Aluminum City Terrace is government-sponsored, low-cost, multi-unit housing in a Modern idiom that is functional and dignified to this day, which may be why so few people know about it. Modern architecture is otherwise usually successful in expensive houses and institutions, or a failure in public housing.
As the work of architects Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer, this complex might otherwise rank with Richardson’s courthouse or Daniel Burnham’s Frick Building as notable works by nationally regarded architects. Gropius co-designed Germany’s legendary Bauhaus School and served as its Director before fleeing the Nazis. At Harvard, he influenced a generation of dispassionate architects, while designing works such as Harvard’s Graduate Center and New York’s Pan Am building.
Breuer, another Modernist icon, was his Gropius’s colleague at the Bauhaus and Harvard. Breuer was a livelier designer of houses and other building types, such as New York’s Whitney Museum. His tubular steel chair designs are still top sellers today.
But ALCOA’s home in New Kensington, contrastingly, is far enough outside of Pittsburgh to seem particularly remote, and the Aluminum City Terrace project is at the town’s suburban edge. It was no help that the factory for which it was planned actually moved before the project was done.
Regardless, 250 units of housing, with associated recreational and service functions, reached completed construction on a rapid schedule. The architects had 30 days to go from initial design to final documents.
Thirty-five different groupings of one and two story structures followed the contours of the region’s characteristically hilly terrain with a general south-facing orientation. With components of prefabricated wood and concrete-filled metal “lally” columns, the buildings have brick facades at the rear and cedar siding at the front, with open floor plans, horizontal windows, and louvered sunshades to suit the ardent modernist.
Indeed the architectural style was too modern for some neighbors, but the residents themselves, after making some modifications, were generally pleased. The converted the complex into a co-op in 1948, and it continues to operate. A new generation of mid-century Modern architecture and design enthusiasts can now visit and delight in a period building whose monthly costs are substantially less than the cost of a new Breuer chair.
By Charles Rosenblum, Ph. D.