Monday, September 29, 2008

Home Delivery. Fabricating the Modern Dwelling. MOMA, NYC

Prior to attending Peter Christensen’s noon talk at the Museum of Modern Art regarding this exhibition, I spent about an hour on the 6th floor looking at the works presented. Following his talk he asked if there were comments or questions and while I had notes, actually subjects that I had jotted down, my mind had not yet formed the material into a sustainable dialogue and so I did not bring them up.

These were my notes:
The current commercial success of modular homes in America…factory made log home kits…post and beam timber kits…teepees…yurts…bamboo.

From the review of the exhibition in The New York Review of Books, I had understood that this was a thorough presentation of the history of prefabricated housing. After spending an hour with the material and an hour at the talk, I found that I disagreed with that appraisal. Following the talk I spent another hour in the gallery and about fifteen minutes with the five projects on the adjacent lot. My opinion remained unchanged.

Taking the nomadic culture of early human communities into consideration, modular housing is one of the oldest of human artifacts. To confine an overview of the subject to the past 180 years and focus exclusively on the West, denies the full range of that history and very likely omits some concepts and practices that might be useful to modern architects who have that area as an interest. There is also a noticeable omission in this exhibition of the state sponsored building that has been erected by the Soviet Union, China, (where vast cities have been built for enormous populations), as well as in India and Latin America. Many of those projects were erected using modular units.

Considering all of these omissions it became clear that the work presented has a reference to low or middle income housing in the industrialized west, but that the projects presented are for the most part merely school or studio projects by architectural students or name designers, or the results of competitions sponsored by the manufacturers of various materials; i.e., plywood, plastic, metal. As a result most of these projects, and especially those on the exterior lot, are only fanciful musings made of inhospitable materials exploring engineering concepts and without having as their base a philosophy of what constitutes a home, a human habitation: it is more nearly a show about some of the work of prominent or up and coming young architects than it is about housing.

The reference to Frank Lloyd Wright illustrates my observation. Displayed are some architectural drawings made by the Wright studio for houses made of poured concrete. There are as well drawings for the Jacobs House. But no mention is made that the Jacobs House was the prototype of the Usonia House, housing designed for working class families, of which almost two hundred were built, or of Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois, which was one of Wright’s early masterpieces in molded reinforced concrete and currently being considered by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Broad Acres, Wright’s designed community, is not mentioned nor are the houses Wright designed using cement blocks. (Nor are cement blocks mentioned.) Probably more than any other architect of the twentieth Century Wright explored the idea of prefabrication and affordable domestic architecture on the most extended scale. That his inclusion here is merely token is very obvious.

By contrast a building designed by Ray and Charles Eames using catalogue available, factory made pieces is presented as a unique exercise, although it might have been pointed out as well that the Seattle Public Library, designed by Rem Koolhaus, follows that same practice and that despite the predominance of the standardization in its parts it is the most modern of modern buildings.

The error of almost all of these structures is that they follow too closely the Corbusian dictum that a house is a factory for living, rather than the Wrightian concept that a house is a home, a place of beauty that is a refuge from the world outside. In too many of these models there is a too hardness of surface. It was delightful to see several models of buildings designed by Jean Prouvet. I saw his Tropical House fully erected at the Armand Hammer Museum in Los Angeles in 2005. It is a very nice design, one I would think that is very well suited for a tropical climate. But I was very put off by its metal surfaces. Its hardness was too hard. I could not imagine living comfortably in that space. Nor did I sense in his other buildings that they would make good living spaces. They are attractive exteriors of modern buildings but they are empty on the inside. I sensed a lack of what Wright called organic architecture: their form did not arise from the center, from their function.

When I first saw the Tropical House, and seeing it here again, I was aware of how much nicer I thought it would be had it been made in bamboo. Bamboo is a wonderful, warm, and somehow human material and it is one of the most sustainable of building materials. It has great strength: in Colombia, many years ago, I observed that many of the high rise buildings under construction were built using a scaffolding of bamboo. There is no mention here of bamboo although there are architects whose work can be seen on You Tube who are working with it to build prefabricated housing.

This awareness brought to my mind the realization that while the Buckminster Fuller Wichita House, made of sheet metal, had been planned but never built, (although growing up near Wichita in the 1950’s I believe I remember having seen some buildings similar to that one), there is a very similar factory made product, The Air Stream Mobile Home, which has had a great popularity over the years. It even has its own fan club. I thought it odd that that or any of the other mobile homes that have been used as the building blocks of communities all over the country were omitted. Was it because they were not designed by Name Architects? (I have recently come across a word I like very, very much: Starchitect. Very apt here.)

Of the designs in this exhibition that were realized none of them appears to have been embraced by the public, none of them was as commercially successful as is the modular homes being fabricated now for exurbia. Considering these recent modular homes with their variations of stylistic references, Tudor, Georgian, Cape, it made me wonder if those in the exhibition were not successful because the designs lacked a syntax that communicated successfully with the working class house buying public. When a man decides to buy or to build himself a house, he generally considers that he is “putting a roof over his head”. Showing him a structure that lacks a visible roof is not likely to illicit his admiration. Add to that the omission of other visible syntactical clues, entryway treatments, windows, chimneys, etc. and we should be able to understand the marketing problems.

I believe Frank Lloyd Wright understood this. In his prairie houses his roofs have a low pitch, low but there is a visible roof however slight it might be. In Fallingwater there is no roof. But his client was an educated man for whom something in a different syntax might have been attempted. (In addition, the man’s son was one of Wright’s students: he could interpret the building for his father!) Knowing that Mr. Kaufman was educated and wealthy, and that the homes built more recently by other architects for other wealthy clients are in the modern sensibility, sans roof, it can be understood that there has been an evolution within the syntax of home building: a house with a roof is a working class house, a house without a roof is for the upper crust. Marketing then becomes a success or a failure because each of the buyers knows his place. (And refuses to budge from it.)

The model in this exhibition that most successfully addresses the issue of syntax is the New Orleans House. It is a literal reference to the houses already in that city. But this particular example has a whole set of other problems. I have painted many murals and I have produced decorative paint finishes on any number of walls. Almost everyone I have ever known has wanted to “decorate” his personal space. Seeing this house with its snap together jigsaw puzzle pieces, I saw surfaces with insurmountable problems for the decorative finish. In the end, despite its stylistic charm, I saw only an inhospitable engineering concept presented for public consideration.

Of the five houses on the empty lot not one of them seemed to me to have been designed as a residence. Each of them was simply a working out of engineering concepts. Not one of them had a sense of flow or of place. All of them were impersonal. In the Cellophane House I could only imagine how horrified FLW might have been once he had stepped inside it. It lacked charm and character and failed to direct the attention and movement. The only positive I found in any of these was the System3 entry, a modular unit made of wood. Stepping into that warm, embracing environment in which the material muted the exterior sound, giving it the acoustical pleasure of a concert hall, I understood that there is a syntax in building material as well, and that none of these designers had taken that into consideration.

It is always interesting how quality shows, how the superior entry will make its presence known. Of all of the beautifully made models on display here, none of them seem so human and so logical and so right as the model of a design by Paul Rudolph. I can imagine an entire exhibition being built around this work…his work in fact. I hope the time will soon be right for that to happen.

The exhibition on the sixth floor incorporated drawings, photographs, films, models, and building parts, unfortunately in a fairly standard, run of the mill multi media installation. I think uninspired sums it up. On the other hand, viewed strictly as an exhibition of beautifully made architectural models this is an excellent exhibition, if you like architectural models. I do. That the works are better as models made of wood than the stone, metal, or plastic of the finished buildings should alert some clever young architect to a valuable insight. The warm glow of the wooden model of the Safdie project built in Israel, in cement, was a breathtaking variation.

The looming presence of the grossly ugly and decrepit Lustron House at the rear of the installation should have set bells to ringing for the exhibition designers. Not even museum lighting could have salvaged this. (As far as I could tell, there was no lighting at all on this cold and corroded metal box.) Rule one: there can be too much of a bad thing.

Just inside the exhibition gallery the room was bisected by a wall of 2 by 4 studding showing us a modern construction technique. But that technique is used in stick built houses, not in prefabricated housing. In addition this was not construction grade lumber but dimensional lumber in a first grade quality material. Construction material in modern housing, from forests grown for the trade, is a scandal of inferiority. But of course such a common material would be inappropriate in the august Museum of Modern Art. Apparently on west 53rd Street, wrong is better than representational, in keeping, I suppose, with the abstract nature of so much of the artwork there.

No comments: