Lawrence Kocher, Renaissance Man
A longtime editor of RECORD, who was also an architect and teacher, embraced both the past and the future during the development of modernism in America.
You might think it strange that the author of a 12-part series, “Early Architecture of Pennsylvania,” in Architectural Record (1920 and 1921) would be the co-architect of the avant-garde Aluminaire House a decade later. Yet A. Lawrence Kocher, who joined RECORD’s staff in 1927, designed the prefab aluminum-paneled structure, with the Swiss émigré Albert Frey, for an exhibition in New York organized by the Architectural League and the Allied Arts and Industries Association.
Only 1,100 square feet (plus a terrace and garage), the three-story residence demonstrated the possibilities of advanced technology with its luminous metal skin and a light steel-framed structure raised above the ground on slender piloti. The two architects assembled the full-size prototype inside Grand Central Palace (since demolished), next to Grand Central Terminal, where it attracted 100,000 visitors during the one week it was on display in 1931. While Philip Johnson, then a 25-year-old curator and writer, excoriated most of the League/Allied Arts show for being too establishment, he and architectural historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock included photographs of the Aluminaire House in their landmark Modern Architecture: an International Exhibition at the fledgling Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 1932. It was too cool to ignore.
Kocher started out primarily as a teacher and writer. Born in 1885 in San Jose, California, he got a B.A. in history from Stanford University (1909), then studied architecture at the Beaux Arts– oriented M.I.T. (1910–12), before going to Penn State to teach architectural history and be awarded an M.A. After Kocher was made head of its new department of architecture in 1922, he stayed until 1926, with a brief stop at the University of Virginia. By 1927, he had joined RECORD as associate editor, before becoming its managing editor a year later.
Before Kocher arrived at RECORD, he had written two articles on the American country house (November 1925, page 337; November 1926, page 385), examining the work of Mott Schmidt, Delano & Aldrich, and Wilson Eyre & McIlvaine, among others, and arguing that an American style was developing from imaginatively reinterpreted aspects of English Cotswold and Tudor, Spanish mission, and New England saltbox—you name it.
Clearly, those architects were not influenced by Le Corbusier. (The only Corbusier that RECORD featured before the late 1920s was actually named J.W.C. Corbusier, an architect of Gothic-style churches in Ohio.) But Kocher’s partner-to-be, Albert Frey, did work for Le Corbusier in Paris before coming to New York in 1930, where he joined Howe & Lescaze. Then he teamed up with Kocher, who still had his day job at RECORD—so Frey would sketch, and the two meet at night for crits. Philip Johnson later commented that Frey was the designer and Kocher the front man.
Kocher didn’t discover modernism upon meeting Frey. He had already begun pushing RECORD to explore the plans, materials, and methods of modernism in its pages, and he had a practice with Gerhard Ziegler designing this new architecture. The two came up with the unbuilt Sunlight Towers in New York (RECORD, March 1929, page 307), marked by strong horizontal bands of glass. Their better-known design was the poured-in-place concrete, open-plan house for mystery writer Rex Stout, finished in 1930, near Stamford, Connecticut (RECORD, April 1933, page 288, and July 1933, page 45).
While Kocher’s more famous venture with Frey, the Aluminaire House, appeared in a number of publications, it did not make it into RECORD. Instead the magazine featured prototypes for low-cost farmhouses and a realized weekend house in Northport, New York, featuring the innovative use of cotton on the exterior. In addition, the two architects cowrote many textbook-type articles on planning and practice for the magazine.
The association between Kocher and Frey did not last. After designing a commercial building for Kocher’s brother, Dr. J.J. Kocher, in Palm Springs (1934), Frey decided to move to that desert outpost, where he put his sole imprimatur on a number of modernist buildings. Meanwhile, in 1938, Kocher left RECORD.
Kocher continued to practice architecture, experimenting with new materials and techniques such as his plywood pavilion executed for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. In 1940, he took a job as architecture professor at the ultraexperimental school of the arts, Black Mountain College in Lake Eden, North Carolina. As early as 1934, Kocher had promoted the idea of having Gropius come to the U.S. to teach. Gropius had landed at Harvard in 1937, and Kocher advised Black Mountain to hire him and Breuer to design its new campus.
When they turned out to be too expensive, Kocher began designing facilities and had faculty and students help with construction. The largest of their efforts, the Studies Building, a 200-foot-long wood-framed structure sheathed in cement asbestos board, is still used today by a summer camp for boys on the site.
Once that project was completed in 1943, the architect turned back to history: he took the post of Architectural Recorder for Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, where he also helped in the reconstruction of the famous village and cowrote two books on the town and on Virginia. (In addition, Kocher acted as the supervisory architect for the restoration of Washington Irving’s house in Tarrytown, New York.)
The trajectory of Kocher’s career had come full circle: he had started as a historian and traditionalist, turned to modernism as an architect and editor, and then returned to history and traditionalism. He seemed to have a “both/and” inclusiveness about his architectural leanings, long before Robert Venturi coined the phrase in Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966). Had Kocher lived longer (he died in 1969), he no doubt would have tried to restore and preserve modernism’s early works, including, above all, the Aluminaire House, which today is still waiting for a home (see below).
The fate of the innovative modernist prefab project, admired for its gleaming aluminum panels, has been precarious since it was first assembled in 1931—and is yet undecided. But it still exists, even if it’s packed up in a trailer on Long Island. Its existence has had its ups and downs. While Kocher and Frey had designed it to be mass-produced, with a price tag of $3,200, it was not distributed. In 1931, Wallace Harrison, then working with a team designing Rockefeller Center, bought the Aluminaire House for $1,000 and moved it to his Long Island estate.
Although he intended it to be a weekend place, Harrison ultimately turned it into a guest house. But it aged badly over the years. In 1986, a new owner of the Harrison compound wanted to demolish the structure. The New York Institute of Technology, guided by architect and professor Michael Schwarting, was able to save and relocate it—to its satellite Central Islip campus. When the school gave up that locale, the house was subjected to vandalism, so it was taken down. Schwarting, who has organized the Aluminaire Foundation, is searching for a home. A proposal to re-erect it in Sunnyside Gardens, Queens, didn’t fly, but the current hope is that it will land in Palm Springs, California.