Thursday, November 19, 2009

Prefab = Predetermined Fate?

The originators of the Prefab movement are tossing their idea, formed on the basis (presumably, since it was the strongest message) of simplified production process, reduced waste, and recycling of materials from other industries into attractive housing, as if it were nothing more than an empty bag of cheetos. Or perhaps, that is how they saw the idea which was its fundamental failing. Another throw away. Oh, irony.

The greatest weakness of many architects, particularly the more (in)famous ones, is often one and the same with their particular greatest strength: the desire to be different. You can see it in how they defeat their own purpose. My understanding of the architecture and design professions is, to put it as simply as possible, to make life better: more efficient, more affordable, more profitable (in the triple bottom line sense), more elegant.

Yet, in the examples they hail (and here I'm referring both directly to this particular case of the pre-fabists, but also to any of the architectural "fashion trends" that lack purpose or fundamental grounding beyond self indulgence), you can see how they defeat their own purpose. The buildings are off in the middle of nowhere. There is nothing around. A blank canvas for which nothing can interrupt the glamour shot of their baby with a proverbial finger on the lens.

Hence, there is nothing else for the building to converse with, no dialogue with other buildings, no synergies, no humanizing effect on the city. The more ingredients in an equation, the richer and more complete, complex, diverse, and resilient is the elaboration of life. Biology has something to teach us about architecture and city building.

Furthermore, and more specifically, we are facing overwhelming needs to relocalize; to reorganize where and how we inhabit cities, particularly in the Sun Belt and more importantly, in this age of decreased wealth and need of affordable, yet quality, housing that contributes in a positive manner to the City without stigmatizing those who live within it. Not urbanizing the poster children of a movement immediately makes it irrelevant when its fundamental strength is the cost and mass production capabilities.

I, for one, KNOW there is still opportunity in prefab housing. It just now has to be stacked from reused (and prefabricated to be livable) "capsules" of bygone industries, similar to some of the container housing that has gotten some publicity. One challenge, like any new idea, is beautifying the concept. Ya know, the job of architects if all they plan on being is style guides.

One of the beauties of such housing, is the potential for flexibility. It has always bothered me that contemporary apartment and mixed use buildings engrain an inflexibility to their unit counts, i.e. 50% 1-bedrooms, 30% 2-BRs, 20% studios, etc. They lack a fluidity where unit leasing rates are often held hostage by guesstimated market research.

This fluidity and constant evolution and flexibility to the market's needs (aggh, by "market" I mean by the local community's needs) can be had in modular housing. If one module is 400 sq.ft., roughly studio size, it can be expanded to two modules for large 1-BRs or small 2-BR units. Add three modules together, you can have small 3's and large 2's. Each module comes with a specific cost increment. Furthermore, these can be segmented or arranged by tenent vertically or horizontally.

They prefab heroes claimed accessibility and affordability, but by locating and designing the product in the middle of nowhere you are in car culture, enslaving any potential "poor" that might be able to afford your "high design" to their car, or effectively isolating and alienating them from participating in the economy. This is THE fundamental failing of a City designed entirely by the car. Putting everyone in cars, having tax rates to afford the excessive infrastructure, carving off disposable income, it creates undue barriers to the local economy.

Once again a lack of economic fluidity as expressed through design without the fluidity of adaptability; effectively bankrupting cities as well as States. Read: California.