October 2008, Home Delivery @ MoMA

October 2008, Home Delivery @ MoMA
Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling
Through October 20, 2008

It is official. The prefab craze has hit its zenith with this summer’s exhibition at MoMA – Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling. Popularized by such items as the Dwell house and green builder’s search for economical and earth-friendly construction methods, prefabricated housing has enjoyed new levels of discourse in both architectural and popular culture. The exhibit is one part history and one part model home show and is divided accordingly.

Walking through the indoor exhibit, one is greeted with a range of ideas about standardized building. From Thomas Edison’s single pour concrete bungalow to Teddy Cruz’s framework for improvised building to Archigram’s space age utopias, a dichotomy arises which is played out throughout the exhibition.

First is the scale of the prefabricated piece – the dwelling unit versus the building component. The entire house may be a repetitive design or changed through parametric modeling. Building blocks utilize prefabrication to allow for continual expansion and adaptability (or such is the claim).

Second is the polarity of the designs between that which is designed for need and that which is designed as utopian architectural play. The former is characterized by various mass low income housing schemes including the thousands which have been developed for post-Katrina New Orleans. The latter is comprised of more urban models such as the Metastadt-Bausystem by Richard Dietrich and Bernd Steigerwald and the Habitat ’67 by Moshe Safdie which standardizes housing around complex urban services. The problem that both run into is the temporary or adaptable nature of the projects which inevitably becomes permanent if built.

The highlight of the show is by far the five full-scale housing prototypes on MoMA’s west lot. There are two common elements in all five. First is the rejection of the large dwelling space. Even the Cellophane House which is multiple stories, is not large in terms of square footage. The second commonality is the reliance on digital fabrication, a new medium which achieves individuality using standardized construction. Three of the houses use digital assembly to arrange layout, while Digitally Fabricated Housing for New Orleans applies this technology to construction methods and the Burst House generates form based on client input.

The exhibition overall leaves one without a full understanding of the implications of prefabrication. For something that is proposed as repetitive, each model or drawing is presented as a unique art piece. The showcase houses are a bit different given the long history of such model homes and the ability to call up the architects design statement on your cell phone (is this the future of museum audio tours?). So the final question is: Are we really ready for prefab? Probably not, but this show gives us a look into some of the reasons why architects – the beacons of individualism – find it so appealing.

Home Delivery will be on view at the MoMA until October 20th.
whitehot gallery images, click a thumbnail.

Jane Estrada

Jane Estrada is an architect and interior designer in New York

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