Don’t let the black ‘stage set’ window shutters and aluminum siding fool you: Avion Village in Grand Prairie is one of the most important landmarks of modern architecture and planning in Texas. Built according to landscape principles developed by the Regional Planning Association of America (RPAA), Avion was designed by the architects Roscoe P. DeWitt, David Williams, and Richard Neutra in 1941. The Village, according to Kristin M. Szylvian in her new book, The Mutual Housing Experiment: New Deal Communities for the Urban Middle Class, was commissioned in response to a drastic need for housing accommodations in the Dallas Region as it geared up for World War II.
In 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt supported a congressional measure authorizing the War and Navy Departments to build housing for military personnel and civilian employees of defense contractors. An act was passed in Congress called the Lanham Act, which resulted in nearly one million units of housing being built between 1940 and 1945. The housing quality of these units, Szylvian claims, varied wildly and this is also true of their architecture and landscape plans. Williams, a native Texan, had already built Woodlake Village in Houston in 1933 for “100 impoverished Houston area families”; housing for poor oil field workers in North Texas; and a master plan for Dallas’ Greenway Parks. All of these projects influenced the plan and architecture for the later development of Avion.
Neutra, of course, had also developed urban housing ideas in his 1920s theoretical Rush City Reformed proposals, but at Avion, it is the Radburn-style neighborhood cul-de-sac and open public garden leading to community services that seems to have been the most influential scheme. Here the common gardens are called “finger parks,” but like the cul-de-sacs come directly from the RPAA plans developed early in the 20s. The housing units arrayed across the common garden landscape originally had open porches and local masonry that is thought to be the influence of Williams’ Texas roots, and then a hard-edge modernism of flat roofs and white walls that come from Neutra’s purer European traditions. In a 1988 Texas Architect Magazine article by Willis Winters on Avion, Neutra is quoted saying that it was developed so that “workers who are engaged in the most advanced branch of modern technological production should be housed in modern homes.” He also claimed the Grand Prairie community was intended to “create an expression of communal coherence and conscience of its citizenry.”
Neutra based Avion living units on a 4-by-12-foot grid built out with prefabricated flat-roof panels. This prefabrication was heralded as an innovation at the time. A public relations competition sponsored by the WPA in 1942 had two teams racing to build a model Avion home. The winning team completed the construction (in time for a Fuller Brush Salesman to appear at the door) in 57 minutes and 58 seconds. The stunt was reported in great detail in Life magazine.
The principal rooms in the Avion cottages all faced the common community garden (which today is partially defined by chain link fence), which was accessible by footpath. The kitchen bathroom was at the “back” or service core side of the houses, but, as at Radburn, the back became the front, since most people arrived home via automobile. In the original plan, residents walked to their homes through a small private garden to the large common garden and beyond to a community center, school, and shops. Planned tennis courts and a swimming pool were never built at Avion. Neutra staggered the views from the houses so they did not look into neighbor’s units. Continuous roof overhangs provided solar control. All of the homes had natural cross ventilation, large glass windows, porches, and beamed ceilings meant to keep residents cool in the summer heat. Even more innovative for social housing, the larger three bedroom units had sliding doors that could be pushed back to increase the size of the living room if a third bedroom was not needed.
Avion Villages’ 300 homes were erected in 100 days. Prefabricated wall and roof sections were carried to the site by rail car and assembled in three circus tents.
Today, Avion is a mutual-ownership co-op. According to Raymond Neutra—the Viennese architect’s son—there is still a waiting list to enter. The Federal Works Agency that was responsible for commissioning Avion argued that the housing built under the Lanham Act should be used to build “planned communities” that would serve as archetypes for the postwar period, not “future slums.” In an odd twist, the planning and architecture principles that were first tried out in projects like Avion have influenced projects both in Europe, where social housing is important, and in planned developments in the suburban middle-class America, where the community garden has been replaced by car parks and golf courses.