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Habitat, Humanity and a History of How-to Guides: A Visitor’s Account of the MOMA Exhibition Home

Delivery (July 20–October 20, 2008)

One Week is a 1920 silent-film starring Buster Keaton as a young newly married American who receives a Do-It-
Yourself (DIY) housing kit as a wedding present. As the title suggests, the movie unfolds over seven days as
Keaton and his new bride try to assemble their suburban-style house using a manual. Unbeknownst to them,
however, a former suitor of the bride has switched the numbers on the various parts of the kit in order to take
revenge on the groom. The movie progresses as a sequence of comedic failures, where doors are installed as
windows, the house pivots dangerously on a foundation that is prone to revolving at the slightest wind pressure,
and roof-lines crash violently into one another so that the end result is monstrous in appearance, structurally
unsound and impotent against the vagaries of weather. After weathering a storm and now looking like the love
child of Frank Gehry and Levitt & Sons, Keaton’s DIY house meets a gory end when it is destroyed by that other
robust symbol of industrial modernity—the steam engine.
It was with this plaintive song of innocent love, promised futures
and mangled dreams of home-ownership that Home Delivery—
Fabricating the Modern Dwelling opened. The primary goal of the
exhibition, to display the history of prefabrication as it has been
applied to the dwelling unit, was fulfilled with a spectacular display of
objects spanning from the nineteenth century to the early years of this
century. But the true success of Home Delivery is its ability to offer
multiple histories, narratives and vantage points from which to
contemplate the modern prefabricated house. Indeed, one might
peruse the exhibit as offering the history of modern technology via
architectural form; exploring how the question of mass-housing has
pre-occupied the minds of the sharpest and most creative architects
of our times; or arguing for how the evolution of the pre-fabricated
house from its earliest to its latest conceptions is primarily an
ecological response.
Home Delivery was a two-part exhibit. The first took place within
the MOMA building and incorporated plans, models, and design solutions of prefabricated housing schemes. The
second was comprised of five full-scale examples of prefab houses that were erected on the then-empty lot
adjacent to the museum on 54th Street. Barry Bergdoll, The Philip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and
Design and Professor of Art History at Columbia University, began our tour with the first part of the exhibition. It
quickly became clear that the history of the modern dwelling is not just a story written by architects, but one
whose cast of characters included inventors, scientists and corporations. The exhibition showcases Thomas
Edison’s designs for a poured concrete house that used a standard, reusable concrete mould. Edison’s house
design came soon after the Model-T and was later followed by Buckminister Fuller’s inventions for the Dyamaxion
and Wichita Houses, the first prefab homes to feature standardized services (kitchen, bathroom, etc.) as modular
elements. Early kit houses (probably not unlike the ones that Buster Keaton was trying to assemble in the film)
manufactured by Sears Roebuck and Co. were very popular in the early 1930s and companies like Lustron, which
utilized technology from an armaments factory, were able to popularize the prefab house even further. This legacy
is carried on today with the Japanese design company Muji offering prefabricated houses for around $115,000.
Of course, the modern history of mass-produced housing is also a social history, in which house designs
responded to larger political, environmental and cultural shifts. For example, Walter Gropius’s design for Copper
Houses was aggressively marketed to German Jewish émigrés to Palestine, many of whom were forbidden take
any money out the country. The Copperhouse Co. argued that the house was light enough to be carried to
Palestine; if it was seen by the customer as inappropriate or unnecessary, the kit could always be melted down
and the copper sold for cash. Jean Prouvé’s prefab houses—the Maison Tropicale and Maison Coloniale—were
shipped to the Congo and to other French colonies, reminding us of the ways in which architectural forms have
served to transfer technology and to establish cultural distinctions and setting social norms. The prefabricated
dwelling unit has also been a constant trope within various dystopic visions of the modern city. Archigram’s Living
Pod, Peter Cook’s dwelling units in the Plug-In City, and Richard Rogers’ Zip-Up House design for Dupont are
only a few of prefab designs attempting to wrestle with the anxieties of over-populated, polluted and chaotic urban
centers. A contemporary response to these schemes can be seen in California-based architect Teddy Cruz’s
design for houses along the U.S.-Mexico border. One part mass-housing scheme and one part social
commentary on the co-dependence of U.S.’s high-luxury economy and unregulated Mexican labor, the project
appropriates the border as a space where detritus from the First World is trafficked and revalued as elements of
housing in the Third World.
Perhaps the most novel aspect of the exhibition were the
five full-scale replicas of prefab houses erected on the 54th
Street lot. The first stop on the second half of the tour was
the Cellophane House, designed by Kieran Timberlake
Associates. James Timberlake led the tour members
through the house, citing numerous inspirations for the
design: Le Corbusier’s Pavillon de L’Espirit Nouveau (for its
attempt to deliver modular living to an occupant);
Buckminister Fuller’s Dyamaxion House (as a provocation
to lifestyle norms); Jean Prouvé’s Maison Tropicale (for its
innovation in terms of assembly and disassembly); and
Phillip Johnson’s Glass House and Richard Meier’s glass
condominiums in New York (for their expansive use of
transparent surfaces). Even as it draws upon these
influences the Cellophane House also responds to contemporary issues such as green building practices,
sustainability and the recycling of building materials. The house itself is designed in what the architects call
“chunks” that are bolted onto the structural-steel frame via moment connections. Seventy percent of the house
was erected in six days whilst the other thirty percent was finished over a course of two weeks.
Micro-Compact House, by Horden Cherry Lee Architects/ Haack + Höpfner Architects, was a 76-square-foot
gem in the middle of the lot. Envisioned as temporary housing unit for the global traveler, student or single urban
resident, the brushed aluminum surfaces and the modular design, which lends itself easily to stacking of multiple
units of the house, reveal influences from the British high-tech movement and the Japanese metabolists.
System 3, designed by Oskar Leo Kaufman and Albert Rüf/ KFN Systems, is a single-level dwelling unit that
debuted at the exhibition. The house is composed of a combination of modular systems (such as the kitchen and
the bathroom module) and other elements (walls, interior partitions etc.) that can be packed and shipped flat. Like
the other examples in the exhibit, System 3 responds to contemporary concerns of mass-produced housing such
as sustainability, flexibility and cost-eficiency, all the while aspiring to maintain a superior level of craftsmanship.
In response to the post-Katrina housing crisis, Professor Larry Sass and his students at the School of
Architecture at MIT, developed Digitally Fabricated Housing for New Orleans. Capitalizing on the speed and
precision of laser cutters, the prototype for this type of housing takes on the vocabulary of a typical shotgun
house. The design also took into consideration the lack of resources in a post-disaster site: the individual pieces
can in fact be put together without nails or complicated construction equipment. Indeed, the project designers
claim that the entire house can be erected on-site by 5 people using only rubber mallets and bowtie fasteners in
under a week.
For the last stop on the tour we were again fortunate to have the architects explain the design process to us.
Burst*008, designed by Douglas Gauthier and Jeremy Edmiston, is another triumph of the possibilities of
computer-aided design. The house structure is comprised of multiple interlocking plywood ribs that could be
compared to a kite or accordion. This structure can be shipped flat to the site and then expanded easily, and
becomes stable once the “skin,” or external surfaces of the house, are stretched over it. The interior layout of the
house is conceptualized along three living zones: an outdoor deck; a living/dining/and kitchen zone; and smaller
spaces including the bath and storage areas; which also have different requirements in terms of ventilation and
light. The first prototype of this house, Burst*003, was built as a summerhouse for a family in Australia. From the
walk-through it was apparent that the house was an elegant solution that combined prefabrication with
pragmatism.
From Buster Keaton’s hilarious caricature of the DIY house to the sturdy resilience of the five houses on the
54th Street lot, Home Delivery takes the viewer through a truly inspiring history of the modern pre-fabricated
home. It is not enough to say that the exhibition delivers an account of the historical as well as geographical range
of its examples; it does so with an elegance that allows the viewer to relate this rich history with contemporary
concerns regarding the urban condition, environmental concerns, and mass-production. The question of mass-
housing—efficient and responsible—has been a key note in the imaginary of modern architectural culture and will
continue to be so for some time to come.

Dr. Mrinalini Rajagopalan


Assistant Professor/ Faculty Fellow of
‘The City’, New York University

Photo Credits:

From Left to Right: The Micro-Compact House, Cellophane House and Digitally Fabricated Housing for New
Orleans as seen from System 3.

From Bottom to Top: Micro-Compact House; System 3 and Burst*008 as seen from the third floor of the
Cellophane House

The Cellophane house as seen from Burst*008

Photos by Mrinalini Rajagopalan

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