IT'S JUST WONDERFUL that The Museum of Modern Art in New York has staged the exhibition “Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling” [this issue, page 57]. In the abstract, which at MoMA amounts to a state of grace, prefab offers a logical, cost-effective solution to housing. And back in the real world, manufacturing certainly does have major benefits, like the potential for strict quality control and economies of scale. Still, I have my doubts. Assuming the goal is to improve housing in the United States, is prefab really the right issue to address?
Manufactured housing is hardly a ground-breaking idea. As curator Barry Bergdoll carefully outlines in the exhibition, architects and others have been kicking around the concept for more than a century. Remember Le Corbusier's Maison Dom-ino? He planted that chestnut back in 1914. Not that old age makes prefab worthless. “Home Delivery” can point to interesting recent advances in sustainable design and technology, CNC fabrication, and other areas. But not only is prefab not new, it's not uncommon either.
Today's home builders, especially giants like Toll Brothers and D.R. Horton, have their own sophisticated strategies for fabrication and installation. Stroll through the International Builders Show (affectionately known here at Hanley Wood as “IBS”), and you'll see legions of manufacturers offering ostensibly well-made, off-the-shelf components: windows and doors, framing systems, and so on. With home builders and product manufacturers so alive to assembly-line thinking, what's the point of “Home Delivery”? It can't hurt to push home builders toward ever more innovative and efficient methods, but I suspect the institution's motives were largely about aesthetics.
Granted, the aesthetics of the average new house are cause for concern. In the wrong hands, all those off-the shelf parts don't amount to much. To get a sense of what's out there, check out the 22,000 models at Dream Home Source, Hanley Wood's house-plan website. It's a mixed bag. There are some lovely traditional schemes on the site, and there are some unfortunate modern ones, and vice versa. The problems, where they arise, are universal design flaws: awful proportions, awkward layouts, ungainly massing. So the issue is quality, not style. Even “Home Delivery” says as much. Bergdoll broke with MoMA's modern-first institutional mandate and included a full-scale prototype of a traditional house, namely a New Orleans cottage designed by MIT students under the leadership of assistant professor Lawrence Sass. If gingerbread Victorian (albeit laser-cut) is okay for MoMA, isn't it time to put the debate over style to rest?
The design quality and production methods of an individual housing unit are important issues, but I suspect sprawl has a greater overall impact on aesthetics, the environment, and society. A big part of me wishes that Bergdoll had applied his formidable brainpower and MoMA's formidable resources to the subject of community planning instead of prefab. But I suspect it would be difficult to mount such an exhibition. The results could prove embarrassing. The kinds of architects who get into shows at MoMA have made great strides in form making and fabrication, as exemplified in “Home Delivery,” but they've made no equivalent advances in planning. Right now, like it or not, the New Urbanism is the only game in town. It's the only cohesive planning strategy to emerge out of architecture and take hold since the demolition of Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis in 1972—an event about which modern-minded architects are still in denial. About two years ago, I gave a lecture in which I made reference to “the failure of modern planning,” prompting one well-known progressive architect to shout, “The perceived failure!” Give me a break.