There is something delightful about the Museum of Modern Art’s new prefabrication show Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling that opened on July 20. On an empty lot west of the museum, future home of Jean Nouvel’s Tour de Verre, five full-scale contemporary prefabricated houses have been built, creating, as curator Barry Bergdoll put it, “the world’s strangest subdivision.”
It’s a rare sight to see single-family houses in Midtown Manhattan and rarer still to see something as small as the silvery micro compact house (an approximately 2.6-meter cube, fitted out like a boat with bathroom, kitchen, sunken dinette, and bunks) looking like a studio apartment left out in the rain. The double-takes of passers-by on 53rd and 54th streets are amusement enough.
That strangeness is historic, a point the excellent and thorough exhibition inside makes abundantly clear. There’s a sixth house up in the gallery, a return of the suppressed for MoMA: a Lustron Westchester Two Bedroom (1948–50)—an all-steel, 32 feet square house with powder-coated exterior panels in pastel colors and factory-made cabinets, closets, and vanities designed to be put together in eight days. It was the hugely popular Lustron demonstration model in Midtown that was the impetus for MoMA’s first house in the garden, Marcel Breuer’s 1949 butterfly-roof structure, meant as an elite corrective to the multiplying postwar Cape Cod cottages that even the technically accomplished Lustron aped. Today, the Lustron is welcome inside the museum, one of a number of nice high-low admixtures, though the architects outside might still shake their heads over its traditional plan. The exhibit places Quonset huts next to Frank Lloyd Wright Usonians, and shows Ford Motor Company’s filmed dream of happy workers constructing a house as quickly as a car alongside Buster Keaton’s spoof of the same, One Week.
Then as now, the gable beat the butterfly in the war of the rooflines, and the exhibit acknowledges that fact both in the text and on the lot. Next to the four flat tops sits Lawrence Sass’ House for New Orleans, a shotgun house made in the most contemporary way. The house, a prototype intended for Katrina refugees, is made of laser-cut plywood panels with cut-outs and tabs that allow it to fit together without nails or hinges, only a rubber mallet. As a contextual grace note, the porch is decorated with two-dimensional Victorian-style gingerbread (one of a number of styles that could be produced). All this ornament makes the modernist nervous—it is literally a “decorated shed”—but we are clearly in an age where computers make old patterns new again and mass customization is sexier than mass production. The porch ends up looking fussy, but the unintentional gridded pattern inside, created by all those I- and X- and T-shaped slots, is beautiful. However alien to the MoMA enterprise, it is important to have an example of (perhaps) more popular taste, as well as one of refugee housing. Sass says this prototype, if mass produced, would cost $40,000.
All five houses are meant to be objects of study, not products, but in fact, they are all for sale: The architects, from as far away as Austria and as near as Philadelphia, retain rights to the buildings and surely don’t want to have to ship them back home. One can’t help but try to place them, matchmaking Kieran Timberlake Architects’ Cellophane House—four stories, recyclable, transparent, made of snap-tight aluminium frames filled with panels of photovoltaics, polycarbonate, and Corian—with a Brooklyn brownstone neighborhood in need of new blood. Or Oskar Leo Kaufmann and Albert Rüf’s System 3—a long, blonde wood box, shipped as core and flat-packed walls, that fits inside a container and can be stacked into multiple stories—as a slender thorn in the side of a Connecticut suburb. The micro compact house, installed in two hours, seems like the ultimate luxury item—a room of your own that the super-rich could literally drop wherever they go.
Courtesy Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners
That ability to drop a house into whatever wilderness or city you desire has long been part of the prefab dream, from Archigram’s Plug-In City (1962–64) to the realized but never reconfigured Nagakin Capsule Tower (1968–72) in Tokyo. Now that the houses are complete, much of that drama and difference dissipates. The action happened in the weeks and days before the opening, and can still be seen on the exhibition website. The indoor exhibition also integrates film much more successfully than most contemporary architecture shows: cranes with pods, trucks with stacks, and the magic of making play over and over. For anyone who has suffered through home construction, it is like the beautiful amnesia that sets in after completion, a mental time-lapse film of the process.
At Home Delivery, there is much to learn about flat-packing, laser cutting, tool-free assembly, and integral photovoltaics. But what will this change about architecture? The exhibition makes clear that the yearning for prefabrication, which caused every major modernist architect to design at least a prototype, was born of a combination of utopian and taste-making fervor. At different points in the 20th century, we needed housing, quick and cheap. Buckminster Fuller’s Wichita House (1944–46) was intended to provide jobs and homes simultaneously for returning servicemen, turning Midwestern factories from bombers to home production. The Eames House (1945–49) was intended as an aesthetic corrective to Levittowns, and showed how much space one could enclose for the least amount of money using existing parts from industrial manufacturers. These were modernist prophets, but they also had a sense of economy. They turned to prefab out of exigency, with the desire to streamline housing as the production of cars and refrigerators had been.
That sense of exigency seems absent from 54th Street. These houses show economies of time, material, and energy, but they still look (except for the House for New Orleans) like expensive modernist dreams. It could still be the 1940s, with architects trying to persuade manufacturers there’s a market for modernism, but the market really existing only at the high end and for the very Dwell audience the exhibition claims it wants to move beyond. Good taste as mandated by MoMA still hasn’t become mass taste, and so these houses may be doomed to the same failure as prototypes by Le Corbusier, Gropius, Rudolph, and Rogers. The “cultural divide” to which Bergdoll directly refers in the show’s catalog, between those “exploring new relations between architecture and production and the steady, almost reflexive, success of manufactured housing” is not bridged here. Maybe a manufacturer will take up the Cellophane House or System 3. But is that going to solve any housing problems? The promise of prefab still seems unfulfilled.