“To find where the mobility of organization life is leading, the new package suburbs maybe the best place to look. For they are not merely great conglomerations of mass housing. They are a new social institution. It is a communal way of life and the residents are well aware of it. They are of many minds how to describe it. Sometimes they lean to analogies of life frontier, or the early colonial settlements, or a lay version of Army life.
But no matter how sharp the coinages – “a womb with a view,” “a Russia, only with money” – it is a way of life they find suited to their wants, their needs, and their times. Except for the onastic orders and the family itself, there is probably no other social institution in the U.S. in which there is such a communal sharing of property…”We laughed at first at how the Marxist society had finally arrived,” one resident said, “but I think the real analogy is to the pioneers.”
William Whyte, The Organization Man, 1956.
After World War Two there was a huge deficit in housing in America. Architects and builders transplanted the social and industrial patterns of World War Two into the planning and design of housing. The social cooperation and technology that won the war was now promising to build the American dream for everyone.
“Houses like Fords” is what people said. This was the American Dream brought to you by the industrial process.
“Houses like Fords,” On the left a Lustron home 1948, more like a Toyota Camry. On the right Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion house, 1946, more like a concept car.
There are two architectural directions to the task of prefabricated housing in this period.
One, make the design familiar to the broadest possible population. Two, make the design an experiment in technology itself.
Now let’s take a quick look at prefabricated housing today.
I think this beautiful Marmol Radziner prefab home, fits into the Toyota Camry camp, but with a few caveats.
The design of the prefab is a branding strategy to appeal to pretty well-off professional folks, who know a little about architectural history.
But I became interested in understanding what is behind this nostalgia. And when I looked more closely at it, it revealed some unsettling questions.
I want to take you back very, very briefly to the American Revolution.
What I want to suggest here is that there is a psychological component to this nostalgia that reoccurs during times of dramatic change in American history. Often in times of dramatic change the visual arts turns to reductionism. And this seems very natural. Often after a war or major calamity, ornamentation or the baroque, strikes one as indulgent. We can see this shift very clearly in the furniture made before and after the American Revolution.
The ornate, aristocratic decoration of the heavily English influenced Queen Anne and Chippendale furniture is abandoned in favor precise lines and inlay of the Federal Style influenced by classical sources. There is a cultural shift in America, after the Revolution, to Roman and Greek visual sources to legitimatize the new republic.
Okay, what happens after 911?
On the left is a Mac G4, 1999. Notice the round almost baroque design. It has color. It is fun and friendly.
On the right is a Mac G5, 2003. It is an ominous box, monochromatic and has sharp lines. It is serious and self-contained. God forbid that you try and break-in to that box, it may give you an electric shock or silently alert a security force.
The anxiety and fear of the post-911 context is evident here. Instead of “Houses like
Fords” this is “Houses like Macs.”
It seems that the prefabricated home in the post-911 context can be examined as a means to institutionalize personal and collective security.
There is the same serious, self-contained feeling in this prefab as in the G5. Once I’m inside, I’m protected. I find that the openings are more frames to organize the landscape, or hold the landscape at the edge of the opening, rather than letting the landscape come inside.
The promise of technology now takes on a new meaning in prefab: As thousands of units
are mass produced, our collective security is certainly assured.
There is also another facet to this that I find most intriguing. Just like military life was transposed into postwar prefab housing the office life is entering now our domestic domain.
The social uniformity of the workplace, it’s emphasis on emotional balance and social
harmony, has now found a form-world in prefab.
The conference room table and the laptop are now rendered into architecture.
Now prefab has become a living vessel that is clean, safe and emotionally even: the home has became an extension of the business life-style enclave.
The world is shut out, and inside, is an uncontaminated world where all one needs is laptop and where one can surgically socialize in digital space.
Today’s prefab home sits alone, a marker of our self-reliance and our desire to remain connected to American landscape.
But these sentiments are not new in American life.
On the left, a painting by Thomas Cole (Home in the Woods, 1846) and on the right the LV home in rural Missouri. The similarity in these images is quite remarkable, given their 150-year separation, but not surprising, because Romanticism in America has not waned.
In both images a self-reliant, virtuous pioneer lives in harmony, in a pristine American Eden.
I want to conclude with a few images that I hope will inspire you to think about prefabrication and the meaning of technology in ways relevant to our present and future state.
Aside from the Lustron experiment, prefabrication has been mostly a lot of hammering or welding inside a shop. So there is really very little change going on here, in terms of efficiency.
On the left the Lustron method of welding walls. On the right the Marmol Prefab method of welding walls.
I would like you, as students, to think about ways in which the industrial process can be used to manufacture architecture. This means that the role of the architect may need to change a little. The architect will need to be able to understand the industrial process and work with engineers and scientists in fields not normally associated with the making of buildings.
I would also like you to think of where we are headed. My suggestion is to look at the ways in which energy will play an every increasing role in defining our culture. The use of manufactured components; for example, to make housing more energy self-reliant would be a place to start. How can small communities of homes generate their own power and would this effect architecture.
And finally, I would encourage you all to think about global labor pressures on the American workplace and home. For instance, right now more and more architecture firms, whether they will admit it or not, are sending drafting and other architectural work overseas. There will be less of a conventional workplace culture in the coming years.
More independent, associations of small strategic groups are likely. You should be thinking about the roles architecture and building technology play in this cultural change.
What’s After Prefab?
Lecture Delivered at Cal Poly Pomona November 2006
Bill Ferehawk is a documentary filmmaker who uses the built environment as a lens to examine important issues of American life. Recent films: Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future, Vladamir Ossipoff: True to Form and Lustron: The House America’s Been Waiting For. Bill holds a Master of Architecture degree from Yale School of Architecture and a Bachelor of Arts in Art History from University of California, Berkeley.
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