In AN‘s last Southwest issue is a story by Editor-in-Chief William Menking, which is about a worker housing development built in the 1940s in Grand Prairie, Texas. Called Avion Village, it was part of a New Deal project to provide housing for military and civilian defense personnel during WWII. I won’t rehash the whole thing here. You should read the story. But a couple of aspects of it came as surprises to us editors. One was to learn that Richard Neutra was involved in the design of the project, along with Texas architects Roscoe P. DeWitt and David Williams. We were all familiar with Neutra’s George Kraigher House in Brownsville, which was restored last year by University of Texas at Brownsville, but had no idea that the Viennese architect had a hand in a progressive development in the state. The other is that Avion Village is still there, if in somewhat diminished condition, and is now owned and operated as a limited-equity cooperative.
Less surprising is that there aren’t more examples of this sort of housing development in the region. Once the top-down planning initiatives of the New Deal came to an end and the economic boom of the postwar years took over, suburban housing development in the region and in the U.S. as a whole took on a different cast, one fueled by a surging middle class (may it surge again!) and hungry developers bent on capitalizing on the market. Sometimes this resulted in modern designs and community spaces—California has many such examples—but more often than not, it meant retreading old styles from the Eastern Seaboard and Europe and maximizing private lot sizes to make the most of a sale. The idealistic communal garden space that was central to early suburb schemes like Radburn, New Jersey, was either parceled out and fenced off, or made into golf courses.
Which isn’t to say that progressive housing development is dead in the Southwest. It just comes from local sources rather than federal agencies, like faith-based charities and other not-for-profit organizations. Also in this issue is a story about AIA Austin’s Tiny Victories competition. Put together in collaboration with homeless care charity Mobile Loaves & Fishes, the competition selected four winning designs (from 55 entries) of small shelters for the homeless, 60-to-70 of which will be built at the Community First! Villages site in East Austin. The designs are modest but dignified. They sit lightly on the land and will be made available at a price that is affordable.
Of course, other than the fact that these two projects were intended for low-income or working-class people, there isn’t much that connects them. Neutra, European modernist that he was, designed the housing at Avion Village in a modern vein because he found this appropriate for workers who were building modern machines for the war effort. The Tiny Victories winners are decidedly more laid-back and eclectic, deeply involved in the local vernacular (lots of corrugated metal siding), not conceived as a grand scheme but as come-as-you-are individuals—in short, very Austin. Both, however, show us that architecture is about more than style, that it reveals much about the people who make it: the aspirations of the society and how it attempts to live up to its best intentions. So in these two projects we can see the fruits of the technocratic rationalism that propelled the nation through the mid-20th century and the grassroots organizing that in our own era defines the prime alternative to capital-driven development.