Saturday, October 11, 2008

Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling

Sorry that I've been neglecting this blog recently. I've been really busy with school and trying stay on top of my Archinect School Blog too.

Anyways, this week my writing assignment for Witold Rybcynski's class was to write a review of an architecture exhibit. I decided to take this opportunity to take a day trip to NYC to see the current show at MoMA. Here's my review, hot off the presses...

Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling, on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York through October 20, is an ambitiously comprehensive look at the history of off-site fabrication techniques in residential architecture. Stretching from as early as 1833 through today’s current experiments, curator Barry Bergdoll, with assistant Peter Christiansen, includes everything from LEGOs and Lincoln Logs to the Maison Dom-ino and MUJI House.

While impressive in its breadth, the exhibit on the sixth floor of the museum leaves the visitor wanting more. After laying a solid historical foundation for the industrialized fabrication of homes, the exhibit’s section of contemporary projects focuses on unrealized experiments like architect Greg Lynn’s Embryological House. Conspicuously absent are some of today’s more commercially successful examples of architect designed prefabricated homes like Michelle Kaufmann’s Glidehouse and Resolution:4’s Modern Modular line of homes.

The second part of the exhibit is located in an empty asphalt lot on the “west end” of MoMA’s property. Here Bergdoll commissioned five full-size model houses which use a variety of fabrication methods made possible by the latest computer controlled technology. This portion of the show emerges from a history of model homes built for world’s fairs, as well as the museum’s own popular House in the Museum Garden series, which included designs by Marcel Breuer (1949) and Gregory Ain (1950).

The most formally ambitious of the houses is Burst*008 by Jeremy Edmiston and Douglas Gauthier. Burst*008 is a reproduction of an Australian beach house that the architects built in 2006. In this case, the structural system of computer cut plywood ribs with structural insulated panel infill is roughshod and poorly detailed as illustrated by the addition of two-by-four crutch that was holding up the main entry stair when I visited. I hope that the Australian clients who actually live in their Burst got a more refined finished product.

The Instant House, by MIT professor Larry Sass, uses a similar system of computer cut plywood to very different ends. This small one room house is constructed from a system interlocking plywood panels that is meant to be assembled by two people with a rubber mallet. The most striking element of the Instant House is the use of the computer to create a filigree of applied ornament. According to Sass this “pixelated historicism” rebuffs the notion that prefab houses must be minimal and purportedly allows the Instant House to fit into its New Orleans context. This complicated system of interlocking notches and grooves is more decorative than efficient: why build a simple wooden shed out of a plywood jigsaw rather than a typical balloon frame?

The most successful of the five houses is KieranTimberlake’s four-story Cellophane House which uses the same off-the-shelf aluminum framed structural system as their award winning Loblolly House. The innovation here is that construction materials are “collected rather than fixed” allowing them to “retain their identity as discrete elements, but also to be disassembled instead of demolished, and eventually to be recycled instead of wasted.” Additionally, this system has the potential to be deployed in a variety of housing types from rural vacation home to urban townhouse.

My disappointment with these houses (with the notable exception of the Micro Compact Home) is that they are merely empty shells. Unlike Breuer’s house, which was fully furnished, there is no indication of how the spaces may actually be used. This renders it nearly impossible for the lay public to imagine actually living in one of these houses and results in the feeling that one is walking through an architectural model writ large.

Home Delivery offers a tremendous history of fabrication in housing; but given the overwhelming history of commercial failure in architect designed manufactured housing, I’m not sure that it adds any momentum to the prefab movement. In 1949 Time Magazine suggested that Breuer’s House in the Museum Garden “was perhaps too uncompromisingly ‘modern’ for its own age.” Unfortunately nearly sixty years, later the same problem befalls the model homes of Home Delivery.

1 comment:

Dougist said...

Nice site...

After going to the show at the MoMA I asked myself, “Why don’t Pre-fabs seem to work?”

Architects from Wright to Gropius, and inventors such as Edison and Fuller couldn’t make them work. Even with all this visionary genius, prefabricated dwellings have been an oddity in the modern world and often historical artifacts.

I answered the question here...

MoMA goes ready to wear with Pre-Fab houses

Hope you stop by