Volume 78 / Number 9 - July 30 - August 5, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since

Art & Design

HOME DELIVERY: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling
Through Oct. 20
Museum of Modern Art
11 53rd Street
212-708-9400; momahomedelivery.org

Photograph by Richard Barnes © 2008 The Museum of Modern Art

Digitally Fabricated Housing for New Orleans, a micro compact home on display in the “Home Delivery” exhibition in the lot west of MoMA.

Housing of the future

MoMA’s ‘Home Delivery’ tours prefab

By Ian Volner

What do we talk about when we talk about prefab? In certain quarters, the word is in fairly poor odor, and no wonder: doomed modernist one-offs; cynical, shabby dingbats; undifferentiated suburban ramblers; prefab’s not a style, and it hasn’t succeeded as an ethic, despite the efforts of forward-thinking architects since at least the 1920s. In those pioneer days, the problem of prefabricated, mass-produced housing was that there wasn’t nearly enough of it. Today, everything is prefab, and the problem of prefab is one of quality.

“Home Delivery,” the first original show by MoMA’s newly appointed Chief Curator of Architecture and Design, Barry Bergdoll, is a coup for quality. It’s also a tour of prefab past, a spiffy toy store of drawings, models and actual toys from the century-plus history of industrialized home construction. From the wooden balloon-frame houses of 19th century America to the spacey fantasias of 1960s British collective Archigram, Bergdoll evinces the same curatorial enthusiasm that made his survey of the department’s permanent collection last spring such a treat.

The history is inside. Outside, in the adjacent lot just west of the museum, is something that plausibly resembles the future. Five houses, designed by five fast-rising practitioners, are scattered on a casual plan in the vacant site. “One person has already called it the world’s weirdest subdivision,” says Bergdoll, and there’s definitely an air of the uncanny, an arresting urban surrealism that doubles as a fine bit of advertising for the exhibition indoors.

It’s also a bit of déjà vu. Sixty years ago and half a block away, in the museum’s sculpture garden, then-curator Peter Blake installed a house by émigré architect Marcel Breuer, followed in 1950 by a house from American modernist Gregory Ain. The objective of these exhibitions was clear: to demonstrate that high-design modernist houses were a feasible alternative to the conservative ranch model then ascendant in the American suburb.

Bergdoll’s didactic edge is not quite so sharp, though the selection (from the 500 designs submitted) of five complete houses appears to be a gesture to outbid his predecessors for ambition. The houses themselves are appealing, but self-effacing. The “micro-compact home” by the British-German collaborative Horden Cherry Lee/Haack + Höpfner is the last word in Existenzminimum, a not quite 76-square foot box, completely transportable, trim and burnished and exquisitely cramped. Lawrence Sass’ Digitally Fabricated Housing for New Orleans puts sophisticated drafting software to the modest task of reproducing in plywood a small conventional shotgun house of the Louisiana type.

It’s also implicit that the houses are works in progress. When asked about the prices of the houses, Bergdoll answered with characteristic nuance: “One of the things about prefab mass housing is that you never know quite how much it’ll really cost until it goes into mass production.” These are starter homes for a new prefabrication, proposals rather than solutions, more inspiring than inspired.

The trouble, of course—to recall the old saw about Brazil—is that prefab is the housing of the future, and always will be. The show upstairs doesn’t go into any great depth recounting the decline and fall of the 20th century avant-garde mass housing proposals on display, most of them victims of time, neglect and, most of all, the market. It should not escape notice that the lot where the current brace of prefabs now stands is shortly to be filled by a 75-story upscale residential tower by celebrity architect Jean Nouvel. While they stand, the houses are proof that prefab can offer vital new ideas for design, sustainability and technology. Here’s hoping it can offer housing, too.

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