Mayer, Albert

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Albert Mayer (1897-1981), an architect and city planner, co-founded the New York City firm of Mayer and Whittlesey (later Mayer, Whittlesey and Glass) in 1935. Mayer attended Columbia University, but graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a degree in civil engineering in 1919. After spending several years as an engineer, he switched to architecture when he became more interested in the social aspects of design. An advocate of large-scale planned housing projects, he believed that cities should not grow naturally. Mayer was involved in the planning and development of several new cities in the U.S. and abroad. He served as a visiting professor of urban development at Columbia from 1967-1971, and was active in the field as a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers and as a Director of the National Housing Conference as well as the Regional Plan Association of New York. Mayer's contributions to the field were recognized professionally; he was a fellow of the American Institute of Architects and won the Medal of Honor from the New York Chapter, earned the Certificate of Merit of the Municipal Art Society of New York, and the Honor Award from the American Society of Landscape Architects.

From the guide to the Albert Mayer papers, 1926-1980 (bulk 1945-1974), (University of Wyoming. American Heritage Center.)

Albert Mayer (1897- ) was an American architect, city planner and engineer. He was appointed planning advisor to the government of Uttar Pradesh, India, in 1947 to study rural development in the region.

From the guide to the Albert Mayer papers, 1946-1955, (The New York Public Library. Manuscripts and Archives Division.)


Albert Mayer (b. 1897) began his career as a civil engineer in New York City upon completion of an engineering degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1919. His early engineering work on commercial and apartment buildings fostered an interest in architectural design and layout which later led Mayer to become a registered architect. In the early 1930's Mayer became closely associated with several eminent architects and planners who brought to their profession a keen sense of the social inadequacies of modern housing (Fredrick Ackerman, Catherine Bauer, Robert Kohn, Lewis Mumford, Clarence Stein, Henry Wright, and Others). Together they saw the need for more creative planning--planning oriented not just to physical design of buildings, but to creation of environments conducive to community life. In 1933 this group of planners joined forces with Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal to draft a new federal housing policy. These recommendations, which contained the early outlines of "limited-dividend" housing and large scale public housing policy, led to the creation of the U.S. Housing Authority in 1937

From the era of the New Deal up to World War II, Mayer was active in many areas of planning and architecture. He devoted a considerable proportion of his time to several government agencies who consulted him on questions of public housing and urban renewal. With Lewis Mumford and Henry Wright he founded the Housing Study Guild. This organization, which lasted about five years supported by public funds, was devoted to developing personnel with the range of special expertise required for the nascent limited dividend and public housing programs. Among its other undertakings the Guild did a detailed comparative study of costs and other characteristics of buildings of different heights, from two to twelve stories. Mayer was also involved in such large scale housing studies as that of Queensbridge (New York City) in 1934. A year later he and Julian Whittlesey founded the New York architectural firm of Mayer and Whittlesey (later Mayer, Whittlesey and Glass). Throughout this period Mayer also continued his private architectural practice, designing country homes, and large scale urban apartments and community complexes.

World War II took Mayer (as an Army engineer) first around the U.S., then to North Africa and India. While in Bengal building airfields for operations in the China-Burma-India Theater, Mayer became interested in Indian life and culture. His experience as an activist in innovative governmental policy in the United States and his concern for the improvement of living conditions in Indian villages led Mayer to propose a program for model villages to the incoming Congress Party government of Jawaharlal Nehru. This proposal, in modified form, resulted in Mayer's intensive involvement in Indian village planning and development for more than a decade beginning in 1946 Other Indian projects in which Mayer was involved were of a more strictly architectural and planning nature--master plans for Cawnpore (now Kanpur), Bombay, Delhi, Chandigarh, a master plan and building designs for the Allahabad Agricultural Institute, and several building and landscape designs for the Standard Vacuum Oil Company in Bombay

During the period in which Mayer was active in India (1945-60), he also was involved in numerous, large scale urban renewal and master plan projects, as well as housing projects outside of India. He served as design consultant for the new seaport of Ashdod, Israel, and as architect for the new town of Kitimat, British Columbia. In New York City, Mayer was planner and architect for numerous large buildings, ranging from expensive Park Avenue apartments to environmentally planned public housing communities. Mayer's award winning designs for the East Harlem Plaza in New York are but one example of the quality of his work of which Arnold Whittick has written:

His contribution to planning has combined design and execution of specific undertakings of innovative technical and social grasp, and pioneering introduction (1946) of new dimensions in the form of involvement and self-development of the people, later called "community development." (Encyclopedia of Urban Planning, Arnold Whittick, ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974), s.v. "Mayer, Albert," p. 670)

In 1961, at age 64, Mayer retired from Mayer, Whittlesey and Glass to concentrate on serving as consultant to urban renewal and housing projects. Areas in which he worked during this period include New York, Brookline, Miami, Cleveland, San Antonio, Sacramento, and Puerto Rico. He also planned the new city of Maumelle, Arkansas, and led a nation-wide series of seminars on design for the Public Housing Administration, the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials, and the American Institute of Architects. Mayer's book, The Urgent Future: People, Housing, City, Region, summarizes his views of the need for creative planning (New York: McGraw Hill, 1967).

Albert Mayer is the author of several books and numerous articles on town planning, urban renewal, and community development. (Mayer's own bibliography of his published works is in Box 35; Folder 1). He was the recipient of a number of awards and citations for his architectural, urban, and landscape designs, and is a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects. The Society for Applied Anthropology recognized his pioneering application of social research to planning and development by making him an honorary fellow. Mayer has lectured before academic and professional groups throughout the world, and was visiting professor of urban planning at Columbia University from 1967 to 1971.


In India, Mayer worked on two very different types of projects--rural development in the United Provinces (later Uttar Pradesh), and planning and architecture for several Indian cities and colleges. Mayer's involvement in Indian rural development resulted from two chance events, his presence in India at the end of World War II as an Army Engineer, and his introduction in 1945 to Jawaharlal Nehru, then recently released from British political imprisonment. His architectural and planning work for Indian cities was a natural extension of his work in the United States. The opportunity to work on such projects in India, however, came as a result of his repeated visits to India for the Etawah Project

The Uttar Pradesh Pilot Development Project

At his first meeting with Nehru, who was then planning for the Congress Party's assumption of leadership of the Indian government, Mayer outlined his thoughts for improving living conditions in Indian villages. They focused on stimulating economic and social progress by the creation of "model" villages. Mayer's sympathetic approach to Indian life appealed to Nehru who wanted the Indian National Congress to begin development projects in the states which they controlled (such as his native Uttar Pradesh) even before the transfer of power was completed.

Writing on behalf of G.B. Pant, a member of the Congress Party and Premier of Uttar Pradesh, Nehru invited Mayer to return to India to advise the U.P. government on "various matters relating to planning, village reconstruction and the ordered development of community life more especially in our rural areas." (Nehru to Mayer, May 1, 1946; Box 8; Folder 1) Mayer accepted, and in the fall of 1946 took an exploratory trip through the U.P. countryside. This experience convinced Mayer that the social and economic base for self-sustaining development did not yet exist. Mayer had seen that the earlier developmental efforts of the government, missionaries, and Gandhian "constructive workers" had failed when outside supports were removed. He therefore dropped his initial suggestion of a program to build model villages, proposing instead to organize an integrated rural development program. Mayer saw the benefits of increased agricultural production not as ends in themselves, but as means of raising the level of village expectation and stimulating a self-sustaining participation in local development.

Several months before the creation of the independent Dominion of India on August 15, 1947, Mayer was appointed Planning Advisor to the Government of Uttar Pradesh. He immediately started to organize the pilot development project which soon became famous as the Etawah Project, named for the district where it began. Mayer personally selected the key American and Indian staff, with them set program priorities, and picked the group of villages where the project was to start. Once the project became operational, Mayer's role became one of overall guidance. Each year he spent several months in the villages talking to farmers, reviewing progress, and suggesting improvements.

The organization of the Etawah Project was based on the principle of what Mayer called "inner democratization." Mayer consciously tried to change the hierarchical structure of government and of village life. To encourage both local involvement and governmental sensitivity to local needs, officers of the Etawah Project were encouraged to make over-night visits to villages. Lower level staff were urged to speak out at project meetings, which were often held outdoors to enable villagers to listen and participate in the discussions.

Mayer's innovative approach led the Etawah Project to develop many new methods and techniques. The most famous and widely copied was the concept of the Village Level Worker. The idea for the Village Level Worker (or "VLW" as he was usually called) came from Mayer's observation of the effectiveness of medical corpsmen in the U.S. Army. The VLW functioned as a link between the government and the villagers. After a short training period the VLW, often a villager himself, was responsible for the promotion of development programs in a territory consisting of four villages. Like the medical corpsman, the VLW was not supposed to be an expert; for advice he was to rely on specialists at a central office. His success depended on his ability to interest villagers in new techniques. Because of his continuing proximity to a village, a good VLW could gain the confidence of villagers to a degree that had been impossible for the earlier departmentalized government field officers who had been responsible for hundreds of villages which they could rarely visit. The low cost of running a program whose success depended on a corps of dedicated non-specialists, rather than field officers in a top heavy bureaucracy, gave economic justification to the Project

Other innovations of the Etawah Project included a rural newspaper to inform farmers of modern agricultural practices and to promote literacy; a program of small scale industries such as cooperative brick making and leather tanning; and the appointment of an anthropologist (the "Rural Life Analyst") to communicate to the staff the otherwise unarticulated needs of the villagers. The Rural Life Analyst was a detached social technical observer capable of quickly anticipating and communicating village reactions in order to facilitate the early correction of misjudgements. Another innovation was the creation of the Planning Research and Action Institute in Lucknow to experiment with new practices and to make ongoing evaluations of the Project's success. (The Etawah Project is described in Pilot Project, India: The Story of Rural Development at Etawah, Uttar Pradesh by Albert Mayer and Associates, McKim Marriott and Richard L. Park (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1959; reprint edition Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1973; Hindi translation Bharat Ki Agragami Vikas Yojana, Lucknow: British Book Depot, 1960), and by Baij Nath Singh, one of the Project's first Deputy Development Officers, in "The Etawah Pilot Project," in History of Rural Development in Modern India, vol. one, (New Delhi: Impex India, 1967) Taya Zinkin presents a more "popular" account in her chapter "Community Projects," in India Changes! (New York: Oxford, 1958) Gerald Sussman, in his thesis "The Road From Etawah: Integrated Rural Development in India" (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Michigan, 1975), analyzes the Etawah Project as a model for the Indian government's Community Development Programme)

The Etawah Pilot Development Project was one of the models available to the Government of India when it decided in the First Five Year Plan to emphasize rural development programs. These had been successful in augmenting agricultural production, in raising levels of education, in transforming conservative governmental bureaucracy and village organizational structures, and in stimulating an increased alertness to potential for social and economic development. (D. P. Singh, "The Pilot Development Project, Etawah," in Evolution of Community Development Programme in India (New Delhi: Ministry of Community Development, Panchayati Raj & Cooperation), 1962, p. 71). These results had been achieved, moreover, within the limitations of a state budget before the era of massive American assistance.

The Indian Government's first nation-wide attempt at rural or community development programs began with Ford Foundation assistance in 1951. This program consisted of fifteen pilot projects of 300 villages each, one in each of the major states. Beginning in 1952, partly because of the availability of American assistance through the Joint Indo-American Technical Cooperation Agreement, the Government decided to devote a substantially increased proportion of its resources to a proliferation of community development projects throughout India. The first step was the creation of the Community Projects Administration. Later the national program was divided into two levels, administered respectively by the Community Development Programme, and the National Extension Service. Although political exigencies imposed a degree of urgency on the implementation of the Government's program, Mayer continued to argue that to develop the human resources and community support for such a large scale expansion of projects would require years. He himself was never satisfied with the manner in which the Government so precipitately expanded the number of community development projects. This rapid expansion exceeded the rate at which he felt adequate and dedicated personnel could be assembled, and new values and relationships developed and sustained.

Urban Planning and Architectural Projects

The second major realm of Mayer's work in India was urban planning and architecture. The immediate post-World War II years saw a vastly increased town planning activity in India. This renewed emphasis was partly in compensation for the lack of planning during the war, and partly in response to the rapid growth of major urban centers stimulated by wartime industrialization. A further impetus for planning came from the need to resettle refugees displaced by the partition of British India. Mayer became involved in several of the post-war town planning projects even while working on rural development in Uttar Pradesh. Mayer's first urban planning contract in India began in 1947 with his appointment as consultant to Greater Bombay Together with N. V. Modak, the municipal engineer of Bombay, Mayer was the author of two preliminary studies for the Master Plan for Greater Bombay He also advised planners in the city of Cawnpore.

A planning project quite different in nature with which Mayer was deeply involved from 1950 to 1957 was the expansion of the Allahabad Agricultural Institute. The Institute, which had been founded in 1910 by a young American missionary, was the first agricultural college in India to use the American style of agricultural extension service. In 1950 the Institute received large grants from the Ford Foundation and the Harvard-Yenching Trustees to expand both the campus and the number of extension projects. Mayer, who had frequently consulted the Institute's staff concerning the Etawah Project, was chosen to write the master plan for the Institute's growth. Later he designed the Institute's new buildings. The Mayer Papers reflect the close attention he gave to meeting the needs of the faculty, and to turning to advantage the extremes of wind, rain and heat characteristic of the north Indian climate.

After the war, the government of what was then East Punjab State in India undertook planning for a new state capital to replace Lahore, the former capital, which had gone to Pakistan in the partition. The immediate need was for a city which would give the Indian Punjab a political center, while providing housing for refugees from West Pakistan. At that time, the intention to plan an entirely new city was heralded as an "architect's dream." Mayer produced a master plan for the new capital during the years 1947-51 Ultimately a team of architects headed by Le Corbusier of France was retained by the East Punjab government to execute the plan for Chandigarh. Le Corbusier affected major changes in the master plan for the capital, which eventually became famous for his modern architecture. Many fundamental elements in the final execution, however, were carried over from Mayer's original plan. [Mayer's part in the planning of Chandigarh is described in Norma Evenson, Chandigarh (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966)]. In the mid-1950's, the rapid and haphazard growth of Delhi and the entire national capital region reached a climax. This situation, which had begun with wartime growth and had been exacerbated by the massive influx of refugees in 1947, demanded immediate attention. Mayer, who recognized the urgent need for comprehensive planning, was selected by the Ford Foundation and the Government of India to head a team of American experts to assist in the government's planning effort. He selected the members of the team and, throughout the project, gave it his characteristic community orientation. Many of the Ford team's recommendations were incorporated in the official master plan published in 1961. [Master Plan for Delhi (New Delhi: Delhi Development Authority, 1961)].The Mayer Papers document this team's imaginative approach to common urban problems in Delhi.

For a period of a few weeks in 1952, Mayer was a regional planning consultant to the Damodar Valley River Development Project in eastern India. Although his official involvement was slight, Mayer's continuing interest in this attempt to apply the principles of the Tennessee Valley Authority to India is reflected in his large file on the Project.

From the guide to the Mayer, Albert A. Papers, 1934-1975, (Special Collections Research Center University of Chicago Library 1100 East 57th Street Chicago, Illinois 60637 U.S.A.)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
referencedIn The Hadassah Medical Organization Papers in the Hadassah Archives, 1918-2009 Hadassah the Women's Zionist Organization of America, Inc.
referencedIn Clarence Stein papers, 1905-1983. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.
creatorOf Albert Mayer papers, 1926-1980 (bulk 1945-1974) Univerisity of Wyoming. American Heritage Center.
referencedIn Charles Abrams papers, 1923-1970. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.
creatorOf Mayer, Albert A. Papers, 1934-1975 Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library,
referencedIn Henry Wright papers, 1907-1960, 1907-1938 Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.
referencedIn Warren Jay Vinton papers, 1932-1969 Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.
referencedIn Scott Millross Buchanan papers, 1911-1972. Houghton Library
referencedIn The Hadassah Medical Organization Papers in the Hadassah Archives, 1918 - 2009 Hadassah
referencedIn Lyonel Feininger papers, 1883-1960. Houghton Library
referencedIn Housing Study Guild Records, 1929-1957, 1929-1941 Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.
creatorOf Albert Mayer papers, 1946-1955 New York Public Library. Manuscripts and Archives Division
referencedIn The Nation, records, 1879-1974 (inclusive), 1920-1955 (bulk). Houghton Library
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith Buchanan, Scott Millross, 1895-1968 person
associatedWith Charles Abrams 1902-1970. person
correspondedWith Feininger, Lyonel, 1871-1956 person
associatedWith Housing Study Guild. corporateBody
associatedWith Mayer and Whittlesey corporateBody
associatedWith Mayer, Whittlesey and Glass. corporateBody
correspondedWith Nation (New York, N.Y. : 1865). corporateBody
associatedWith Nehru, Jawaharlal, 1889-1964 person
associatedWith Park, Richard Leonard person
associatedWith Singh, Baij Nath person
associatedWith Stein, Clarence S. person
associatedWith Vinton, Warren Jay, 1889-1969 person
associatedWith Wright, Henry, 1878-1936 person
Place Name Admin Code Country
Uttar Pradesh (India)
Architects and housing developers





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