USA Patent Application,
November 21, 1935;
USA Patent granted, January 4, 1938.
Alden Dow’s exploration of block construction began after he graduated from the Columbia School of Architecture in 1931 and his eight-month apprenticeship at Taliesin in 1933. Inspired by nature’s patterns, he wanted a workable block with bold
geometric shapes. Alden Dow, along with one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s former and finest draftsman, Robert Goodall, created a rhomboid block with a square face in 16 different sizes. One horizontal course has blocks angled to the right and the following course of blocks angles to the left producing structural integrity by its overlapping seams. This became known as Alden B. Dow’s Unit Block building system.
Alden Dow utilized this Unit Block system in many of his early designs including his own home and studio. In addition to structural support of exterior walls, the versatility of the blocks extended to interior spaces as well – table bases, level changes, division of spaces, columns – to create artistic, visual interest. He even positioned the Unit Blocks like stepping stones across the pond, farther and farther apart as they escape from the disciplined grid of the building.
In addition to their unique shape and structural integrity, the other identifying characteristic of the Unit Blocks was that they were made of the cinder that he saw piling up outside The Dow Chemical Company furnaces. His father, Herbert Dow, had utilized this same cinder to construct “clinker” bridges in their family gardens. Alden liked the idea of utilizing these resources that most people viewed as waste materials. Today, he would be thought of as an early recycler!
Alden Dow would eventually design and build a total of 13 Unit Block structures including the 1937 Grand Prix Award winning John Whitman residence (1935), before moving onto different materials.