Launch Slideshow

Assemble Me

Assemble Me

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    MOMA

    Thomas Edison poses with a model of one of his more obscure and less successful inventions, a poured-concrete house of 1906-08. Contractors required some $175,000 in equipment, including nickel-plated iron forms, to fabricate the houses. Fewer than 100 were built.

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    Richard Barnes #169; 2008 The Museum of Modern Art

    Project: BURST*008
    Architects: Jeremy Edmiston and Douglas Gauthier
    This house is a formula-driven solution that starts with a client's needs and plugs them into a computer algorithm developed by the designers. The system can create a range of different-yet-related designs that are customized in a 3-D modeling program, then broken down into planar pieces that ae cut from plywood using laser or CNC technology. The entire structure—which rests on a steel moment frame—can be packed flat and delivered by truck.

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    Richard Barnes #169; 2008 The Museum of Modern Art

    Project: Micro Compact Home®
    Architects: Horden Cherry Lee Architects and Haack + Höpfner Architects
    Smaller than a typical suburban bedroom, this cubic house delivers maximum impact in 76 square feet of space. Framed in wood and clad in anodized-aluminum, this cozy cocoon is "geared toward single people with mobile lifestyles" and features two flat-screen TVs and an array of data connections. Interior fittings include two double beds, a sitting area, work table, shower, toilet, kitchen, and dining space for five. Basketball players need not apply.

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    Richard Barnes #169; 2008 The Museum of Modern Art

    Project: Cellophane House
    Architects: KieranTimberlake Associates
    Built using off-the-shelf structural steel, this house is conceived as a matrix that "collects" other materials. The intention: Anything applied to the framework can be disassembled and recycled—not discarded. The project is keen on green: Photovoltaics in the thin-film PET plastic membrane and roof canopy harvest energy. Solar collectors heat water. And an active double-wall system anticipates internal temperatures and eliminates undesirable heat gains and losses.

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    Richard Barnes #169; 2008 The Museum of Modern Art

    Project: Digitally Fabricated Housing for New Orleans
    Architects: MIT School of Architecture and Planning
    MIT students working with professor Lawrence Sass developed a building that marries high technology and low cost. The one-room structure taps the architectural traditions of New Orleans. It is made of laser-cut plywood pieces that fit together with wooden joints set in place with a rubber mallet. No other tools are needed. The low-tech, on-site assembly makes this system applicable to many situations where the need for housing is dire.

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    Richard Barnes #169; 2008 The Museum of Modern Art

    Project: System3
    Architects: Kaufmann/Rüf Architects
    This stackable prototype is a building block that can form larger complexes. The 15-foot-by-38-foot unit is divided into two equal parts: the "serving" space and the "naked" space. The serving space contains the guts of the house—kitchen, bathroom, electricity, internet, laundry, dishwasher, and HVAC. It comes to the site preassembled. The naked space is formed by planar elements, such as a slab, walls, windows, and a roof, that require assembly.

Even when the housing industry is not in crisis, the search for easy-to-build, low-cost houses has fascinated architects and inventors alike. Since the rise of mass production, great minds such as Marcel Breuer and Thomas Edison have grappled with new materials and technologies. Now a comprehensive history of factory-produced architecture is captured in the exhibition "Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling," on view through Oct. 20 at The Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The exhibition is impressive for its breadth of content, which includes both a traditional gallery show and five full-scale installations on an empty lot west of the museum, in the tradition of the demonstration house that Breuer built in the MoMA garden in 1949. The exhibition is also impressive for the speed with which it was assembled. After all, chief curator Barry Bergdoll only started on the job in January of 2007. Bergdoll, a distinguished historian, worked with curatorial assistant Peter Christensen to tap MoMA's considerable collection of models and drawings, while pulling other resources from around the globe.

The result is a fascinating timeline of architectural thought and innovation. Starting in the early 19th century with prepackaged cottages for British colonists, the exhibition covers a broad spectrum of experiments in residential design, many of which resulted in commercial failure. Highlights include the awesome pencil drawings of German-Jewish architect Konrad Wachsmann?who refined his ideas for a system of panelized construction as an émigré in the 1940s, while staying as a house guest of Walter Gropius?and the highly articulated models showing Wes Jones' fascination with shipping containers as a basis for human abodes. Visitors will no doubt gain new respect for the genius of Jean Prouvé, whose design for the steel-framed Tropical House displays a sophisticated grasp of constructability, materials, and function, all while presaging modern concerns with energy consumption. In addition, projected videos and wall-mounted monitors display an entertaining assortment of material, including a newsreel on Quonset huts, a tour of Buckminster Fuller's Wichita House, and construction of Moshe Safdie's Habitat '67.

Yet somehow, placed as they are beside such a wealth of historical material, buildings of the recent past get short shrift in the gallery show. Granted, the wall text acknowledges important advances in computer-aided design and digital fabrication techniques, but the emphasis seems to be heavy on research rather than built results in the marketplace. That's not to detract from the exhibition's small-scale material installations or the full-scale houses erected outside the museum. But anyone who comes to "Home Delivery" with an appetite for contemporary examples of prefab houses—rather than prefabrication's promise for the future—will likely leave still hungry.