MoMA goes ready to wear with Pre-Fab houses

Why don’t prefabricated houses seem to work?

Architects from Frank Lloyd Wright to Walter Gropius and inventors such as Thomas Edison and Buckminster Fuller have all tried their hand at perfecting domiciles manufactured the way we once manufactured cars, in a central location under the Fredric Taylor / Henry Ford methodology of mass production. But even with the power of all this visionary genius brought to bear on the problem, prefabricated dwellings have been an oddity in the modern world, often historical artifacts, or the results of a need for extreme utility.

This is the struggle that this Fall’s big show at the Museum of Modern Art, Home Delivery- Fabricating the Modern Dwelling tries to overcome. While artists of all types continue to be drawn to pre-fab as a design platform, so far nothing seems to have worked.

Beautifully assembled and intelligently curated, the MoMA show is, as always, a treat for the eyes and the mind. Big screen presentations of prefabrication pitches (aka commercials) from mid-century to today hang from the ceiling, and full scale replicas of pre-fabs are installed on the gallery floor. Intriguing models litter the space inviting viewers in as Lilliputian voyeurs, and in a lot outside on 54th Street four full scale pre-fabs beg us to ask the perennial home inspection question: “Honey, do you think our couch would look good by that window?” (Yes, we overheard that quite a few times on our visits)

On coming into the main gallery the MoMA asks us to believe that the balloon construction methods of North America (2×4 studs nailed into a frame and then covered with siding and sheet rock) is a form of prefabrication. This seems to be a stretch until you realize that 2×4’s and factory produced nails were significant standardization improvements over hand cut mortis and tendon construction methods.

Still, I tend to think of a pile of 2x4s more as no-fab then pre-fab, but the argument that nails are a form of building standardization is intriguing.

Since it was 2x4s and nails that were used in the expansion of the American West, this argument lets the show’s curators make their more relevant point that pre-fab is closely linked if not intricately tied to expansion, colonization, exploration and military occupation.

And in fact prefabs have only really been successful in these categories, whether the homes Israeli settlers stowed in the holds of cargo ships as they fled Europe for Palestine, or the ubiquitous Quonset huts American GIs built around the world during and after the second World War.

In most cases these prefabs were temporary, and very few survive. They tend to be replaced by permanent, custom built structures if habitation continues. There are, however, some colossal exceptions.

Many of the great monumental pre-fabs were built for exhibitions or shows, and the MoMA spends considerable time luxuriating on these. Vintage footage of the assembly of Walt Disney World’s Contemporary Resort with its prefabricated room units, and various Bucky geodesic structures at EPCOT and the Montreal World’s Fair dominate the modern portion of the show.

From there the show invokes what I feel to be the most interesting aspect of these architectural experiments, the dream of constructing utopian living communities (aka cities).

In fact I find the idea of prefab itself less interesting than this issue of fabricating dwellings for life use, to solve not the building challenge of centralized manufacturing but the bigger issue of housing as designed for use. Given that houses are (should be?) durable goods and given the intrinsic interlinking of existence and architecture, it is in the design of pre-fabs that inventors have been able to try out different approaches for living.

Think of the alternative. Pre-fab is much less resource intensive than say Arcosanti, Paolo Solari’s labor in the desert which has been under construction for some four decades now. And it is certainly less messy than the microbe gone wild world of BioSphere 2 (neither of which are mentioned at the MOMA – for good reason).

So the short answer to the question why have pre-fabs not worked is that we haven’t solved the design for living issue yet, regardless of manufacturing methodologies – yet visionaries are drawn to the ease of construction pre-fab provides as a tool for exploration and experimentation in this space.

A side note: The MoMA completely missed one of the great commercial success stories and aesthetic tragedies of pre-fabricated dwellings, the mobile home. Trailers and RVs are the near perfect equivalents of the prefabricated house, and vastly popular with both Middle America and touring rock bands.  Cruising sailboats, also overlooked by the MoMA, are another success in this category.  An entire industry has learned to maximize the use of space for a family of four, even over a rainy weekend, without fratricide occurring.

As horrific as it may be, Americans are not satisfied with having rolling couches (SUV’s) for their commute to suburban office parks, some of them seem to need their whole living room on wheels for the weekend as well.  But as artistically and environmentally flawed as they are, this omission is even more surprising given that the silver Airstream Bambi trailer is on display in the MoMA’s design gallery just three floors down.

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  1. Posted August 31, 08 at 12:57 am | Permalink

    I am intrigued by this exhibition, especially after reading this post. I watched a documentary about a designer of pre-fabricated housing, but I didn’t get enough of a glimpse at what is possible because the example shown had such small square footage. What seems most is the fact that, as you said, no one has really been able to make the idea work (outside of mobile homes and RVs.) I am definitely going to stop by…

  2. Doug
    Posted August 31, 08 at 7:17 am | Permalink

    When you go, make time to see the ‘Kirchner and the Berlin Street’ show as well. Its stunning.

    Its way in the back but well worth the hunt.


  3. Posted September 2, 08 at 6:28 am | Permalink

    Doug, this is a great write-up–you really capture the intellectual chess game that my brain was just beginning to grasp in my limited time at the exhibit. I hope that as artists and architects continue to explore pre-fab they can find something that does not insist on re-defining us as individualized humans with no live interpersonal connections (as the “cube” did) and instead find something that encourages communication and reaching across economic and social divides. It will be interesting to see what transpires in the future.

  4. Posted September 23, 08 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

    thanks. I like your style.

    Elizabeth K.

  5. Lloyd Alter
    Posted September 25, 08 at 8:15 am | Permalink

    Coincidentally I am in New York now and visited the show yesterday, to review on TreeHugger tomorrow. I completely agree with you about what they missed the boat on (trailers and mobile architecture), and loved the exhibition, which fortunately has been catalogued in a terrific book. With the exception of the cellophane house I found the actual prefabs shown to be a disappointment and a missed opportunity.

  6. david
    Posted September 30, 08 at 1:46 am | Permalink

    Hi Doug, great website. My comment from the (also a good website) about yours.

    I went there, was quite good…

    However, it wasn’t affordable pre-fab and some were more conceptual than real. Affordable pre-fab is something that society doesn’t seem to want, or at least is very neglected.

    doug’s post ‘So the short answer to the question why have pre-fabs not worked is that we haven’t solved the design for living issue yet’

    We have solved the designed for living issue, one can live in the houses quite well, society doesn’t want to change. We all envision a classic house with 2.5 kids, 2 cars, white picket fence and some green grass.

  7. msbook
    Posted July 1, 12 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

    This blog post was a million years ago, but I’ll add one comment. I suspect the failures of prefabs are multiple, and I join with Doug in pointing out MOMA’s (and others’) failures at including RVs and sailboats in the prefab category.

    But what I see as the biggest failure is neglecting the tract home development market. The focus of the market is not on prefab, but on providing quickly-built, attractively-designed, inexpensive homes. Most people don’t care where their home comes from, only that they have basic amenities such as their neighbors have. Tract developers want cheap, quick, and repeatable. Economies of scale are greater (most “modern” prefabs are produced in the single, or low-double digits). There might be some rationale for several architects to own the manufacturing facility to both optimize manufacture, and to maximize profit.

    The remaining problem is the notion of “modern”. That’s ill-defined, and the “street-view” of a house might be softened to reflect regional standards, with little change in materials, layout, or siting (and certainly not in environmental standards).

    When an architect or a collective can embrace a manufacturing model, as opposed to a modified-custom model, complete prefabs will succeed. The example of the opposite is Rocio-Romero, detailed in a NY Times article about the botched building of one of their modular homes near NYC. Nice ideals; impractical.

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