Thursday, August 14, 2008

Prefab Architecture: Prefabricated or Pretty Fabulous?

“I didn't like what happened to the humans in Wall-E. It wasn't bleak enough. The children need to know that there isn't going to be a spaceship to rescue you from earth,” my friend Zaira said as we were waiting in line for the Museum of Modern Art's exhibit on prefabricated architecture, “Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling.” After that disturbing comment, I thought, hmmm, I need to get more upbeat friends. Wall-E is a Pixar computer-animated movie (already referred to in the previous post, “Wall-E & Our Humorous Future” by Chappell), which, despite dark undertones, I found rather charming. And seeing this new exhibit—an elaborate exploration of pre-fabricated architecture in the past and present—renewed my optimism about our future. In these supposedly dark times, even when friends have such a bleak view of the future, I can't help but be giddy about new designs that try to solve environmental and societal problems by introducing a much needed “cool factor” to older concepts—like prefabricated homes.

Why prefab? Prefabrication is a process by which the building components are ready-made in a factory —as opposed to on site—thereby greatly reducing construction time, energy and labor needed to build a house. In addition, there is less waste of materials when the process can be controlled in a factory. While many larger buildings have elements of prefabrication in them, the process seems to have a certain social stigma when applied to homes. This exhibition, however, showcases many intriguing constructions from a selected group of architects and designers that manage to create interesting modern design via prefab methods.

The MoMA building, renovated in 2004 by the Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi in his first U.S. work, is is a combination of the modernist International Style (orthogonal, steel structure, extensive use of glass, minimal in style and ornamentation) but filtered through a unique Japanese perspective (framed views, interior-exterior dynamic, material and joint fetishes). Its fenestration is organized around the central courtyard while the building structure is draped in strong, flat, metal-clad planes that seemingly float above the building. It is Taniguchi’s control of materials that make the building a success. While prefab employs different construction methods, it should maintain similar values and be judged with the same criteria if it is to inspire.

MoMA offers an accommodating setting for this exhibit, situated both inside and outside the museum in a neighboring, empty lot. The first half of the show on the sixth floor showcases a history of the prefabricated house. On display is an array of U.S. Patents for building types, like Buckminster Fuller's Geodesic dome. This part of the exhibit was like being in Doc Brown laboratory, the room full of mockups and building types. Still, I was itching to go down and play in the prefab houses outside.

As we approached the outside lot, I was shivering with glee and excitement. This is not an exaggeration—though I did just down a cafÈ mocha to quench my caffeine addiction. The first house we visited, “Burst*008” by Jeremy Edmiston and Douglas Gauthier, was the most expressionistic by far, rife with crazy angles and complex geometry. Unlike simplistic prefab houses of yore (which favored the boxy trailer-home look), this house had planes extending in every direction, which made for fun architecture. Its steel frame and plywood walls were painted a light, off-white color that (unfortunately) turned slightly green in the LED light. Inside, a video projecting in the “entertainment” room explained how a basic structural slotting technique can be used to construct various forms. It was almost a contradiction of my entire preconceived notion of prefab houses, and it was only the first house I saw! I give the designers credit for smashing my brain.

Next door, I visited a laser-cut New Orleans style house by architect Lawrence Sass, appropriately titled “Housing for New Orleans,” whose pieces could be slotted together to resemble a traditional local dwelling. Another neighboring laser cut house, “System3” by Leo Kaufmann and Albert Ruf might have brought to mind the infamous rectangular-box kind of prefab architecture that screams: trailer! trailer! trailer! But done well, this one reminded me of more interesting prefab architecture I had seen in the past, by architects such as Rocio Romero ( “System3” was designed with the user in mind, complete with interesting interior spaces, great lighting, and sleek materials. While one of these suckers runs a cool $130K, they can be stacked and arranged in multiple shapes.

The most frustrating house was the “Micro Compact Home” designed by Horden Cherry Lee Ltd of London and Haack + Hopfer. I was a bit put off by its accompanying description, which implied that the architect was enlightening the resident by encouraging him to limit their possessions. But really, he’s just forcing him to live in a a friggin' small metal box! This embodies what would happen if we allowed Apple to design our homes: looks cool, but crushes your soul. However, this house does win the ease of construction medal: it takes two hours to “install.” Basically, they can fly the teensy metal house around on a cable connected to a helicopter and just drop it on people.

Now I come to the masterpiece of the show: “The Cellophane House.” Designed by KieranTimberlake, this house can rise off the ground—five stories to be exact. Like “Burst*008” this one doesn't feel prefab. Its designers are going for modern values of light, materials and spaces. This one would be closest in style to the MoMA itself: the tower with a twist. The metal frame of the Cellophane house has no welded joints, only bolted connections, and many of the windows are—you guessed it—cellophane, with energy-retaining panels attached. My only complaint is that, as Zaira and I were getting kicked out of the house at closing time, I touched the metal wall and felt the built up static electricity of the entire building being transported into my body. I'm okay now.

Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling at MoMA runs through Oct 20.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Just saw the exhibit. I agree with you on the Cellophane House. I wonder if it can be shaped in different patterns for different users, like the first house you mentioned.