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-ItYourself (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 masshousing—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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