 )

Known as “the Grandfather of Prefab,” architect Carl Koch revolutionized twentieth-century housing. Born Albert Carl Koch, Jr. in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on May 11, 1912, he studied architecture at Harvard University under Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus School. Koch crafted his own aesthetic from a variety of international influences, including a year in Sweden working in the office of Scandinavian architect Sven Markelius. A lifelong champion of affordable housing, Koch was one of the earliest proponents of adaptable living spaces. In the early 1940s he became Senior Housing Research Technician for the National Housing Agency. One of his designs, Fort Drive Gardens, featured apartment buildings with movable outer and inner walls to accommodate various floor plans and functions. He also designed Snake Hill (1941), an inexpensive yet high quality residential community in Belmont, Massachusetts.

During World War II, Koch served in the U.S. Navy. In early 1944 he was recommended for a position with the MFAA by John A. Gilmore, then Assistant Secretary-Treasurer of the Roberts Commission. The following April, Koch was one of six Monuments Men recruited for transfer from the U.S. Navy to the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Section of the Allied Military Government in the European Theater of Operations. He arrived in Germany shortly after fellow USNR Monuments Men Lt. Cdr. Thomas C. Howe, Jr., Lt. Craig H. Smyth, and Lt. Charles P. Parkhurst. The Foundation is very interested in learning more about Koch’s activities with the MFAA. If you have any information, please contact abottinelli@monumentsmenfoundation.org.

Koch returned to the United States in 1946 reinvigorated with new ideas for cost-effective housing plans. In postwar America, the expanding population combined with innovations in machinery and technology, encouraged new ideas for mass production. Koch targeted the changing needs of these new families by designing affordable, easy to assemble, prefabricated homes which could adapt and grow with their occupants. One of his earliest designs was Acorn House (1948), a system of room units centered on a central core. Innovative and unusual, the structures employed skin-like panels made of paper and plastic glued to a strong sheathing material. Although the first Acorn House was photographed for Life magazine, the program was quashed by local building codes and skeptical politicians. In the late 1940s, Koch was hired by the Lustron Corporation, an established manufacturer of complete building kits using enameled steel panels. Koch made a study of Lustron’s materials and plans, improving their overall process and creating new floor plans. Sadly, his designs were once again never realized owing to the company’s dissolution in 1950.

In 1953 Koch invented the Techbuilt System, a triumphant synthesis of years of experimentation. Unlike his earlier attempts, Techbuilt homes were wildly successful. Suburban customers admired the homes’ expansive interiors and peaked roofs, a Scandinavian influence left over from Koch’s work in Sweden. Every aspect of the designs was scrutinized to minimize materials, assembly time, labor, and cost. By 1963, over 3,000 packages in varying sizes and floor plans had been shipped to locations throughout the United States. Techbuilt received recognition from the American Institute of Architects as the “Best Development House” and voted “People’s Choice” by The New York Times. Koch later co-authored At Home With Tomorrow (1958), an outline of his journey of innovation with prefabrication. Following his success with Techbuilt, Koch expanded the idea to include Techcrete, a modular system of pre-stressed concrete components.

Koch’s architectural firm, Carl Koch and Associates, thrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts from 1939 to 1978. He also taught architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for twenty years from 1946 to 1966. His creations can be viewed across the United States, including the master plans for five U.S. Air Force bases, housing developments for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, a downtown renewal plan for Louisville, Kentucky, The Cambridge School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Elmwood Park in Detroit, and Lewis Wharf in Boston.

In addition to his success as an architect, Koch was an avid yachtsman. For two months each year, he took his family on sailing trips in Europe and the Mediterranean. He was a member of the Ocean Cruising Club, the Cruising Club of America, and the Royal Ocean Racing Club. His many accolades include the 1949 Honor Award and the 1969 Industrial Arts Medal from the American Institute of Architects, the 1953 Gold Medal of The Architectural League of New York, the 1956 Award of Merit from the American Library Association, and the 1977 Quarter Century Citation of the Builders Research Advisory Board.

Carl Koch died in Cambridge, Massachusetts on July 3, 1998. A few years before his death, the Boston Society of Architects presented the 1995 Award of Honor to Koch who, in their eyes, was “an innovator in an innovative field” who “transformed the profession and the building industry.”