Museum of Modern Art, 248 pp., $45.00
Whitney Museum of American Art/Yale University Press, 258 pp., $50.00 (paper)
One of the most persistent yet elusive dreams of the Modern Movement in architecture has been prefabrication: industrially made structures that can be assembled at a building site. Although prefabrication has a long history—the ancient Romans shipped pre-cut stone columns, pediments, and other architectural elements to their colonies in North Africa, where the numbered parts were reassembled into temples—the idea took on a new impetus with the technological advances of the Industrial Revolution. Nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century exponents of prefabrication were certain it would supplant age-old traditions of individualized design and handcrafted construction. The building art would be revolutionized by freeing designers and construction workers from repetitive tasks, and democratized by making high-style architecture more affordable.
However, in the century and a half since the first comprehensive masterpiece of modern architectural prefabrication—Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace of 1850–1851 in London, which combined modular planning, interchangeable parts, and fast construction—entirely ready-made buildings have been scarce at best, although prefabricated components are now used in virtually all construction. The major impediment has been a matter of economics. The financial benefits of prefabrication have never been as large as its advocates predicted, for although some labor costs can be reduced by machine manufacturing, on-site assembly of any building still depends to some extent on the handwork of skilled craftsmen.
The human element that can never be eliminated from the construction process was addressed by Buster Keaton in his two-reel film One Week of 1920, a prescient satire on prefabrication that must have bemused as well as amused audiences at a time when growing numbers of Americans were buying factory-made houses from mail-order catalogs. Rather than celebrating this modern innovation, Keaton—the peerless master of intricately choreographed and perfectly timed sight gags—imagined practically every catastrophe that could occur after the pieces for a ready-to-assemble dream house were delivered.
A captivating clip from One Week is among the many highlights of the Museum of Modern Art’s thought-provoking exhibition “Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling,” which overlapped this summer with the Whitney Museum of American Art’s “Buckminster Fuller: Starting with the Universe,” a retrospective on the engineer and inventor who designed several prototypes for prefabricated housing.
It says a great deal about the overestimated potential and unfulfilled promise of prefabrication that so many of the projects displayed in both shows were never carried out. Evanescent visions of the future are symptomatic of troubled times like ours and they also were common during the Sixties, when many felt that modern architecture had subsided into academic convention. In 1960, the Museum of Modern Art’s “Visionary Architecture” show, curated by Arthur Drexler, caused a sensation by displaying works like Fuller’s Dome Over Manhattan project, a two-mile-wide transparent canopy that would have enclosed the island’s midsection and made skyscrapers look like taxidermy specimens under a bell jar. In a review of that startling MoMA survey, Time magazine reassured its readers that such proposals “are not the work of crackpots but of reputable men.”
Ulrich Conrads and Hans-G. Sperlich’s Phantastische Architektur of 1960…
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