WWII and the American Dream

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Donald Albrecht, ed. World War II and the American Dream: How Wartime Building Changed a Nation. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1995. Hardcover ISBN 0-262-01145-X, Paperback ISBN 0-262-51083-9.


World War II and the American Dream: How Wartime Building Changed a Nation was published as a companion to an exhibit that appeared at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. from November 1994 to December 1995. In the introduction to this collection of essays that covers the impact that World War II had on the built environment, Donald Albrecht highlights the fact that the federal government invested twenty-three billion dollars in defense-related construction and most of this occurred within a five year period. As such, the period represents a time of creativity and innovation as shortages of traditional materials created a need for acceptable substitutes.

The six essays cover community planning, the impact of modern architecture during this period, the use of modern materials, and public housing as well as building for war related industries. An underlying theme of the period was the belief that this period of accelerated growth and innovation would carry over into the post-war years. The 1939 World’s Fair theme was “Building the World of Tomorrow” and it had celebrated new materials such as nylon, plastic, and cellophane. Robert Friedel points out that the pre-war promise of the House of Tomorrow did not quite come true. These innovations appeared to be the first wave of an unending continuum of improvements and change. But in the first few decades after the war, the changes came much more slowly as the new materials cost more and the majority of people’s housing desires proved to be more traditional.

The two essays by Peter Reed and Friedel complement each other. Reed examines the influence of modern architects, many whom had emigrated from Europe before the onset of the war, and the materials they used when the war brought about shortages of many traditional materials. The rising demand for new construction and the scarcity of materials created opportunities for experimentation with many new and innovative materials. In May of 1942, order number M-126 stopped production of over 400 consumer products that used iron or steel. As a result, materials like plywood, which had formerly been disdained by architects and builders, were improved and used for molded furniture (building on knowledge from use as splints for wounded servicemen).

Greg Hise looks at how airplane manufacturing during the war influenced community planning for the housing projects that sprang up near new factories. He cites Lewis Mumford’s belief that houses needed to be designed as part of a community, a 1920s Progressive-era concept of neighborhood units. This idea began to be embraced throughout the New Deal and was taken up by the newly formed Federal Housing Authority (FHA). As planning for large scale housing around new war-related factories began, developers anticipated the need for worker housing. This had a great impact on the area around Los Angeles, notably Winchester. As Hise points out, “a full decade before Levittown, we find factory practices applied to the on-site production of housing (155).”

Joel Davidson examines the growth of the military-industrial complex. The increased need for airfields, munitions plants, and testing facilities changed the landscape dramatically. These new facilities had the largest impact on previously little used lands in the west. Some complexes were retained for similar use after the war while others were adapted to automobile plants and other factories. The war had not ended the demand for America’s continued military readiness. Consequently, continued production at these facilities helped to fuel post-war employment.

Finally, Michael Sorkin discusses the philosophy that grew out of wartime production, shaping American culture for decades. He argues that functionalism and perception of prosperity in post-war America caused war machines and symbols to become integrated into culture without awareness of wartime devastation, leaving Americans to remember the war "with a sense of exhilaration" (250).

Gwen White, Spring 2010

The authors successfully connect the wartime building boom to existing New Deal programs. According to Margaret Crawford, New Dealers involved in planning saw war housing as an opportunity to create a sense of community from disparate groups. The FHA played a part in community planning by applying a standards template to the layout of individual homes and subdivisions as well as providing mortgage insurance incentives. Within the boundaries set by the thesis for the exhibit, the author’s convincingly present their evidence that wartime building brought lasting change to the built environment of America. What is missing is some discussion is how these structures fared in the years after the war when the jobs that they were built to support disappeared.

Underlying the themes in this volume is Lewis Mumford’s view that urban planning should provide a symbiotic relationship between people and the place they lived. These views are exemplified in Mumford’s commentary for the 1939 film, The City, based on the development of the planned community of Greenbelt, Maryland. The scale of construction that went on during the war was short lived but it left a legacy of suburbanization. Just how successful that suburbanization was – or was not - is a story left untold by this book.

Spencer Roberts, Spring 2014

As the companion text for a museum exhibit, Donald Albrecht’s edited volume of essays follows closely a theme of wartime construction, innovation, architecture, housing, and legacy. The first two chapters by Peter S. Reed and Robert Friedel set the stage of wartime production, beginning with the transformation of federal investment from New Deal programs to defence contracts to wartime mobilization. Programs that stimulated construction, manufacturing, and associated housing built on New Deal policy to provide the Allies with war materials and later to build the American war machine. As a result of the combined effects of investment and shortages, innovation ruled development, leading to new construction techniques, building materials, and designs. Although many of the new styles and products promised to carry America into the modern age, post-war consumers were disappointed by the results and held firmly to traditional housing preferences.

Margaret Crawford builds on the narrative in the first two chapters by focusing on the houses and communities that grew up around military industrial factories. The fast paced development meant that many communities were poorly implemented and resulted in segregated sections of ramshackle houses in deplorable condition. Crawford’s strength is in the diversity of communities that she discusses, showing that there is no ruling narrative of wartime housing development. Each region was uniquely formed by the intersection of political, local, government, and business interests. Most notably, Henry Kaiser built a successful community called Vanport to house the workers for his shipyards in Oregon, which provided support for working mothers and community infrastructure, but was completely swept away in a flood.

The fourth and fifth chapters by Greg Hise and Joel Davidson focus on the changes wrought by military development in municipalities across the country, through both federal construction projects and municipal planning in support of military industrial complexes. Los Angeles created entire communities on its periphery to house the workers at aircraft plants, while universities and manufacturers used federal funds to build new facilities for research and production. In both chapters, the authors argue that the physical character of the U.S. was shaped by wartime production.

The volume ends with Michael Sorkin’s philosophical and biographical digression about the legacy of WWII in America. Though one can understand the editor’s desire for a reflective chapter that attempts to understand the psychic impact of the war on Americans, the chapter strays from the binding threads that run through the other chapters, opting instead for an analysis of culture and media. Sorkin’s argument may be convincing, but his rambling prose leaves readers flipping back to previous chapters.

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