I recently found myself, in the company of a small child, gazing upon a whale skeleton at the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris and thinking that the space between its ribs compared favorably with the average two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan. That real-estate-obsessed New Yorkers are flocking to “Home Delivery,” MOMA’s survey of over a century of designs for prefabricated housing, will come as no surprise. This show is like an open house where you don’t have to leave your name or pretend that you’re seriously interested in buying. Its organizers have taken advantage of a temporarily empty lot next-door to the museum (where a Jean Nouvel building will soon rise) to commission five wildly different, architect-designed model houses, which were shipped in or erected on-site from prefabricated, sometimes off-the-shelf materials.
Here you can flirt with the idea of suburbia without ever straying from midtown. Resist the temptation to begin your visit in this outdoor arena, however, and make your way to the museum’s sixth floor, where curator Barry Bergdoll’s highly engaging if diffuse historical overview begins with some seductively perforated and undulating wall fragments, commissioned for this exhibition, which look like pieces of the Alhambra fed through a computer, and with a hilarious bit of history—Buster Keaton’s silent comedy One Week (1920)—projected overhead.
Keaton’s parody of the pre-cut timber kits (assembly time: one week) that promised a solution to that era’s housing crisis begins with a newlywed couple’s new home arriving via truck in a coffin-like box. Keaton, the intrepid groom, begins setting it up, not knowing that his bride’s jilted suitor has renumbered the kit’s parts, so that what emerges is a Cubist dream house of odd angles, with doors in place of windows—and liable to be set spinning at the first strong wind.
Keaton’s film points to an ambivalence at the heart of prefabricated housing, because our ideas of home are intimately bound up with our amorous longings. Who really wants to shack up, to shelter their precious love, in some infinitely replicable, factory-made product? A house, after all, is not quite like a pair of shoes or a car, examples that modernist architects such Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius (both early and fervent proponents of prefabrication) were perennially trotting out as models of industrial production. A house is the exoskeleton of a family, shaped by and shaping their relations, and as such, is imbued with the deepest currents of emotional life.
The American postwar period, for instance, during which developer William Levitt was at one point churning out over 150 houses per week for suburban enclaves like Levittown, was also marked by rabid conservatism. Those tidy houses were meant for happy families, which, as Tolstoy noted, are all alike. (I grew up in one such house, but its lawn was ragged, and beyond the bang of its torn screen door lay a world in deep disorder.)
In fact, “Home Delivery” reveals the history of prefabrication as veering uncertainly between utopian aspirations and crushingly anonymous standardization. The modernist dream of housing for the masses—combining aesthetic purity with supreme efficiency, affordability, and hygienic standards—could swerve and become a totalitarian nightmare: Witness the endless rows of Krushchovkas, the almost indistinguishable apartment blocks that covered the Eastern Bloc like a fungus, architectural symptoms of an ill society.
Novel constructions (like Thomas Alva Edison’s single-pour concrete houses, cast in cement from an immense mold) and futuristic innovations (such as Buckminster Fuller’s Wichita House, a mechanical-looking steel yurt that no one in 1946 seemed prepared to inhabit) vied with more conventional structures. The Lustron Corporation, for example, gave William Levitt a run for his money with an all-steel, two-bedroom cottage, produced between 1948 and 1950, whose porcelain-enameled exterior was adapted from White Castle roadside restaurants. (The MOMA show includes a partial reconstruction of one such house, shipped in from Virginia.)
Next to it, Jean Prouvé’s models and drawings for his metal, pagoda-like Maison Tropicale, meant to provide quick, climate-controlled, and energy-conscious shelter in hot climates, appear as exotic as the French colonial outposts he designed them for—too exotic, in fact, for his intended clientele of bureaucrats and businessmen.
“Home Delivery” reveals the prefabricated home as subject to the whims of History. Gropius’s portable Copper Houses, for example, conceived in 1930s Germany, were soon adopted by Jewish refugees fleeing to Palestine; in the ’60s and ’70s, the British firm Archigram’s semi-inflatable, organicist “Living Pod” and Japanese Metabolist architect Kisho Kurokawa’s “Capsule Tower”—which provided minimalist housing for Tokyo salarymen—responded to changes in family mobility and the duration of bachelorhood, respectively. Today’s architects, empowered by computerized design programs, emphasize flexibility of customization, answering to an increased appetite for individuation. No one, it seems, wants to live in a house just like their neighbors’ anymore.
Which brings us to the model dwellings in the lot next to the museum. Did any of them feel like home? My son, age five, displayed a native New Yorker’s appetite for the biggest one: Kieran Timberlake Associates’ “Cellophane House,” an airy, four-story tower whose skeleton is entirely composed of off-the-shelf steel and sheathed in what looks like Saran wrap embedded with computer chips. (I, too, was seduced, though somewhat put off by the idea of a house potentially more intelligent than its owner.)
At a mere 76 square feet, Richard Horden and Haack + Hopfner Architects’ “Micro Compact Home,” or “mch,” speaks to one’s inner Unabomber: a tiny steel cube containing all the components of a modern home. Yet its parts are so streamlined and tightly fitted together as to discourage not only the accumulation of material goods (no books, please, or personal papers), but also excessively tall or corpulent dinner guests.
I liked “System3,” designed by Austrian architects Oskar Leo Kaufmann and Albert Rüf, a long, single-story “unit” that looked something like a shipping container luxuriously outfitted by BMW, though it was broiling hot inside each time I visited, and its austere elegance promised to be at least as uncomfortable as the loft we currently inhabit. But then, location is everything.