One of New York’s most exciting cultural venues this summer is a vacant lot in Midtown Manhattan. There, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), which adjoins the site, is staging part of a new exhibition, Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling. Organized by Barry Bergdoll, the museum’s chief curator of architecture and design, and curatorial assistant Peter Christensen, the show explores the story of the prefabricated house. “The show is very impressive,” says noted architectural historian, Kenneth Frampton. “The historical survey is rather amazing. I don't believe anyone has put up an exhibition on prefabrication quite like this.”
Home Delivery actually begins inside the museum, on the sixth floor, where a sweeping display of drawings, films, photographs, models, and partial reconstructions investigate the history of prefab, tracing its lineage to the early 19th century and exploring its intimate affiliations with Modernist and contemporary discourse. The show combines scholarly heft with alluring artifacts, signaling a promising turn for MoMA’s Department of Architecture and Design, under the new leadership of Bergdoll, who joined the museum in 2007 (RECORD, July 2006). Prior to his hiring, the department had come under criticism: In 2006, The New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff called it "sadly adrift," staging shows that were "largely forgettable."
Though it includes early works, such as Manning’s Portable Colonial Cottage (1839), designed in Britain for its Australian colonies, the crux of Home Delivery begins in the early 20th century, when the discipline of architecture was grappling with a spate of new technologies. As Bergdoll points out, “in architecture, the history of prefabrication is, in some senses, the history of Modernism.” He carefully explores that relationship by presenting works by Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Marcel Breuer, and Walter Gropius, designed during the first part of the 20th century, at the advent of Modernism. The projects, such as Le Corbusier’s Dom-Ino House, clearly embody that era’s spirited embrace of industry.
The presentation of works by Jean Prouvé and the Lustron Corporation pick up the story in the years following World War II, when a surge in demand for housing necessitated the adoption of new architectural practices, like prefabrication. Prouvé’s Standard Type Portique House is partially reconstructed and represented in a series of drawings and models, as is the Lustron Corporation’s Westchester Two-Bedroom Model House. Later in the sequence, designs by Archigram, Peter Cook, and Kisho Kurokawa capture the imaginative provocations of the mid-century. More recent projects by Teddy Cruz, Wes Jones, and Greg Lynn, among other architects, explore 21st century issues, such as mass-customization and the use of recycled industrial materials.
The sixth floor display also addresses important advances in technology that have made prefabrication tenable, beginning with Thomas Edison’s single-pour concrete system. It also includes systems, such as the General Panel System, designed in 1941, by Konrad Wachsmann and Gropius, as well as mock-ups of novel masonry systems that pushed the concept forward. The museum also commissioned new pieces that explore current digital fabrication techniques, like a wall designed by Contemporary Architecture Practice that uses stackable units fabricated with 3-D printing technologies.
Part 2 takes place on street-level, in a 17,000-square-foot empty lot to the west of the museum (the future site of a tower designed by Jean Nouvel). Here, MoMA has commissioned the construction of five prefab houses that present different conditions and appearances. On the lot’s northern edge, along 54th Street, New York architects Jeremy Edmiston and Douglas Gauthier made their plywood-and-steel BURST*008 able to respond to individual client needs, by linking fabrication with computerized parameters. Its neighbor to the south, SYSTEM3, by Austrian architects Oskar Leo Kaufmann and Albert Rüf, is an exquisitely executed wood and glass box, which can be stacked, one atop the other, to form mid-rise, aggregated communities.
Unlike the other architects, Lawrence Sass, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, designed with a specific condition in mind: rebuilding the Gulf Coast. His so-called Digitally Fabricated Housing for New Orleans is made with plywood panels, precut with joints and notches, making it readily buildable using only a rubber mallet. Sandwiched between this house and SYSTEM3 is the diminutive, 76-square-foot micro-compact home, a timber frame clad in anodized aluminum sheets, conceived by Horden Cherry Lee Architects and Haack + Höpfner Architects. The unit can be dropped into almost any site by crane or helicopter. And to the far south, the Cellophane House, by Philadelphia-based KieranTimberlake Associates, uses off-the-shelf aluminum beams to support its recyclable polycarbonate floors and interior walls. The house is clad in a translucent plastic membrane, with embedded photovoltaic panels.
“To some extent, prefabrication has always existed—with Chinese timber building, for example—but it is a promise that has come back because of a new viability of labor and transportation costs,” Frampton explains. “The situation has somewhat changed, because of the economy, but whether it turns out to be a big thing is not quite clear. Like anything, it is contingent on the size of the market."
“Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling” is on view through October 20, 2008. For information, visit www.moma.org.