The Prefab Aesthetic at MoMA

By PHILIP KENNICOTT, The Washington Post NEW YORK – The architect who masters prefabricated housing – how to make homes that are well designed, mass-produced, affordable and easy to build – may well go down in history as the Last Architect.

For almost two centuries, designers have struggled to harness the power of industry to produce beautiful homes. They have struggled to balance all the trade-offs of architecture – design vs. cost, quality vs. speed, standardization vs. customization – in homes that can be churned out like new cars or wool suits. As a fascinating and important new Museum of Modern Art exhibition, “Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling,” makes clear, they have mostly failed. But if anyone ever succeeds, perhaps the grand challenge of domestic architecture would be over – time’s up, pencils down.

Since the need for new housing in European colonies became increasingly urgent in the late 18th and early 19th centuries – prompting the design, in 1833, of the easily shipped “Manning Portable Colonial Cottage for Emigrants” – the challenge of prefabrication has teased and tormented builders and designers. In the 20th century the problem became more acute, with war, burgeoning populations and restless societies creating new kinds and new extremes of homelessness. Some of the world’s most renowned architects – Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier – all responded to the challenge, with ideas, if not always practical solutions.

And yet, where are we? Most of us still live in a pre-prefab world, confined to houses that may have lots of prefabricated parts but are still built the old-fashioned way: individually, labor-intensively and expensively. Or we are in “manufactured housing,” not exactly living the pre-fab dream. As the MoMA exhibit makes painfully clear, the prefab utopia has two faces: a social fantasy (perhaps dystopian) of stuffing proletarians into ready-made boxes, and an aesthetic dream of offering the best architectural thinking to the widest possible audience. The former fantasy has generally advanced the furthest.

The MoMA exhibition maps the breadth of prefab thinking – through photographs, architectural models and full-scale architectural installations – while openly acknowledging the limited success of so many well-intentioned but abortive efforts. Sears, Roebuck and Co.’s relatively successful venture, between 1908 and 1940, to sell kit homes by mail is almost an exception to the rule. By keeping the product cheap, offering help with financing and promising “payments less than rent,” Sears sold more than 100,000 houses. That’s still a modest number in relative terms, and even then architects groaned at the boring, traditional design.

Thomas Edison, who built about a hundred “single-pour concrete” houses in New Jersey, was nowhere near as successful. Early in the 20th century, around the time he was experimenting with electric automobiles and batteries, Edison was also exploring the horizons of cement and concrete. He proposed building houses using connected wooden molds and pouring in concrete at the top. Edison’s houses have elegant proportions and mimic some of the detail one might expect from wood construction. Unfortunately, the process was trickier than just sluicing cement into molds. Variations in the consistency of material and drying times led to serious cracking.

The Edison example is telling, however. Just as medical quacks have gravitated to fashionable things (electricity, magnetism, exotic herbs) with often-disappointing results, architects have tended to go gaga over new or rediscovered materials. Prefabbers are no exception.

Gropius worked with copper houses in the 1930s, and at least 14 were eventually shipped to Palestine to house Jewish immigrants. In this case, the idea was suggested by a copper manufacturer, who brought on Gropius for design cred. But as Hitler began to rearm Germany, copper became expensive. And copper houses, as two scholars in the exhibition catalog acknowledge, are “relatively unspectacular structures in terms of aesthetics.”

Plastic has also had its champions, notably the Romanian-born architect Ionel Schein, who proposed the “All Plastic House” in 1956. Schein’s design for a round house with floor-to-ceiling windows is relatively elegant compared with the enduring fascination with various podlike houses that recurs throughout the latter half of the past century.

The exhibition also devotes considerable attention to houses made from scavenged or recycled materials, including Wes Jones’ plans, dating from the early 1990s, for reusing shipping containers. Metal, with its infinite industrial potential, has most fired the imagination, perhaps because of its suggestion of the automobile, the defining mass-produced object of the 20th century.

Buckminster Fuller’s unrealized dreams of environmentally sound houses were made of metal, including the Dymaxion House (which included a “fogger” shower that supposedly got the funk off with less than one cup of water a day) and the Wichita House, a later version of the 1927 Dymaxion idea that was to be produced in an airplane factory in Kansas. Both resembled flying saucers. The Beech aircraft factory hoped to produce more than 50,000 of these aluminum living machines a year. Fuller barely got to the prototype stage, though a Dymaxion House is preserved at the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan.

The focus on mass production almost forces the exhibition’s curators, Barry Bergdoll and Peter Christensen, into the corner of the obvious: Mass production is everywhere in housing. Mobile homes, recreational vehicles, Quonset huts are all prefabricated. And “balloon frame” construction – walls made of two-by-fours that could be preassembled and rapidly raised as a single unit – made almost every tract home built in America since the 19th century to some degree prefabricated.

But there’s a larger point to be made: Although “mass-produced” is an essential feature of “prefabricated,” it can also be a fast trip to the dark side. Sticking people in quickly built, substantially prefabricated housing turns out to be fairly easy. The United States did it during decades of inner-city housing projects (an important chapter mostly left out of this exhibition) and the Soviets, too, most notably in their ubiquitous “Khrushchovkas,” the five-story, bleak-as-a-winter-in-Minsk block apartments that overran the suburbs of so many Eastern European cities.

The other and more Utopian dream inherent in the prefab movement is quality design, the lingering modernist desire to own something new, something industrial in the best sense: sleek, efficient, up-to-date and perhaps time-saving. Call it, perhaps, the white Gap T-shirt phenomenon, the belief that industry can liberate and simplify life, remove the burden of unnecessary details and choices. Le Corbusier’s definition of the house as “a machine for living” sounds ominous to our ears, because we live in the sour, romance-all-gone era of machines that cause global warming, litter landfills and kill people (through accidents, war and toxicity). But Le Corbusier, and many architects since, saw nothing but possibilities in the metaphor of the machine.

And so does prefab turn out to be just another designer accessory, not so different from Louis Vuitton handbags or Prada shoes, industrial status symbols that are basically the same from unit to unit? Is it true once again that the blessings of modernism, supposedly a gift for the many, are really just a prize for the few?

“Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling” will leave you honestly conflicted, dubious about where history has brought the prefab dream. And more than ready to move into a prefab castle, just as soon as you can buy a nice plot of land and muster the down payment on a modular living machine.

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