Prefabrication Technology and American Architecture during the Second World War: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and the John B. Pierce Foundation
This paper concentrates on the early yet critical development of the quintessential firm in post-war American architecture, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), in particular the firm’s activities from 1939 to 1946. Established in 1936 in Chicago by Louis Skidmore and Nathaniel A. Owings, SOM grew from a small firm to a large-scale corporate firm through its wartime projects. Dealing with the early history of SOM, the paper attempts to analyze the firm’s expansion and success. Central to these was SOM’s work with the John B. Pierce Foundation on the advancement and realization of a prefabricated house, which was followed by the construction of thousands of houses, and the firm’s government commission to design and construct housing for those working on the Manhattan Project. First collaborating with the Pierce Foundation on a small experimental house in New Jersey, SOM went to on to explore large-scale, highly rationalized construction in two major commissions. At Middle River, Maryland (1941-42), SOM built 600 houses based on the experimental house. The housing project gave the firm the opportunity to test and apply their investigations into the use of space in the domestic environment and into rationalizing the prefabrication process. At Oak Ridge, Tennessee (1943-46), built as a part of the Manhattan Project, SOM initially designed and supervised the construction of thousands of houses based on five types, and later expanded its boundaries to include diverse buildings such as a church, schools, hospitals and shopping malls. Its mastery of advanced technology in prefabrication and experience of numerous building types enabled the firm to provide fast-track economical construction, and to efficiently manage its labor force. Based on the primary textual and visual materials of SOM, the Pierce Foundation and the Manhattan Engineers District, this paper discusses how the corporate firm could rise in the middle of the Second World War.
Keywords: Prefabrication, Building Technology, The Second World War, Housing Research
Hyun Tae Jung
Assistant Professor in Architecture, College of Architecture, University of Nebraska-Lincoln