The Museum of Modern Art has turned an empty lot on West 53rd Street in Manhattan into a playground of innovative building technology. Before it becomes the ground floor of a tower designed by Jean Nouvel, the skyscraper-flanked site is playing host to five full-scale prefabricated homes designed by contemporary architects.
Jeremy Edmiston and Douglas Gauthier unfolded a light-filled beach house from an accordion of panels. Oskar Leo Kaufmann and Albert Rüf brought in a prim, easily shippable housing unit.
Horden Cherry Lee Architects and Haack + Höpfner Architects fit a wind turbine and a surprising amount of living space into a roughly 76-square-foot box—without forgoing an espresso machine. MIT Professor Lawrence Sass assembled a New Orleans shotgun house from a jigsaw of laser-fabricated panels.
And Kieran Timberlake Architects’ answered the black monoliths of the surrounding skyscrapers with a five-story structure wrapped in a transparent membrane and speckled with palm-size photovoltaic cells.
But more than just a sampling of technically ambitious residential projects, the houses are one part of the larger exhibition Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling, which runs through October 20. The curator, Barry Bergdoll, opted to exhibit the contemporary structures as components in a show that traces the history of prefab from the early 19th century through the present, and his emphasis on putting new architecture in a thoroughgoing historical context is no surprise. Bergdoll taught 19th- and 20th-century architectural history at Columbia University for more than 20 years and was chair of the art history department before joining MoMA in 2007. In addition to writing books on Mies van der Rohe and Karl Fredrich Schinkel, he has also curated a number of well-received exhibitions.
Home Delivery marks the first time in decades that MoMA has shown full-scale architecture—though its postwar “House in the Garden” series remains legendary—but according to Bergdoll the timing could not be better for a return to the format. I recently spoke with the curator about how contemporary architectural concerns and a wider cultural interest in design have combined in a new passion for prefab.
William Hanley: This show seems to have come together very quickly given that you only came to the museum last year. Had you wanted to do a prefab show even before then?
Barry Bergdoll: This was actually something I discussed years ago with a friend who is a curator at the Metropolitan Museum—they have that amazing roof garden. It never happened at the Met, but when I was arriving here and I saw that there was a vacant lot next to the museum, I thought, well this is too good to be true.
The idea from the beginning was that I wanted to look at prefabrication. Houses came shortly after that because I think houses are the most accessible aspect of prefabrication. Everybody likes to look at people's houses, so that brings in a large public to a show that actually has rather technical content dealing with how things are made. But it wasn't out of nostalgia for mid-century Modern, which I think dominates so much of the prefab craze at the moment. It was out of a fascination with what the digital revolution is doing about collapsing the distance between the designing board—the designing computer—and the site of fabrication.
WH: Why do you think we’re experiencing a “prefab craze” right now?
BB: I think it's a threshold moment. There are various strains in the culture, both professional and in the taste culture, that are interested in prefabrication in very, very different guises. As we organized the exhibition, we realized that we were moving across milieu that were all interested in prefabrication but weren’t really talking to one another, so the exhibition is a kind of engineered conversation.
As the show has unraveled—or been put together—other things have hit. Several of the houses have a very strong energy-conscious aspect to their designs, which is integral to the way they're fabricated. That isn’t what we set out to show, but we found it and then favored it. I think it's very, very timely with global warming.
And then the cost issue remains a big question mark. I think everyone is highly sensitive, with the sub-prime crisis, as to what housing will look like. We’re taking a breather from incredible sprawl.
WH: Do you think architects will see a larger market for their prefabricated designs emerge because of those factors?
BB: I think a lot of the things that have mitigated against the success of this in the past are still in place: infrastructural things in the American economy, in the American building industry, in the American unions. In a certain sense, the dial is set against prefabrication, and as much as I think growing ecological and efficiency demands make it a compelling question, I can't answer it. But I'm really happy the show raises the question.