Since July 20, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City has been guiding its visitors through a tour of the history of prefabricated housing and a look at possible future applications of that method of construction via five full-sized models built on one of its outdoor lots.
The exhibit, “Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling,” which runs through Oct. 20, “attests to the diversity of the procedural, formal and technical innovation in prefabricated architecture,” writes the show’s curator Barry Bergdoll. He notes as well that the show “seeks to advance current research into new materials and applications of digital fabrication to create diverse housing types from vacation homes to replacement houses for populations at risk, notably in a house designed for use in New Orleans.”
However, at least two industry experts think the show falls far short of its curator’s claim that it is “the most thorough examination of the historical and contemporary significance of factory-produced architecture to date,” primarily because it skirts present-day modular and prefab construction that is actually being used by builders and contractors.
MoMA divides this show into two parts:
• The inside exhibit purports to offer a Baedeker of prefabricated construction techniques from 1833 through 2008, with an eye towards tracking the evolution from mass production to mass customization. Photos and grainy movies describe how famous architects, designers, and inventors have attempted prefab structures in the past, including Thomas Edison, who in the early decades of the twentieth century developed his Single-Four Concrete System, which pours wet concrete into a series of balloon-frame molds. The show also touches on other experiments, such as the all-steel Lustron Homes and Quonset Huts built during the 1940s, and the M-House, with flexible and customizable panels, which was first built in California in 2000.
• Outside, the show shifts gears by focusing on examples of digital fabrication: Massachusetts Institute of Technology developed a house specifically as emergency shelter for New Orleans that’s noteworthy for “friction-joined” parts that don’t require nails. A 76-square-foot “Micro Compact” home is essentially a cube that is assembled with a timber frame and clad in a panelized system of aluminum sheets. A four-story “Cellophane House” is made of off-the-shelf structural aluminum that “through simple modifications, can adapt to a range of site conditions, as well as to material, textural, and color options as required by the budget and tastes of the client.” And the Burst*008 House has 1,100 non-identical pieces, which were “assigned on over three hundred sheets of standard 4x8-foot plywood, laser cut en masse, packed flat, and delivered to the site by truck.”
What the exhibit barely touches on, though, is the present day, says Ariel Arieff in her “On Design” blog for the New York Times. “It’s hard to understand the decision to exclude from the exhibit the small but significant group of architects who are actually producing prefab homes on a significant scale today.” She cites the designer Michelle Kaufmann, the firm Resolution: 4 Architecture, that designed the Dwell Home, or even Ikea’s BoKlok homes as current sources for prefab innovators.
Arieff also takes Bergdoll to task for his art-history approach to what she calls a “non-art-historical subject.” Fred Hallahan agrees. “The underlying feeling [of the show] is that they don’t consider modular housing to be a form of art,” says Hallahan, a former on-site builder whose Baltimore-based company Hallahan Associates is a leading source for modular and manufactured construction activity data in the United States.
Hallahan tells BUILDER that the historical section of “Home Delivery” has several gaps, such as no mention of the prefab bungalows that Sears marketed through its catalog for decades. And while he found the outdoor models interesting, Hallahan calls them “totally impractical” for mass customization, with the possible exception of MIT’s house.
In a letter he wrote to Bergdoll on Sept. 19, Hallahan says his primary objection to the exhibit is that “the current achievement levels of home factory fabrication are not presented at all,” and that the show “leaves attendees with the impression that home factory fabrication, after many decades of ill-fated attempts, is still in a start-up mode, typically involving innovative (i.e., unsalable) designs, and is primarily useful for exceptionally low-cost housing or for housing needed quickly after natural disasters.“
Contrary to this impression, Hallahan points out that more than 100,000 homes per year are built using panelized floor, wall, and roof trusses made with digital fabrication techniques; that about 40,000 modular homes are built in factories annually; and another 20,000 homes are built from precut logs in a process that increasingly involves digital fabrication. There are also some 90,000 mobile homes built and sold each year.
“In fact,” he tells BUILDER, “a lot of builders use panelization as their houses become more complicated.”
John Caulfield is a senior editor at BUILDER magazine.