The prefabricated home, a book to question certainties
A book that really impressed me, when I started to study wood construction, was Colin Davies’ “The Prefabricated Home” (Reaktion, 2005). For my architectural generation, the concepts of authorship, place, and solidity were part of a set of unquestionable principles. The Portuguese architects we admired expressed these values without being necessary to theorize them. At that time, one of the important books I read was “Genius Locci” by Christian Norberg Schulz. The idea that architecture and place were linked by an unavoidable interdependence seemed to me, not only very logical but also unquestionable. What Colin Davies’s book helped me to understand was that some of these convictions could be put into question, by the “prefab house,” and also by the “wooden house” that I was choosing as the subject of my PhD thesis.
Colin Davies was until recently professor of Architectural Theory at the London Metropolitan University. He is an author we should follow. His perspective on Architecture is confirmed by “Thinking about Architecture” (Laurence King, 2011), a book where he criticizes the path followed by Architectural Theory from the 1960s on, in a trend increasingly disengaged from practice: “Architectural theory in this new form was not meant for architects and architectural educators, or even for architectural critics in the everyday sense, still less for non professionals with an interest in, and love of, architecture. It was meant for other architectural theorists.”
Under the pretext of studying the “prefab house”, in “The Prefabricated Home”, Davies presents a very critical thesis on the current state of architecture and about the relation between architects and society. The responsibility for this kind of divorce is, he says, due to the cultural heritage of the Modern movement and to the “establishment” of Architecture.
This book was naturally written having as a filter the Anglo-Saxon perspective, focusing at the context of Great Britain and pointing especially to the place where all this “story” seems to begin: the United States of America.
The title “The Prefabricated Home” targets the object from which we are forced to unveil a general perspective of the inadequacy of Architecture in relation to society. The global objective of the book – it is the author that recognizes – is to warn architects about the importance of giving more attention to the neglected “prefab housing”.
Davies locates the beginnings of the prefabricated house in the America of the 19th century, more precisely with the advent of the “balloon-frame”. The text documents the evolution of several construction systems, going throughout the twentieth century and stopping in those that were recognized as the most successful commercial cases. The History of the prefabricated house is written in a chapter (the second) that with a certain irony was designated as “A non-architectural History”. The demolishing arguments always seek to be supported by a factual basis, relying very often on History and the analysis of details, dates, authors, companies’ names and numbers. Frequently the text reveals a sharp skepticism in relation to some “readymade ideas” conveyed by the History of Architecture, which is one of the most “under fire” entities in this book. Thus, it is considered that despite having been a thriving and successful sector, the prefabricated house, has two parallel stories, one that is taught to Architectural students and another that supposedly “does not deserve” to be told because it is outside the “field of Architecture”.
The “field of Architecture” assumed by Colin Davies as a reference in his approach is a concept developed by Garry Stevens in “The Favoured Circle”, which comprises all the architectural culture conveyed by the various agents involved in the process (professionals, universities, and specialized media). This field includes values, ideologies, codes of conduct, theories, mythical heroes and famous buildings. On the other hand, there is the understanding that Architecture is more closely related to Art than to construction: after all, the Architect and the builder have different cultures and languages. This divorce will have its consequences: it may be responsible for much of the Architecture not being conceived by Architects. Davies goes further and says that 80% of the buildings are outside the aforementioned “field of architecture”. Most of the buildings included in this percentage, which seems to be the result of the author’s intuition, are houses.
This is one of the most embarrassing facts for Architects: few houses count as “Architecture” and very few people, in their most intimate spatial experience benefit from “Architecture”. The prefabricated house, for example, is not part of the official History of Architecture. It have been associated with an industrial culture, emerging as a pragmatic response to a variety of needs, be it the houses for the pioneers of the West or for the English settlers in Australia. These situations, often of emergency, required efficiency, more than a refined image or a beautiful design. Instead of an architectural problem, the prefabricated house was an equation with technical and economic assumptions, in which Architects were not supposed to participate, at least initially. The inheritance received from 19th-century architectural thought didn’t help the relation between Architecture and prefabrication: utilitarian constructions were not considered an architectural problem. Anyway, this scenario changed in the early 20th century. The progressive architects of Modernism in Germany and France turned to industry encouraging a reconciliation between Architecture and the prefabricated house.
“An Architectural History” is the first chapter of the book describing various attempts by modern architects to develop prefabricated houses. These approaches, start to count for the “official Architectural History” as successful “stories”, and as examples of a close relationship between industry and Architecture. In this chapter, we can read about: Le Corbusier’s proposals for the Maison Citrohan, Gropius and Konrad Wasmann with the Packaged House, Wright with the Usonian houses, Fuller and the Wichita House, among many other experiences. Colin Davies, tries to demonstrate that all these projects, despite the interesting aspects that could have had, have always resulted in commercial failures. All failed to reach its main goal: industrial mass production, which.
A possible justification for the failures of successive proposals developed by Architects could lie in the fact that the “house” is by its nature an entity not suitable for prefabrication. But denying this argument we can verify a whole “non-architectural History” of successful prefabricated houses, based on traditional, popular, and low-cost models with an important link to industry and to the market. According to Davies, Modern Architecture proved to be unpopular, expensive and detached from industrial production.
Apart from all the contradictions that Davis finds, there is an unavoidable feature of Architecture that seems to be somewhat responsible for all this lack of connectivity: the architectural obsession with the “image.” The hyper valuation of the visual component has a good example in the history of Archigram who, quoting Martin Pawley, “failed in every market except the art gallery”. It is recognized, however, that this “gallery success” is sufficient enough to win within the “field of Architecture”.
In noticing an obvious house-architecture divorce, the author wonders rhetorically why should we not recognize that there are buildings, such as the homes of ordinary citizens, which are not in fact Architecture? The Architects’ argument, says the author, is to argue that the built environment would be more qualified if Architects could be responsible for the whole built reality. But then, he asks, why is it that most Architects’ buildings are often rejected by the people? Architects can answer that the divorce is explained by the lack of thoughtfulness of the people and it should be solved with a campaign of citizens’ architectural education. It means, ironizes the author, that “The world has to change to adapt to Architecture”.
In certain passages of the book, the arguments seem to fall into an exaggerated radicalism. The author himself acknowledges that some distracted readers could understand the book as an attack on Architecture. But Davis’s tone is balanced, advancing at some point with a positive argument: the relationship between the prefabricated house and Architecture is important because the Architects offer talent to their works. A talent that, with the current “divorce”, is imprisoned in a very small sector of the built environment: “80% of buildings are deprived of a talented design”. Davies’ argument is after all towards a defense on the importance of Architecture.
Davies states that the field of Architecture should grow, and not narrow. “The aim of this work would be to suggest some of the ways in which Architecture will reconcile itself with its territory, with its clients, with its partners in the construction industry and with the general public. The prefabricated house was, in this case, chosen as a vehicle for this discussion partly because it is a topic of great interest and timeliness. But the prefabricated house is important, mainly, because it defies the most preserved prejudices in the world of Architecture”.
The book is organized in a logical sequence: History, Theory, and Practice. In order to face the vast problem at hand, which seems to comprise the whole world of Architecture, the author analyses the past first, then questions concepts and principles and finally identifies the processes and practices related to the future of the prefabricated house, which will also be the future of Architecture.
In the conclusion, it is shown, in a very clear way, the lessons we can take from the prefabricated house. Certainly, these lessons are no more than the demystification of a set of principles that have been consensual inside the “field of architecture”: the authorship, the place, the solidity, the models, the industrial design, and the industrial production.
AUTHORSHIP – the importance of authorship is unsurprisingly questioned in a prefabricated house. Prefabrication is the result of an intense collaborative work inside an industrial context. Industrial managers, production engineers, buyers, accountants, marketing staff, salespersons, transporters, etc. – are all potential contributors. Even the client, understood as a market sector becomes part of this group. The idea of the author that designs a unique building for a single client is replaced by the idea of a common language for common people. Here Davies seems to be back to radicalism when he proposes that Architects should learn the popular language and should use it “gracefully”, rejecting even the personal creations and the requests of architectural theory.
PLACE – The theory of place has become a kind of fetish in some schools of Architecture. It argues that the unique and distinctive factors of a place are like forces that can dictate and shape the rules of Architecture. Davies criticizes this idea by making a parallel between the prefabricated house and vernacular architecture (“the only one that everyone appreciates”) proclaiming that the latter was always an architecture of standard details applied to standardized buildings, which were then adapted to any available site.
SOLIDITY – The idea of solidity and permanence confers to Architecture a certain moral authority, gathering values of stability and security. This is verified by the constructive metaphors used in society (the “foundation”, the “cornerstone”, the “structure”, etc.). The characteristics of prefabricated houses with their intrinsic lightness and fragile appearance defy the solidity principle. At the same time, prefabrication seems to meet the demands of a rapidly changing society. Mobility, lightness, speed, are inevitable conditions of contemporary life.
MODELS – The ideas that a building must be unique and that architecture is like an Artwork are questioned by the processes used in the production of the prefabricated house. Prefabrication of houses usually calls for “standards books” with patterned solutions and models ready to be chosen and adopted by the people. If architects did not neglect this type of approach, they could focus on adapting typified and validated solutions to complex conditions of reality.
DESIGN – Architects usually assume responsibility for both the spatial design and the constructive design. But the constructive design, which is often created in the isolation of the studio, often leads to failed processes. The technology of a building is the result of a development over the centuries or is invented in the factory by experts, using materials and production tools. So, it will usually be safer to adapt existing technologies. The majority of prefabricated house technologies involve variations of the “balloon-frame” system, already with a history of 170 years.
SYSTEMS – Pre-fabrication has been associated with systems that are abstract mathematical constructs that often end up being self-sufficient. The architects who developed prefabricated systems have always tended to be obsessed with the perfect system, not admitting developments and changes that are a natural characteristic of the industrial and the commercial processes. This perfect closed system was, for instance, the mistake Konrad Wacshmann did with his “Packaged House.”
INDUSTRIAL PRODUCTION – When we identify the prefabricated house with the negative effects of standardization and with the repetition of products without identity and character, we use principles that are no longer true in the context of current industrial production. The era of “Ford T” industry type gave way to new concepts such as “lean production” and “computer-aided manufacture” that consider product customization. A successful system will be the intermediate between the universal and the traditional individualized system. A reasonable strategy will always be to define a set of models and to open to each one of them a range of variable options.
The lessons of the prefabricated house put in question the idea that most Architects have of Architecture and of themselves. In a certain way, it also questions the viability of a profession that tends to be closed in itself rather than be opened to the outside world.
Colin Davies concludes: “designing one-off prototypes to be enjoyed by their colleagues will not get them [architects] nowhere. To make a real difference, they must learn the lessons of the prefabricated house”.