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.