Prefab: The Dream that Refused to Die

The 1990s brought renewed interest in an old idea. But the newcomers seemed as perplexed by the challenge as the masters of design who preceded them.

There is no design story more predictable, more vulnerable to paint-by-numbers treatment, than a prefab-architecture story. It’s a little awkward to announce that fact at the start of, well, a prefab-architecture story, but there you go. Nearly every critic and architecture journalist writes one at some point. I wrote more of them than I’d care to admit after prefab fever struck the architecture world and the design press in the late 1990s. You, dear reader, have probably written one yourself. I’ll Google you later and find out.

The basic formula goes something like this: Begin with a quote from a towering figure in the modern movement—Corb is probably best, though Gropius or Bucky Fuller will suffice, and Richard Rogers or one of the Metabolists will do in a pinch—lamenting the fact that although once-handmade products like shoes, shirts, and cars are now efficiently mass-produced, our best houses are still somehow created one at a time, in a costly, wasteful, and practically antediluvian manner. Then acknowledge that each year, of course, tens of thousands of single-family homes are indeed prefabricated in this country and around the world—just not the kinds of houses that you or any of your fellow design sophisticates would be caught dead living in.

Turn next to a quick historical overview of the greatest prefab experiments, sharpening your readers’ interest with stunning photographs of Zvi Hecker’s Ramot housing complex in Jerusalem or Moshe Safdie’s Habitat ’67, in Montreal. Then introduce the design so beautiful it ought to end all arguments about whether an off-the-shelf residence can carry the ineffable air of authentically great architecture: the Eames home and studio in the Pacific Palisades area of Los Angeles, otherwise known as Case Study No. 8, smiling shyly at us from behind a protective scrim of eucalyptus leaves and six decades of historical fog.

Next, announce that the longstanding standoff in architecture between high design and mass production is finally being resolved, the gulf being bridged, with new examples of prefabricated housing that are eye-catching, affordable, and ready to be rolled out in stunning volume. Show these sleek numbers—the FlatPak, by Charlie Lazor, for instance,
or Kieran Timberlake’s Loblolly House—in renderings and as they are being assembled in a factory somewhere. Quote an impossibly low construction cost per square foot. In my experience, $250 is usually low enough to get the DWR fans salivating; $225 is even better.

Next, pay a visit to the site of a just completed prefab. It is here that the story typically hits its first major bump in the road, for it inevitably turns out that there is just one of these new prefabs to consider, not the several dozen (or several hundred) readers may have expected, given the earlier rhetoric about economies of scale and the enduring lessons of Joseph Eichler and William Levitt. Just one. Standing by itself. (Or in the case of the houses commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art to accompany its 2008 show Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling, five, huddling together in a parking lot.) To make things more awkward still, the owner of this one-off prefab is almost always the architect herself, or the developer, or the architect’s cousin, or the developer’s brother-in-law. And when you try—politely, of course, at first—to pin down the full cost of this experiment, including land and site costs and all the rest, you are met with … stony silence, if not a suspicious glare. In this business, that sort of query is considered simply impolite. Best to stick to price per square foot for the house itself, conveniently sidestepping what it cost to buy the parcel, knock down the conventional house that had been standing on it, erect those massive retaining walls, and sink the house into the hillside to which it clings.

Here the author faces a choice. He can stick with an admittedly tempting illusion, arguing that this exquisite, defiantly stand-alone piece of architecture contains magic droplets from the wave of the future. Or he can step back and see the obvious: that this rather fragile prefab baby, so well cared for and fussed over, staged by an interior designer to within an inch of its young life, is no more the leading edge of a mass-produced army of contemporary factory-made houses than the author himself is a leading contender to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry or the next round of American Idol.

I have gone both ways in my own coverage of prefab. When I took the second path not long ago, in a piece on the developer Steve Glenn, who collaborated with the great Ray Kappe on a house in Santa Monica that was stunning and persuasive and quite obviously hugely, obscenely expensive and tricky to build, I was rewarded with an especially nasty letter to the editor painting me as a vindictive bully eager—no, desperate—to rain on Glenn’s parade.

Woe to anyone, in other words, who tries to pull back the curtain on this particular hard-shilling corner of the contemporary architecture business. I felt a little better, my thesis redeemed, when another Glenn-Kappe collaboration, this one a prefab built in Brentwood as a showcase for Wired, later hit the market for $4.15 million. So much for the downward tug on housing prices created by mass production. And so much for the notion that developers like Glenn were helping revive the democratic, even populist, spirit last seen in architecture in the days of the Bauhaus. Prefab, at least on the west side of Los Angeles, had become simply a buzzword, just another way to help market a high-end piece of residential architecture.

And really, how could it be any different? There is a stubborn contradiction, after all, at the heart of the high-design prefab movement. The places where its products hold the most appeal tend to be the places where housing costs are sky-high, like L.A., Seattle, Boston, New York City, and the Bay Area, which are already so built up that the idea of a subdivision or even one side of one street lined with sleek new prefabs makes little sense. On the other hand, in cities where flat land is still available and a concentration of prefabs is theoretically feasible—near St. Louis, say, or Albuquerque, or outside Atlanta—prices are low enough that an architecture lover with some means will always find it easier to buy and fix up a cool, overlooked 1960s modern house or even commission a custom design from scratch. In those parts of the country, $225 per square foot hardly sounds like a bargain at all.

I had dinner not long ago with a fellow design writer—a fellow contributor to this anniversary issue, in fact—and when I mentioned I’d be doing an essay on prefab, he rolled his eyes and then said, rather matter-of-factly, “Can you just kill it already?”

I thought about that question when I got home, and my answer to him is this: I’d love to kill it—God knows, if I never get another press release about the revolutionary marriage of sleek contemporary architecture and mass production, it will be too soon—but it now seems clear to me that prefab may just be invincible. And in a good way too. Not as a savior for architecture but as a vital contradiction, a necessary dilemma for the profession.

Architecture is forever stretched between the poles of art and craft, inspiration and the bottom line. Unlike, say, painting and to a greater degree even than moviemaking or publishing, it has to answer to both the creative impulse and the practical one. There are times when it holes up on one end of that spectrum or the other, thinking only about visionary worlds or only about construction and the marketplace. Lebbeus Woods, the legendary paper architect, not only has little to say to somebody like the CEO of Toll Brothers but also has no occasion to say it.

The profession needs forces that tug the poles toward the center or compel one side of the divide to consider what lies on the other. That was one nice side effect of last decade’s building boom: it gave us big corporate buildings by Daniel Libeskind and Peter Eisenman. And even if those buildings weren’t particularly good, they were part of a fascinating exchange between theory-driven architects and businessmen that quite helpfully exposed some outdated ideas and lazy assumptions on both sides.

Along the same lines, fantasizing about buying a Marmol Radziner prefab for less than half the price of your neighbor’s much less cool house—or even better, actually trying to buy one—isn’t simply a way to indulge a certain materialistic desire for a high-design, low-cost life, although it is partly that. It’s also a way, in the broadest sense, to test architecture’s limits and its tolerances, to see where it might bend toward new efficiencies and production methods and where—as a result of practical considerations or traditions in the building trades or simply consumer expectation—it will stubbornly resist them. It’s a way to bring Lebbeus Woods and the CEO face-to-face, even if only to measure the gap that continues to divide them.

Categories: Ideas, Residential Architecture