The Museum of Modern Art’s (MOMA) exhibit about home prefabrication (Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling) is delightful, insightful and inspiring. Even so, it is also slightly depressing.

The sixth floor display is mostly a retrospective, which gives evidence to just how much creative energy has gone into an apparently age-old quest by architects, inventors and entrepreneurs to realize the elusive beautiful, affordable and easily-assembled factory built house. In film, models, original drawings, artifacts, advertisements and even a reassembled portion of an actual home, it is clear that that the compelling vision of marrying the benefits of factory production with the need for “better, cheaper, faster” homebuilding isn’t a new notion.

Kit homes were being shipped from Great Britain to Australia in the early 1800’s by The Manning Portable Cottage Company. They exported “dozens” of packaged homes to adventurous settlers who hoped to bring some civilized comfort with them to ease the difficulties of the wilderness. Thomas Edison took a crack at industrializing the construction process with a concrete house that started as a complete form of itself and then, through a hole in the roof, the wet concrete was poured, creating all at once the floors, walls, roof, porch columns, and ornamentation. Unlikely as it seems, about one hundred were built, making this venture a relative success story, even as it failed in relation to Edison’s hope of revolutionizing homebuilding throughout the country.

The most spectacular success/failure may have been the Lustron House, an all-steel concept that was launched with the benefit of massive government funding and great expectations. Twenty-five hundred homes were produced before the overly-invested company declared bankruptcy. One of the homes was set up in the MOMA display. As advertised, everything is steel, including cabinets and closets. It was an ambitious idea, but an awful place to live: incarceration comes to mind. In the history of prefabrication, 2,500 built projects is a big number, but the size of the investment failure ($40 million or so) was much bigger.

Most of the ideas and projects on display were just un-built ideas, single prototype realizations, or otherwise failures. Despite the efforts of renowned architects such as Walter Gropius, Frank Lloyd Wright, Buckminster Fuller, Marcel Breur and Le Corbusier, the ideal of prefabrication didn’t find a market. Despite numerous patents, systems innovations, and grand production possibilities, prefabrication has even yet to fulfill its promise.

In addition to the display, there are five full scale homes built in an adjacent vacant lot. They give ample demonstration that the dream is still alive; nothing about the prefabrication disappointments of the past seem to have dimmed the hopes of architects today. Charming, idiosyncratic, silly and occasionally wonderful things happen when designers set their sights on what is known as the “mass housing problem.”

On the first day of our visit, we went to the inside exhibit first, then toured the full scale homes on the lot. In this order, the sobering (and inspiring) historical perspective caused the contemporary model homes to feel unimpressive. Besides the materials and technology, I was groping to see the progress. On the next day, we went to the see the model homes first. This time, with the morning light, they looked fresher, better, more hopeful; a little neighborhood of grand notions, fully constructed. How bad could that be? When I went back to the exhibit hall, I didn’t linger, but there were some things I wanted to see again. Then I watched some of the film for a short while…and left. I wanted to believe, and therefore didn’t care to spend too much time in the company of evidence to the contrary.

I will say more about the five houses on display at Home Delivery in my next post, but in the meantime, if you possibly can, go. For those of us who care about what happens next with the homebuilding industry, MOMA has delivered. This is a special window in which the past, present and future can be seen all in one place. For a clear view, though, you kind of have to squint.

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