Thursday, August 30

Prefab or Prefad?

The always thought provoking Witold Rybczynski has compiled a short slide show essay on why the modernist prefab movement hasn't caused the architectural revolution so many are hoping for. (coughDwellcough)

The, in my opinion, superbly designed LV Home by Rocio Romero.

On why this might be so, he quotes Colin Davies’ book The Prefabricated Home:

The strength of the prefabricated house lies in its popularity, its cheapness and the industrial base from which it operates," he writes. "These are precisely the areas in which modern architecture is weakest. Modern architecture is unpopular, expensive and divorced from industrial production. That is why whenever it has tried to extend its field to include the territory of the prefabricated house it has failed and been forced to retreat.
As much as it pains me to say so - Witold, Davies, and other are right. At present date, the reality of the situation is such that the prefabricated modernist movement is not fulfilling its promise of bring good design to the masses. Homes like those pictured above will remain in the realm of second homes and "cabins" for the wealthy while those picture below will remain not only more accessible, but more desirable, to the so called masses...

That is, unless we begin to realize that the systems that make the above suburban monotony possible can also lead to other far more intriguing design outcomes.

[insert shameless plug here]

One example comes from St. Paul based Cermak Rhoades Architects (whom I do happen to work for). They've gone back to the drawing board to design a series of modern homes that utilize the same smart growth principles and well designed house plans already developed for a Greater Minnesota Housing Fund program called Building Better Neighborhoods.

Though none of these homes have yet to be built, the fact remains that good contemporary design can be affordable when you use existing construction standards. From the website:
... these affordable homes are designed in a manner that reinforces a livable and efficient community. Smaller lot sizes, welcoming front porches, and alley access garages all contribute to help make these communities walkable and inviting... clean lines, simple forms, and rich colors.

The problem now is of course that pesky little thing called the "market". It doesn't matter how affordable or well designed it is if people won't buy it.

Check out the other side of the argument, as presented by local prefab gurus, Alchemy Architects (whom again, I think do great work), recorded at Solutions Volume 1:

Brief disclaimer: The contents of this blog reflect only my opinion and not those of any other organization or business, present employer included.


Fernando Luiz Lara said...

i guess i have to disagree. The anti-modernist middleclass is very much a north-american phenomena. In the majority of the world people do desire modern homes or apartments. The un-popularity of modernism is to me constrained to the 50 states, even canada is a bit different.

Colin said...

I can only speak from my own N. America-centric experience, but my gut tells me you are probably right. Architectural nostalgia has an especially strong hold on the American psyche, while it seems much of the rest of the world has embraced an architectural aesthetic that matches the building technologies and construction techniques of today.

lavardera said...

Witold Rybczynski essay was not well considered, and not up to par with his usual output. He choose to ignore the output of several of the most successful vendors of modern prefab in the current resurgence. Alchemy Architects Wee Houses, Hive Modular, Michelle Kaufman, and in a more expensive market segment Resolution for Architecture have in fact suceeded in doing just that - bringing better design to more people at a lower cost. I don't know what he is looking for, and by what standard he is calling the recent movement a failure. Will prefab modern replace mediocre traditionalism? No. Why should it? Will prefab modern help make modern houses a choice for people who have no other options? Yes - it already has begun to.