About Carl Koch
There is an understandable reluctance on the part of everyman to
build his counsel of nuts, bolts, and chromium. The industrial
revolution will help us realize our dreams if we can handle it, but we
haven’t handled it too well so far. Although it is pathetic to think
we can escape the pressure of competitive business, the battle of
home-office transportation, and a compulsion to drive ourselves too
far, too fast, too much, by escaping into fantasy in the shape of an
eighteenth-century farmhouse, it is understandable that we try.
In our general progression of skills, building somehow lags far behind. Not 50 years behind, perhaps — but not much less, at that. It goes still by hammer and handsaw — agonizingly slow, inefficient, and more wasteful of money and people than we can any longer afford. The greatest irony of all is that it is so set about by habit, prejudice, false enthusiasm, and obsolete local constrictions that in a land of free enterprise the look of our urban landscapes is as comfortless, imitative, and repetitive, often, as any dictator could wish.
— Carl Koch, preface to At Home With Tomorrow, 1958
Carl Koch came to the region when he attended Harvard School of Design during “the confusing period between Beaux-Arts Eclectic and all-out Modern.” It was a period (circa 1937) that overlapped with Gropius’ time at the school, but for the most part, it seems Koch regarded his “contemporaries” the school as “leaderless or rudderless.” More significant in the development of his own professional philosophy and style was a six-month tenure he spent in Sweden with Sven Markelius (1940-41), “which left him with an enduring admiration for the Scandinavian approach to life, democracy, and architecture.” One can easily observe the themes of what is typically regarded as the Scandinavian aesthetic — simple, clean, and functional design.
The eight-house neighborhood of Snake Hill, it seems, was an experiment in creating inexpensive housing for his own family. It is set on a winding road high on a hillside off Route 60 in Belmont.
In 1947, Koch designed the Acorn House (later merged with Deck House). His aim was to create well-designed and stylish housing for a good value (i.e., inexpensively) for the middle classes by producing a modular construction system manufactured in a factory-controlled environment, which could be transported to a building site and assembled in a few days. However, the Acorn House was met with “resistance from local governments” and building code problems—more on Acorn history by Lloyd Alter here.
(By the way, since Mr Alter’s piece on the demise of Acorn/Deck/Empyrean (sourced from the Boston Globe article linked at bottom), new life has been given to the first two brands, with a resuscitated Deck/Acorn.)
Far more successful were the Techbuilt houses, which, while progressive architecturally, were more in line with prevailing trends and tastes. According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, over 3000 of these houses were built, utilizing six different models. At least three were built in New Canaan, Ct., that other hotbed of Northeastern modernism, but it seems as though Lexington and Concord have the highest concentration and the highest amount of Techbuilt homes still preserved today. The company was even based in town for a period.
From the Lexington Historic Survey about Lexington’s Middle Ridge/Turning Mill neighborhood:
Middle Ridge was originally conceived and designed in 1955 by architect Carl Koch as a neighborhood of “Techbuilt” homes. After receiving his architectural training at Harvard under Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius, Koch taught architecture at MIT and created the first planned community of modern houses in the region at Snake Hill Road in Belmont in 1941. Prior to building in Lexington, he also designed and constructed Conantum, Concord’s first residential housing development (1951), and Kendal Common in Weston (1950). First introduced in 1953, the Techbuilt house was a low-cost, semi-factory-built modern-style house that used modular construction.
Koch on TV
Courtesy of Scott Hedges, this is the second airing of the Ford Foundation’s TV Radio Workshop show on the “Excursion” and “Omnibus” programs. Hosted by Alistair Cooke and narrated by Burgess Meredith shows the construction of a Techbuilt House and its design inspiration in the office of Carl Koch. The show catapulted TechBuilt into the public consciousness and was produced by Andy Lewis, who lived in Conantum and later wrote “A Home with Tomorrow”.
Here is a link to an oral history of the Conantum neighborhood. And here is our tour of that neighborhood.
And here are all tags in posts mentioning Koch.