Catherine Bauer Wurster: Hero of American Affordable Housing

Catherine Krouse Bauer was born on May 11, 1905, in Elizabeth, New Jersey to Alberta and Jacob Bauer. Catherine enjoyed an early life alongside her creative and driven family. Her father, New Jersey’s Chief Highway Engineer, was an early proponent of superhighways while her brother, Jacob Louis Bauer Jr. would also grow up to become an engineer. Her younger sister, Elizabeth Bauer Mock, would go on to serve as curator and Director of the Department of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

Bauer completed her secondary education at the Vail-Deane School in Elizabeth before embarking on her undergraduate studies at Vassar College. She spent one year as an architecture student at Cornell University before transferring back to Vassar College and receiving her degree in 1926.

After graduation, Catherine Bauer spent a year in Paris, France where she met and befriended numerous notable artists and creative thinkers such as Surrealists Fernand Léger and Man Ray, as well as publisher Sylvia Beach. Studying the contemporary European landscape of architecture, housing policy, and city planning, she became very interested in the work of Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier. In 1928 she published an article in The New York Times Magazine about his worker’s apartments in suburban Paris, entitled ‘Machine- Age Mansions for Ultra-Moderns’. In the article she asks her readers:

“‘What do we expect of a house?’ Is it a machine for living in or is it a badge of social distinction, the proof of our taste in historic styles, or the one accomplished poem of our lives?”

During her time in Europe Bauer observed the economic inequalities that would ignite her desire to provide quality affordable housing to the American people and she returned to the United States with fresh focus in 1927. Upon her return she moved to New York City’s Greenwich Village, working for several publishers and rubbing elbows with influential architectural and urban thinkers. Having previously admired the work of Lewis Mumford, the architecture critic of The New Yorker, they became fast friends in the late years of the 1920s. Inspired by her opinions on housing Mumford brought Bauer to his informal urban housing group, the Regional Planning Association of America, where her interest blossomed into action. 

Introduced to the major post-World War I architects of Europe such as Ernst May, Walter Gropius, and André Lurçat; she explored the concept that good social housing could provide social good for its residents. Alongside the unfolding of the Great Depression, she became an outspoken and influential leader in the fight for affordable housing, widely recognized as one of the lead ‘housers’ — what advocates of the movement were commonly referred to. 

In 1934 she was appointed Executive Director of the New Labor Housing Conference by the American Federation of Labor and published her oft-cited book Modern Housing. Analyzing the social, political, and economic factors of housing policy while introducing America to the European housing innovations she observed in her travels, her publication convincingly campaigned for government-subsidized housing in the United States. Capturing the attention of New Deal politicians, the arguments she set forth for affordable housing in Modern Housing captivated a wide audience of change-makers. 
Only two years later, in 1936, she received a coveted Guggenheim Fellowship to research Western European and Soviet housing, widening her scope and putting her at the forefront of her field. Due to her work on Modern Housing, and her demonstrated knowledge of comparative housing policy, Bauer was chosen to act as the primary author of the Housing Act of 1937 also known as the Wagner-Steagall Act, which revolutionized American housing by providing affordable, subsidized residences for low-income citizens for the very first time. Shortly after Bauer was chosen to become the first Director of Information and Research for the United States Housing Authority, a federal agency of the Department of the Interior that was borne out of the New Deal. In this role, she wielded immense influence as consultant and advisor to national, state, and local housing and urban planning agencies from the 1930-1960s. From the Federal Housing Administration to the Housing and Home Finance Agency; she influenced housing and urban planning strategies throughout the reign of three different United States presidents. 

From the 1940s until her untimely death in 1964, she lectured and led seminars at some of the top universities across the United States. She became Catherine Bauer Wurster in 1940, after marrying architect William Wurster, whom she had met when they were both students at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Despite the unfounded accusations of disloyalty that were directed at the couple during the Red Scare of the 1950s, she was able to flourish within the department of architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, where she was instrumental in the establishment of the UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design and the progressive architectural research group Telesis.

Though Bauer Wurster died tragically young, due to a fall while hiking, her legacy lives on in the extensive policy work put forth throughout her political advising career. Additionally, the UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design that she helped to establish in 1959 linked architecture, city and regional planning, and landscape architecture; the first of its kind that paved the way for innumerable other programs and pupils. Countless families still benefit from the affordable housing that she created in her lifetime, while Modern Housing and her prolific scholarship will inspire future social housing advocates for decades to come.  

To learn about more women in architecture and urbanism, check out Not Just Jane Jacobs.

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