Wednesday, August 08, 2007

here's to tiny revolutions (per second)

Witold Rybczynski's latest slideshow in Slate takes aim at neomodern prefabricated housing, with somewhat deadly aim. He makes the valid points that:

a. This has been attempted many times in the past, and
b. No attempt has ever really "revolutionized" domestic architecture.

Both of these things are undoubtedly true. From Lustron to Gropius, prefabrication has been part of the "future" of housing for a century now, and with seemingly little effect upon the vast majority of housing. This is not to say his thesis is perfect. For one, he makes a vastly misinformed case for manufactured (mobile) housing, one which I hope he reconsiders. He also shows us a spec house making extensive use of premanufactured components, and somehow manages to draw the obvious conclusion; that the changes that architects have been attempting to force are being slowly brought to bear by the market itself; prefabrication is now de rigeur for a lot of structure, sheathing, cladding, and even MEP systems, and seems be trending even further in that direction. It is my opinion that this is somewhat unavoidable; that in an age of advanced consumerism homes will become more product-like, a process that must take advantage of the fine tolerances and replicability of factory production. The role of architects in this case is to get on board before we become the rear guard; that is, embrace the ideals of the product world - branding, image, tactility, assembly-- in addition to those that we have been brought up to idealise - form, light, material, process. This may be a tiny revolution against what people have attempted in the past, but it is a significant one.

1 comment:

T said...

A critical and possibly obvious distinction between branded building materials or components and branded complete environments or buildings is that components, no matter how innovative, will consistently be arranged and assembled according to old notions of space and comfort. Maybe this is the most reasonable and careful route to the “future.” It is certainly the most fluid and it’s not as though one could realistically argue for its end.

However, to submit completely to this kind of slow progress would, in fact, be a real break from history. It would also signal the validation of Tafuri’s grimmest assessment of the architect’s position in a capitalist society. The design of pre-fabricated homes as a supplement to the market’s new components has the potential to expand our ideas of home and even community at a broader scale than a new glazing system or refrigerator ever will. Without a comprehensive reexamination of pre-manufactured space, the use of new materials will effectively amount to “pimp my house.”

While new products represent technological advances, new product-houses represent the synthesis of this technological growth along with cultural shifts. No, the pre-manufactured home is not new, but its continued development cannot be seen as the mere prolongation of a fad or trend. It has become established as a component of our built environment and, therefore, deserves further investigations.

Furthermore, while the market does innovate, it will only ever innovate in ways that sustain the market. For this to be a critique with any merit, the architect must, of course, have real aspirations beyond the market. So with this important condition in place, an architect can offer new ways of constructing that move beyond what the consumer will have otherwise. This is not a denial of the aegis of the consumer over the built environment, but it serves to reaffirm and validate the accumulated knowledge and trained effort of the architect as designer.

Rybczynski's main point seems to be that today’s pre-fab homes are just too expensive. This may be true, but as with any modern product innovation, costs decrease with increased production and market driven competition. Today’s consumer also sets a higher hurdle for the design of his home. As income gaps grow and the cult of the wealthy is fueled by widespread media reassurance, the poorest American has higher or more pointed expectations of comfort. In a hyper-commercialized society such as ours we must recognize that change requires effort.