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 abounded with illustrations of built, unbuilt, and unbuildable schemes by a host of nineteenth- and twentieth-century visionaries outside the mainstream Modernist canon, including Fuller, whose geodesic domes were depicted.1 The revolutionary fervor that fueled the early Modern Movement had cooled by the early Sixties. But new, alternative versions of modernism found a plausible prehistory in Visionary Architects: Boullée, Ledoux, Lequeu of 1968, the catalog for an eye-opening exhibition of little-known eighteenth-century French renderings of hypothetical monuments on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art just as les événements de mai played out in Paris.
Visionary schemes produced during the 1960s (many of which involved prefabrication, or employed engineering techniques devised or championed by Fuller) are now being reevaluated by architectural historians, including Larry Busbea, who teaches at the University of Arizona. Busbea’s superb Topologies: The Urban Utopia in France, 1960–1970 is the first book-length study of a time and place when technologically innovative design proposals flourished on architects’ drawing boards but languished in the corridors of power.
The most characteristic manifestation of France’s postwar architectural avant-garde was the multifunctional megastructure, idealized by leftist theorists and practitioners as a catalyst for social transformation. Exemplified by the Hungarian-born architect Yona Friedman’s several unbuilt Spatial City schemes of the late Fifties and Sixties for Paris and Tunis, these sprawling mixed-use agglomerations resembled vast jungle gyms connected by lengthy public concourses and interspersed with modular enclosures. Friedman considered his designs the building blocks for an “extendable city” in which easily reconfigurable lightweight frameworks would supersede socially oppressive urban patterns, epitomized by Haussmann’s Paris city plan of the mid-nineteenth century.2
Busbea, in confident command of very abstruse material, gives a brisk and lucid account of the theoretical issues that shaped architectural thought during the initial decade of the French Fifth Republic. He places those concerns within the larger intellectual context of the Prospectivists, a forward- thinking coterie that included politicians such as Pierre Mendès France and the journalists Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber and Françoise Giroud, who shared a conviction that their country’s restoration to its pre-war international prominence could be achieved through a concerted program of scientific and technological progress.
With the election in 1958 of the culturally conservative President de Gaulle—who built very little for a French chief of state, and contented himself with cleaning soot-blackened landmarks—officials increasingly viewed the avant-garde’s new urban vision as too inventive, ambitious, and unpredictable in political impact to risk their sponsorship. The exception was Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers’s Georges Pompidou Center of 1971–1977 in Paris (though it derived from an English source: the unbuilt Fun Palace of 1961–1964, a performing- and visual-arts complex conceived by the architect Cedric Price and the dramaturge Joan Littlewood).
Topologies is illustrated with several designs by French architects and engineers who adapted ideas closely associated with Fuller, such as Günther Günschel’s Project for a Dome Composed of Hyperbolic Paraboloids of 1957, a variant of the geodesic dome, and an undated structure by David Georges Emmerich, based on the principle called “tensegrity,” which Fuller picked up from the sculptor Kenneth Snelson at Black Mountain College. Snelson realized that the powerful forces needed for high-performance engineering could be held in dynamic tension with minimal structural apparatus. Fuller applied that finding to his compositions of weblike scaffoldings, both rectilinear and curved, which supported themselves with astonishing efficiency.
During the 1960s, the American counterculture found a most unlikely idol in Fuller, who was over seventy and had worked for the military, but achieved the status of a rock star. In countless public lectures at colleges, conferences, and festivals throughout the hectic final decades of his life, this born salesman and indefatigable self-promoter mesmerized audiences with his epic lectures, which went on for as long as sixteen hours. As the ever-observant Philip Johnson enviously reminisced, “No one had the kids eating out of his hand like he did.”
Films of Fuller in action make it difficult to fathom why so many were so excited by his personal appearances, except perhaps as feats of endurance. He was unusually short, and so shortsighted that thick eyeglass lenses magnified his gaze to disconcerting immensity. His clipped New England monotone was no match for Robert Frost’s adorable twang, but Fuller exerted a hypnotic effect that belied his unprepossessing appearance, as he spun out homilies on how easy it would be to right all the world’s wrongs if only we followed his simple instructions.
It was hard to disagree with much of what he said—the unconscionable inequities in the global distribution of wealth ought to be redressed; no one anywhere should be allowed to live in hunger, disease, or poverty; science and technology must be harnessed for peaceful purposes rather than war. However, Fuller seldom got around to specifying the means by which such needed reforms could be instituted.
His rambling discourses, far less comprehensible on the printed page than they seemed when he delivered them in person, provide ample proof of a fertile but scattered mind and help to explain his obsession with inventing new systems and with wordplay, which he perhaps hoped would organize his hazy and disconnected ideas. (Fuller’s World Game of 1969, meant to teach the public about international resource allocation, has won him an avid constituency among linguistic theorists.)
Fuller’s spellbinding delivery of fuzzy prose brings to mind his greatest architectural contemporary, Louis Kahn, similarly verbose and vague. However, Kahn was no charlatan, which cannot be said with absolute certainty of Fuller, a talented structural engineer but a most unreliable social engineer who abandoned more than one of his almost-finished projects, it would seem, because the results might have disproved his overreaching claims or shown his theories to have been faulty. His most fantastic invention was not the geodesic dome—in retrospect the fool’s gold of mid-twentieth-century architecture—but rather the fictionalized life story he fed to credulous biographers.
His version of things remained unchallenged until Stanford University acquired the Fuller archive in 1999 (sixteen years after his death) and finally opened his copious papers to full scrutiny. As with Nixon and his White House tapes, Fuller was the agent of his own historical undoing by meticulously recording in private the very activities he lied about with such impunity in public. Fuller called his omnium-gatherum of 847 life-and-works scrapbooks the Dymaxion Chronofile, but a better name might have been Exhibits A through Z, because of all the damning evidence they contain. To be sure, Frank Lloyd Wright was less than wholly truthful in An Autobiography, but unlike Fuller he was unashamed to admit professional or personal setbacks, and there was often an essential veracity in the architect’s lies.
Among the first scholars to make use of this revealing trove was Loretta Lorance, whose unpublished 2004 doctoral dissertation at the City University of New York Graduate Center, “Building Values: Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion House in Context,” cites dozens of instances in which he distorted or falsified significant facts about his career, claiming, for example, that he was unfairly forced out as president of a prefab building materials and construction company because of a corporate restructuring, when in fact he was let go because of his own incompetence and mismanagement.3
Richard Buckminster Fuller was born in 1895 to a distinguished Massachusetts family that arrived from England six years before the founding of Harvard, which he attended for two years until he was expelled. As he recalled, “I cut classes and went out quite deliberately to get into trouble, and so naturally I got kicked out.” In 1917 he married the long-suffering Anne Hewlett, of the Long Island Hewletts, but he did not give up carousing until a string of personal and professional disasters led him to the brink of suicide ten years later.
In his autobiography, Fuller related that just as he was about to throw himself into Lake Michigan and end it all, he was suddenly encased within a “sparkling sphere of light” that levitated and hovered in midair, while a disembodied voice admonished him, “You do not have the right to eliminate yourself, you do not belong to you. You belong to the universe.” That transparent celestial orb and those words of cosmic consolation evoke the peculiar blend of Emersonian egocentrism and pantheistic mysticism that typified the American Transcendentalists, one of whose more prominent members was Fuller’s redoubtable great-aunt, the pioneering editor, journalist, and feminist Margaret Fuller. No wonder he became such a hit with the hippies, whose mantra of “We Are All One” was practically in the old man’s genes.
Fuller’s reputation rests principally on his invention, in 1947, of the geodesic dome, a demispherical shelter that requires no inner columns, because its continuous surface network of rods, arranged in repetitive diagonal patterns of triangles, carries the structural load. He claimed to have made his biggest discovery in kindergarten, when his extreme myopia forced him to rely on touch during an arts and crafts project with toothpicks and dried peas, which he assembled into the configuration that a half-century later would make him famous. It was a foundation myth Wright would have been proud of.
More than once Fuller was saved by his knack for lucky timing; the urgent need for new construction of every kind after World War II encouraged him to promote the geodesic dome as a panacea for everything from the housing shortage to industry’s shift from military to civilian production. Deemed more economical, portable, adaptable, and reusable than conventional shelters, the geodesic dome also looked futuristic in a benevolent way that appealed to the optimistic mood of a victorious America, and it became the first unqualified success of his career.
It took some time for the drawbacks of Fuller’s beguiling invention to become apparent. Those deficiencies included the large amount of unusable interior space around the circumference of a structure that curved down to the ground; the persistent leaks caused by the geodesic dome’s multifaceted surface, with its plethora of joints and seams; and the difficulty of controlling temperature and ventilation inside what is essentially a greenhouse. (Indeed, geodesic domes have been most successfully used as conservatories, including the Climatron of 1960 at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, by Murphy and Mackey.)
Fuller achieved the official recognition he yearned for when he was asked to design the American exhibit for Expo ’67, the Montreal world’s fair. Measuring 250 feet in diameter and as tall as a twenty-story building, his United States Pavilion of 1965–1967—which he called the Skybreak Bubble—was the largest and most fully spherical of his executed geodesic domes. It was also the closest he came in his built work to memorializing the otherworldly see-through orb that he said had enveloped him at the transformative moment of his life, forty years earlier. In 1995, nine years after fire destroyed the structure’s transparent acrylic covering, the old US pavilion reopened as “The Biosphere,” an environmental exhibition on permanent display in a set of enclosed buildings constructed inside the original steel skeleton. (The outer skin, which had made the interior so costly to cool and heat, was not replaced.)
Somehow Fuller gained a wholly unmerited reputation for ecological awareness. None of his schemes refutes that notion more effectively than his and Shoji Sadao’s Dome Over Manhattan of 1960. This much-reproduced photomontage depicts a gigantic transparent cupola encircling and covering midtown Manhattan from river to river. Characteristically, Fuller never sufficiently explained how this Brobdingnagian blister would be entered and exited, cleaned and maintained, how it would be built, or why it was needed.
It is also a prime example of Fuller’s influence on others who went on to accomplish more interesting things with his ideas than he did. Dome Over Manhattan foreshadowed megascale conceptual images including Claes Oldenburg’s drawing series Proposals for Monuments and Buildings of 1965–1969; Hans Hollein’s photomontage Carrier City in Landscape of 1964; and Gian Piero Frassinelli’s Continuous City of 1969, an altered photograph by a member of the visionary Superstudio collective. Fuller’s direct effect on the Sixties avant-garde was not merely pictorial, and his concepts were also applied with notable imagination by experimental architects including Peter Cook and Ron Herron of England’s Archigram group and the Metabolists in Japan, including Kisho Kurokawa and Fumihiko Maki.
The diametric opposite of those high-tech professionals was the American hippie commune the Droppers, whose self-built Drop City of 1966 in Trinidad, Colorado, found favor with Fuller. Rosemarie Haag Bletter has pointed out the contradictions of this odd hybrid,
loosely inspired by Fuller’s geodesic domes, but…covered with old car parts, the detritus of the official car culture. Drop City won the Buckminster Fuller Dymaxion Award. The experiment of twenty people living as a commune was described by Peter Rabbit in Drop City (1971) as a group of “total revolutionaries; we are free men living equally with free creatures in a free universe. The story of Drop City will never end. It’s the story of man on the road to be free.” What freedom meant was not explained, but the group spent a great deal of time driving around in cars going to…junkyards to buy automobile parts for their domes.4
There ought to have been more of such comparative material in the Whitney’s seriously flawed Fuller retrospective, which was organized by the museum’s adjunct architecture curator, K. Michael Hays, and Dana Miller, an associate curator there. The show started off with a bang on the museum’s ground floor, where the small lobby gallery contained Fuller’s Dymaxion “2” 4D Transport of 1934, the last surviving prototype for the zeppelin-shaped, three-wheeled car with which he planned to revolutionize the automobile industry.
The eleven-passenger Dymaxion vehicle is twenty feet long, but Fuller cleverly engineered it to make a full turn within the radius of its own length, a neat trick that caused mob scenes whenever the streamlined wonder was taken out for a spin. Alas, a headline-making crash at the 1933 Century of Progress International Exposition in Chicago killed the Dymaxion’s driver. Investors withdrew their financing and the enterprise collapsed. (The word “Dymaxion”—a fusion of “dynamic,” “maximum,” and “ion”—was coined by the marketing-conscious inventor’s PR man. Fuller also used the term for various versions of his metal-clad Dymaxion House, including a hexagonal model that was raised above the ground and suspended from a central mast—patented as the 4D House in 1928—and the circular, yurt-like Dymaxion Deployment Unit of 1941.)
After that dramatic automotive introduction, the upstairs portion of the Whitney retrospective was a huge letdown, especially the installation. How was it possible for Fuller’s designs, never short on graphic impact, to be made to look so boring? Could anyone without prior enthusiasm for the subject have been won over by this lackluster presentation?
Doubts are also raised by the exhibition catalog. Like the show itself, it neither provides a satisfactory account of Fuller’s incontestably fascinating saga, nor does it make a convincing case for his current relevance. That lapse is underscored by the catalog’s reprint of Calvin Tomkins’s interminable yet unilluminating 1966 New Yorker profile on Fuller, eighteen thousand words consuming thirty-two pages that would have been more rewardingly devoted to a fresh assessment.
Perhaps K. Michael Hays, a Harvard professor of architectural theory, intended his introductory text, “Fuller’s Geological Engagements with Architecture,” to revivify the man by mimicking his inchoate syntax and meandering disquisitions, the most charitable explanation for a sentence such as this:
They are rather visual models of a complex of elements and connections, many invisible, that enable dwelling—organizations of immaterial as well as material processes that include climate, transportation, and communication, forces that enter into a pattern or structure, then grow into archipelagos of omnidirectional ecologies, giant biospheres suspended in the world net.
The museum-going public is ill served by such imparsable nonsense. Whether one reckons Fuller ludicrously overrated or insufficiently revered, his curious career deserves a better summation than it received at the Whitney. For although his achievements seem in hindsight unequal to the extraordinary adulation showered upon him late in his life, there is no denying Fuller’s place in twentieth-century culture or his profound effect on the many admirers who saw him, correctly or not, as a creative genius and spiritual guide.
The subtitle of “Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling” is somewhat misleading, in that the show concerns prefab residences, not the making of modern houses in general. Furthermore, although prefabrication methods have been most often applied to domestic schemes, an exclusive focus on housing necessarily omits a great deal of a very big picture. Still, “Home Delivery”—which was organized by MoMA’s chief architecture and design curator, Barry Bergdoll, with the assistance of Peter Christensen—is easily the finest architecture exhibition the museum has originated in decades. This thorough recapitulation brings together scores of drawings, models, architectural details, photographs, and films, and it is a model of impeccable scholarship.
With one exception, very little of great importance is missing. Not enough attention is paid to Ernst May, the German architect and planner (1886–1970) who built more (and usually better) workers’ housing than any of his contemporaries, and used prefabrication with greater imagination, but is mentioned only a few times in the “Home Delivery” catalog. One of the most memorable features of May’s numerous housing estates was the Frankfurt Kitchen of 1926 – 1927, a compact, ready-to-install unit designed by Grete Lihotsky. A rare intact example of that modern marvel was a highlight of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s exemplary 2006 exhibition “Modernism: Designing a New World, 1914–1939.”
Bergdoll and Christensen are also the principal authors of the excellent exhibition catalog. The two other contributors—Ken Tadashi Oshima and Rasmus Waern—take on the vexing question of why prefabricated housing has been received with much more enthusiasm in Japan and Scandinavia, respectively, than in this country. It is always said that the American public simply does not like modern design (a canard lately kept alive by adherents of the neotraditional New Urbanism movement). However, that was not at all the case immediately after World War II, when contemporary versions of the California ranch house were widely accepted nationwide.
An unapologetic high-low sensibility underlies “Home Delivery,” and acknowledges populist forms of prefabrication like the Sears Catalogue Homes of 1908–1940. These reasonably priced, ready-to-erect dwellings were offered by the Chicago-based mail-order retailer in an encyclopedic array of 447 models, from Craftsman bungalows and Cape Cod saltboxes to Tudor cottages and Spanish haciendas—stylistic promiscuity enough to give Alfred Barr the vapors.
The show also displays prefab designs by a roll call of architectural deities: Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, Charles and Ray Eames, Jean Prouvé, and Fuller, all of whom tried, with usually less success than Sears, to harness new production techniques that could make their designs more accessible to the many—a cardinal tenet of the Modern Movement. Their proposals, along with later ones by Paul Rudolph, Kisho Kurokawa, Peter Cook, Moshe Safdie, and Richard Rogers, among others, constitute a crash course in twentieth-century architecture.
For this exhibition Bergdoll fittingly revived MoMA’s most distinctive architectural display technique: full-scale houses erected on its premises, a solution to the conundrum of how to exhibit architecture within a museum setting with something other than pictorial representations or architectural fragments. Contrary to received opinion, MoMA did not originate this idea. It began at the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London, where a model workers’ dwelling in a Tudor style designed by Henry Roberts was put up next to the Crystal Palace at the behest of the show’s reform-minded organizer, Prince Albert. (That two-story, four-unit structure was later moved to south London, where it still stands. Model houses thereafter remained a staple of many subsequent world’s fairs.)
The showstopper of MoMA’s gallery display is one such prototype: the Lustron Corporation’s all-steel Two-Bedroom Westchester Model House of 1948–1950 by Carl G. Strandlund, an ingratiating mixture of quasi-traditional forms and streamlined modern detailing. The public’s avid interest in a Lustron model erected on a midtown Manhattan lot in 1949 prompted Philip Johnson, founder of MoMA’s architecture department, to initiate the enormously popular “House in the Museum Garden” series, which featured prototypes by Marcel Breuer (1949) and Gregory Ain (1952), as well as a traditional Japanese house (1955), all exhibited in the museum’s outdoor sculpture court.
Like some Modernist Brigadoon, the village of five demonstration houses commissioned for “Home Delivery” (which stands just west of the museum on the future site of Tower Verre, a residential skyscraper by Jean Nouvel) will vanish in October, when the exhibition closes. Representing a variety of formal, technical, and functional approaches, this seemingly diverse quintet at first glance appears diverse, but upon closer inspection, three of the schemes can be grouped under the machine aesthetic long promulgated by MoMA: the Cellophane House by Kieran Timberlake Associates (a transparent-skinned triple-decker in the rectilinear Miesian manner); System3, by Oskar Leo Kaufmann and Albert Rüf/KFN Systems (a stackable shoebox with a natural wood interior evoking a European ski hostel); and the Micro Compact Home by Horden Cherry Lee Architects and Haack + Höpfner Architects (a minuscule, windowed aluminum cube as capacious as a coffin.)
The worthy cause of “advocacy architecture” is acknowledged by the Digitally Fabricated Housing for New Orleans, a group effort by MIT’s School of Architecture directed by Professor Lawrence Sass. Like several other remedies for rebuilding New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, this design takes its cues from the city’s nineteenth-century domestic vernacular. Computer technology is used to create facsimiles of Victorian gingerbread ornament for the verandas of these historicizing replicas.
More astounding than the retrograde detailing is the lack of a kitchen and a bathroom. There is no indication whatever of how those basic requirements of a modern dwelling might be accommodated within this charmingly styled but alarmingly incomplete structure. Did the design team expect residents to rely on takeout food and chamber pots? Their forgetfulness brings to mind Pope John XXIII’s query when he was shown blueprints for a Vatican office building that omitted toilets: “Suntne angeli? ” (“Are they angels?”)
My favorite among the five commissioned houses is Burst*008 by Jeremy Edmiston and Douglas Gauthier, though, as the catalog admits, it
is intended less as a statement about prefabrication than it is as a demonstration of what fabricated housing can achieve by mining the possibilities of the computer.
Indeed, this frenetic flurry of angular, yellow-painted plywood bits and bobs—a cross between a 1950s California surf shack and a Case Study House as reimagined by the Iraqi- born London-based architect Zaha Hadid—is prefabricated only in that its myriad puzzle-pieces were pre-cut before being shipped to the museum.
Bergdoll, the first academic historian to serve as MoMA’s architecture curator, is too astute to have fallen into the trap of making predictions about the future of prefabrication. The catalog contains only cursory discussion of the cost of these commissions or the possibilities for their wider distribution, let alone the present state of prefabricated housing in general. “Home Delivery” is most instructive not as a high-style open house, but as a ruminative gloss on the splendors and miseries of Modernism. Subtle and mildly subversive, it exudes a sadder-but-wiser tone quite different from the positivist proselytizing of MoMA’s architecture department back in the days when it was more preoccupied with making history than interpreting it.
October 9, 2008
Translated, edited, and expanded by Christiane Crasemann Collins and George R. Collins as The Architecture of Fantasy: Utopian Building and Planning in Modern Times (Praeger, 1962). ↩
Friedman’s work was the subject of a 2007 show at the Drawing Center in New York, as well as three exhibitions held in Europe earlier this year, at the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Bordeaux, and the Portikus gallery in Frankfurt. ↩
Also drawing upon the Chronofile and other unpublished primary-source material in the Fuller archive is New Views on R. Buckminster Fuller, a forthcoming collection of essays edited by Hsiao-Yun Chu and Roberto Trujillo—some of them comparatively revisionist but none truly debunking—to be published by Stanford University Press in May 2009. ↩
Rosemarie Haag Bletter, “Waiting for Utopia,” in The Edge of the Millennium: An International Critique of Architecture, Urban Planning, Product and Communication Design, edited by Susan Yelavich (Whitney Library of Design/Watson-Guptill, 1993), p. 54. ↩