A Utopian Manifestation

Originally published on DesignTaxi.com, 14 April 2008 (article link)

The world is a fragile environment where each individual seeks solace and sanctuary in a structure where one would call home. And while three-thirds of the world is built upon towers reaching towards endless elevation in cities of teeming streets, architects have discovered a noble ‘new’ pursuit in the challenges of structural design.

A prefabricated house may not sound like much to your ears. Indeed to many who may still remember, a prefabricated house is reminiscent of an era we are in a race to forget. The prefabricated home was a marriage of convenience and necessity during the Second World War as a temporary housing solution for the many displaced in the chaos. Thus in terms of value and status, the prefabricated house is the last of the ideals.

The house is broken up into building blocks called modules, manufactured off-site and its completed pieces transported to its final location and constructed like Lego pieces. This development process spurs its own design limitations – the final results are usually box-shaped structures championing minimalism, less dramatic in comparison to a sprawling mansion on the hills.

So you ask yourself: Would you want to live in that? For those of you who have, perhaps you would be less inclined to imagine yourself as master or mistress of... a cube.

The market for prefab houses has been a narrow hit or miss in the fickle years following the war, whilst philosophers and economists wondered out loud of a future with mass-produced houses. In hindsight, it could very much be possible; any more so than our mass-produced cars, aeroplanes, yachts. But with mass production quickly arose a question of individual identity. We personalize our cars and name our yachts, all in the challenge of seeking a personal connection with our hefty material possessions. Naturally this sentiment extends to that of our homes, a space more personal than any other man-made structure. Enter here the modern architect, who has come to reinvent the very notion of what a cube can rise to.

Leo Marmol and Ron Radziner, of Marmol Radziner & Associates, New York, are two amongst visionaries. Their most well known structure is the steel-framed Desert House, which rests languidly in the middle of Desert Hot Springs in California. From a quick glance, the Desert House waxes nostalgia of Japanese abodes of the past that were single-storey units interconnected by walkways. In a modern approach, the Desert House sits as three modestly luxurious main units connected by a sheltered open walkway. Its unpretentious, calm visage is a quietly composed reflection against its sandy environment.

While some modern-day prefab construction still utilizes out-sourced construction to erect the structure on site block by block (no longer brick by brick), Marmol Radziner’s creations are completely factory-built, right down to floorboards and electrical wiring and its modules are fitted together on site. Each meticulous detail in the birth of Desert House had the Marmol Radziner personal touch, right down to its Caesarstone counter tops and walnut cabinets.

As the company puts it to the Fabprefab.com team: “Marmol Radziner Prefab is a natural extension of our firm’s long-standing approach that combines design and construction to produce modern spaces that are designed and built with exacting detail. We are architects first and foremost, and we see construction and fabrication as the work that supports our designs because it allows us to bring the rigor that we used in designing a project and to apply it to the construction process.”

As such, architects have identified a prime playground in which to expound their ideas and creativity, embraced by a select few as the world slowly comes to an understanding. Noting the fact that prefab allows architects additional power and control over the production procedure brings to mind a little indulgent titbit that may have been excluded from its ‘install-your-own-house’ instruction manual — some architects can now claim creation to not just the design but also its very fiber.

And as Peter Parker’s uncle once whispered, “with great power comes great responsibility”, so are the whispering winds of revolution fluttering down the halls of Toby Long’s eco-friendly Nowhouse and Michelle Kaufmann’s sustainable Glidehouse.

Where were you if you have not been paying attention to the environmental voices campaigning throughout society these recent years? If you are not familiar with its poignant issues then certainly its solutions like organic and sustainability might ring a bell. As such, architects have fundamentally acknowledged that the power they have over the building blocks of society’s habitats might reward the environment through its “green” raw materials. Kaufmann’s Glidehouse is insulated with an air barrier, utilizes open cell foam insulation, water-saving plumbing fixtures, on-demand water heaters, and a mechanical ventilation system that is 30% more efficient than typical forced-air systems.

Long’s NowHouse is built with the latest technology-infused Structural Insulated Panels (SIP) that has energy-efficient properties to cut home energy consumption by up to 50%. With fewer joints to seal when working with larger panels, the airtight conditions of the room are inherently stronger than a traditionally assembled “stick-frame” house of equivalent parameters.

The authenticity of compact construction methods and sustainable raw materials is awakening at a period of time where the gradually deteriorating environment is coupled with the overwhelming onset of natural disasters. “Green” houses such as Kaufmann’s and Long’s are offering what might seem like a God-sent miracle at an affordable cost tagged to the promise of a home to call your very own. Its eco-friendly, store-bought mentality and mass marketability would make prefab habitats seem like the most natural evolution in the long run.

But while you may be surprised to see a prefab cube delivered to your neighbor on your picket-fenced street (giving new meaning to the term “home delivery”), architects have to contend with defused mass-marketing potential in smaller, crowded cities with land constraints. The primary demand for bigger, more elaborately designed private residential dwellings and the complexities of commercial buildings overshadow the humble revolution of prefab. I can imagine the various advertisements ardently endorsing the simplicity of prefab as certainly as I can anticipate the hordes of disapproving analysts or consumers who can just as easily highlight its own shortcomings as being its own evolutionary demise. The development of structural design seems rapt to build an empire of architectural legends with eyes trained upon the top of the Empire State Building, or tracing the curves of yet another mammoth, symbolically asymmetrical creation (raise hands if you’re thinking of Pritzker Prize-winning Frank Gehry).

While our more adventurous counterparts breathe within their own economically fresh prefab home, our modern day contact with the movement of prefabrication comes through at a museum. For the Museum of Modern Art’s upcoming exhibition occurring in New York in July, the museum has roped in five prominent architects from firms with background experience in prefabricated dwellings. Amongst them include Douglas Gautheir and Jeremy Edmiston of Manhattan and Richard Horden of Horden Cherry Lee in London.

The forthcoming exhibition focuses on the work process, as its off-site manufacturing and delivery are one of prefab’s most celebrated advantages. Indoor construction dramatically lowers production cost and efficiency, whilst drastically reducing waste emitted during assembly. The many gruelling facets of construction become, well, deconstructed, in this sense.

Walker Art Museum exhibited contemporary prefabricated structures in 2006 featuring Michelle Kaufmann’s Sunset Breezehouse, Steven Holl’s Turbulence House, and the award-winning Resolution: 4 Architecture’s two-storey Mountain Retreat, a nod to modern day home designer chic. Where pragmatic function overruled aesthetics in the first movement of prefab, you would be hard-pressed to catch a conformist architect these days.

The movement has upped the chic quotient in minimalism to form charmingly simple dwellings reflecting upscale modern lifestyle and capturing individual personalities. And it’s environmentally-friendly too. Some of the existing prefab dwellings have served as artistic displays to remind the public of the possibilities relevant with an individual’s responsibility towards the environment and the challenges within one’s perception. And as one door closes—March 1st was the last day of Desert House’s open house— one door opens. Rocio Romero’s own LV Home Series opened its first exhibition stop on that very day under the LVL Open House Tour in Gallatin, New York.

The expanding interest and growing number of exhibitions may nudge the preconception of prefab towards a more positive indicator. It also educates the public of what is enthusiastically offered in modern architecture. But before the public embraces this form of architecture the progress of prefab is relegated to being, somehow, art.

Steadily the architectural landscape of our society is changing. Buildings are steep, sharp lines cutting through an urban landscape, a far cry from the blue shutters and picket fences of yesteryear. In a daring landscape that is changing with the desires of artists, designers and architects alike, aesthetic values saturate our everyday lives from designer wireless kettles to designer monolithic museums and concert halls.

Last week, I looked at prefabricated architecture with renewed interest. Once a stopgap housing solution, architects are using prefab buildings to push the envelope in creative spaces and realize fresh possibilities in environmental sustainability. If so, why do I not see more architects jumping on the bandwagon of churning out such homes?

On the other hand, public awareness is growing, courtesy of groundbreaking art exhibitions pushing the ideals of prefab dwellings in celebration of its merits. If actual execution couldn’t convince, would its approach in the name of art sway prefab as the shape of modern architecture? After all, art—to me—is quite simply an exercise in emotion and reaction.

And I note with great interest the exterior of many prefab structures resemble Gerrit Rietveld’s Rietveld Schröder House built in 1924, whose architecture was styled exclusively upon the principles of the Danish De Stijl artistic movement. Though the ties seem completely irrelevant, there may be some interlocking ideology between the two concepts to pick on.

DECONSTRUCTING AN IDEAL

The De Stijl movement pursued a utopian ideal embodying secular tranquility and societal order. Its pioneers favored abstraction and sought to deconstruct forms and eliminate restrictions by distilling shapes and colors to its natural residue. They worked only with primary colors, including black and white, and utilized only horizontal and vertical lines. As associate professor Charlotte Jirousek of Cornell University indicates: “The philosophy was based on functionalism, with a severe and doctrinaire insistence on the rectilinearity of the planes, which seem to slide across one another like sliding panels.”

This influence may not be wholly distinctive in its movement, but modern prefab ideology parallels shreds of De Stijl’s founding concepts. Drawing comparisons from design to philosophy between the two, one may detect a hint as to the direction prefab might eventually head towards. Where the strength of the De Stijl movement diluted and diversified towards its end (it ended after inspiring broader modern movements in the 1930s, most notably the Bauhaus style) the only question remains is whether prefab can escape a similar fate.

Where in art the artist expresses, in prefab the architect self-realizes. And as an educated audience, there is a lot more to just a blind admiration of these home exhibits. Prefab architects seek a human connection to their art the same way one “feels” a painting or identifies with a particularly appealing photograph. The personal spaces these architects craft bears a message of possibility, and in each aesthetically pleasing line, audiences are brought to appreciate and comprehend not just the differences of traditional and modular building styles, but predominantly the ideas behind it that has flamed its progress.

Using prefabrication as an art form generously allows an architect all explorative potential. With every definitive line his pen draws across the blueprint he sets out to challenge (preconceptions), defend (ideology) and illuminate (the future). When ready, architects will be able to illustrate the development of prefab into its next era. But before this manifests itself in a society built responsibly, many of us are still hanging upon its learning curve. Each individual’s or community’s reaction towards this progress will chart prefab’s growth in society. For now it is one of the numerous dreams and trends that have materialized with the help of technological progression, which architects have at their disposal to mould as they wish.

AN IDEAL IN PROGRESS

As many as there may be who will welcome and embrace prefab as a possibility in their near future, there are many more today who will politely appreciate prefab as another art form. The reality still stands that as much as prefabricated architecture provides the much needed environmentally-friendly housing solution, it is not an effective addition to many of the world’s overcrowded, bustling cities.

I agree with exhibition curator and New York School of Interior Design (NYSID) professor Dr. Evie T. Joselow when she asserts in an interview that “they [prefab houses] become more expensive with delivery and with actual construction” as the movement progresses. For its Dwell Home competition, the construction of Mountain Retreat by Resolution: 4 Architect went over budget, a probable hint at the indispensable truth of monetary economics. Architect Gregory La Vardera of Ecocontempo considers: “It will take more time, but in the end prefab may not be the mechanism that delivers houses on par with the status quo. It may simply be the catalyst for modern breaking into the mainstream housing market.

Google “prefab” today and you will be barraged by countless websites vociferously offering this cost-effective, energy-saving option, with or without a customizable touch. Take a closer look and perhaps you might be questioning whether this notion is applicable to your surrounding conditions. Escalating costs tied with the introduction of customizable options are starting to debunk one of prefab’s original assurances of affordability, a grim predictability we somehow have no way of escaping. This irony occurs neither through the fault of the movement nor the ambitions of the architects, simply because we live in a fast-paced world eager to exploit and evolve.

While prefab’s ardent supporters endure and soldier on through its trials and tribulations, the rest of us wait with bated breath as the redesigning landscape of the world rises and falls at the whim of another’s imagination. The De Stijl movement may have faded and collapsed upon its own rigidity, but the nobility of prefab’s ideals in addressing solutions for disaster-prone areas surpasses the fate of its predecessor.

Predicting where prefab will end up is premature at this moment when the possibilities are still expanding. However, there is no doubt where it could lead – only forward. Whether or not the homes of the rich and famous are built in Los Angeles and carted half way around the world at their whim, or the homes in New Orleans built to withstand the floods with prefab’s progressing technology, one can only wonder. I wonder this with little skepticism, as I stand looking out my window 23 storeys above the teeming streets of my urban city.