Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling

At MoMA until October 20, 2008

For many, prefab connotes something akin to a glorified trailer. Recently Modernists have been working to beat that rap with entrées in the market like the NextHouse from Empyrean created in collaboration with Dwell magazine, the Sunset Breezehouse designed by Michelle Kaufmann Designs with Sunset magazine, and FlatPak by Lazor Office. For those with less Modernist taste, the Katrina Cottage 1 designed my Marianne Cusato, available soon through Lowes, has been doing its part to rehab prefab. Cusato’s design is the result of Andres Duany’s idea to provide “a dignified alternative to the FEMA trailer,” according to the Cusato Cottages, LLC website. Remarkably, at MoMA’s “Home Delivery” you don’t learn much about the new directions these current prefab ventures are headed. Instead you explore prefabs of yesteryear, options currently available only abroad, or contemporary one-offs commissioned specifically for “Home Delivery.”

sixth-floor exhibit galleries

I attended “Home Delivery” mostly out of curiosity. I’m a fan of the Sears Roebuck & Co. kit houses that were available from 1908 to 1940, and I hoped the museum might display one partially constructed or include a few detail models of the bestsellers. No such luck. They do feature some of the original catalogs, but those just whet my appetite.

Though the interior exhibit galleries could have kept me occupied for hours, my friend and I chose to skim the timeline pausing on some of the most notable projects like Frank Lloyd Wright’s c. 1917 American System-Built House, the c. 1941 Quonset Hut, Buckminster Fuller’s c. 1949 aluminum Wichita House, and Jean Prouve’s unrealized c. 1949 Colonial House. Then we stumbled upon the full-scale reconstruction of the 1948-1950 Westchester Two-Bedroom Model House by Lustron Corp. It’s made of porcelain-enamalized steel panels and has all the charm of a derelict gas station. We hurried through the approximately 1,000 square foot dwelling as if exiting a crime scene. The Museum text notes that prior to manufacturing housing, the Lustron plant had been a munitions factory. Makes sense to me.

Mainly I focused on the architectural models of the other early and more recent prefab experiments that permeate the exhibit. They are, for the most part, exquisitely crafted scale replicas of novel ideas. The diminutive, skinny, white model of the c. 1987 Kim House by Waro Kishi of Japan was intriguing. According to the Museum description it was designed to house six people in a little over 700 square feet. Only in Japan. The small, refined, wooden model of the roughly 2,000 square foot c. 2000 Touch House by the Finnish firm Heikkinen-Komonen Architects got my attention. I did want to touch it. That’s the thing about scale models; they tap into our childhood fascination with miniature worlds. I would have loved to pull a toy car up next to the elegant, shed-roofed house and to walk one of my tiny teddy bears inside, wearing a construction hardhat, so he could oversee the punch list on the three-week assembly time. But I digress.

full-scale prefabs

We saved the occupiable prefab installations outdoors on MoMA’s west lot for last. I’d been looking forward to touring the Digitally Fabricated Housing for New Orleans since reading about it in The Boston Globe in the summer. It was designed by MIT School of Architecture + Planning Assistant Professor Lawrence Sass and his students. According to the Globe, Sass toured New Orleans with some students prior to designing the project and spoke to a resident on a porch who “said that one thing she loved about her porch were all of the brackets and ornament.” Sass concluded, “You need people from the culture as part of the design process.” So he and his team designed a porch with digitally-cut, bracketed ornamentation for their shotgunesque cottage.

While I appreciate the intention to re-conceive a vernacular building type using modern technology, the result calls exorbitant attention to how it was constructed. It looked to me like an overly complicated way to achieve something simple. It’s essentially a decorated shoebox constructed with puzzle-like tabs over egg-crate-style framing that can be assembled with a rubber mallet. The chosen method of assembly is dictating the quality of space rather than the other way around. Sass plans to make a larger version of the structure with bedrooms, bathrooms, and a kitchen. Good thing, because it’s hard to imagine how to live in the 352-square-foot, one-room structure that’s on the Museum grounds.

It’s not the only prefab there that’s hard to imagine inhabiting. The Cellophane House by KieranTimberlake Associates is a tremendously sophisticated collection of aluminum, steel, glass, cellophane, and polycarbonate with lots of sleek appeal, but what about the comforts of home? It’s 1,880 square feet and five stories tall with a carport, roof terrace, two bedrooms, two baths, a kitchen, and living area. All this within gloriously light-filled space, wrapped in a high-tech, double-skin, solar-collecting envelope. But how would you furnish it? Most anything soft: upholstery, rugs, or curtains would be out of place. I can’t help but think how stuff, the real stuff we all accumulate, might ruin it. The Cellophane House seems better suited to a commercial use, like a chic internet café, than for the messy business of living – and I’m a neatnik.

Surprisingly the extreme Micro Compact Home by Horden Cherry Lee Architects, Ltd. of London and Haack + Hopfner Architects of Munich was my favorite, mainly because it makes highly relatable use out of its intimate scale. At a mere 76 square feet, it has a sense of fun, sinking a dining booth with a window at seated-eye-level below a loft sleeping area, and tucking in a playhouse-like kitchenette. Apparently there’s a shower/toilet stall, but since we weren’t allowed to enter, only to look in, I missed it. They solved the furnishing problem by building it in. The Museum description says the Micro Compact Home is built on a timber frame, but you would never know from its aluminum exterior and crisp white interior. It’s full of fancy technology too: flat screen TV, impressive sound system, weather station… Oh yeah, and there are solar panels on top. Maybe I like the Micro Compact Home because I’m a small-car person. I treat mine like a pet, and I would probably have the same feelings for my Micro Compact Home. I think I’d like mine with a celadon exterior. Oops, there I go again. Too bad it’s currently only available in Europe. Not that I have $78,000 to drop on it anyway.

The System3 House by Kaufman/Ruf of Austria comes the closest to a prefab middle ground, finishing its 722-square-foot, shipping-container proportions in warm spruce inside and out, along with au courant stainless steel kitchen and bath elements. It’s designed to be bundled any number of ways, side-by-side, stacked, pivoted… It, like the other full-scale models, would require some pretty Spartan living. Though it seemed competent, it didn’t energize me like the Compact Micro Home or dazzle me like the Cellophane House.

That leaves Burst* 008 by New York architects Jeremy Edmiston and Douglas Gauthier. Suffice it to say that I fully expected to find Austin Powers conducting a photo shoot within. Need I say more?

reality check

Though the exhibit does little to dispel the all-too-common perception that prefabs are an extreme, even fringe preoccupation, it does invite the public to consider some of the possibilities. I simply wish it prominently displayed more accessible prefabs to better bridge the gap between esoteric architectural exercise and the way we really live. Then again, it is MoMA.

by Katie Hutchison for the House Enthusiast