In the second half of the 1920s the modernist architects of Europe, perceiving an urgent need to reform city planning and especially public housing policies, sought to address the social changes resulting from industrialization. At a 1928 meeting at La Sarraz, Switzerland, architects from Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Holland, Spain, and Switzerland formed the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM), agreeing that rationalization and standardization were the chief ways to solve the housing problems each country then faced. CIAM reconvened in Frankfurt in 1929 to discuss the pragmatic issue of existenzenminimum—low-cost residential units. That “unit” should replace “house” in its lexicon is an indicator of pervasive socialist thinking; indeed, politics could not be excluded from any debate on urbanism and housing policies. In its Athens Charter, derived in 1933 and published ten years later, CIAM offered modern technology as the generic solution to the urban problems that would be exacerbated by World War II. That is, they called for a new way of building, and that displacement of conventional thinking with a “problem-solving” approach was an architectural feat in itself. Success is a different matter.
It is one thing to theorize, quite another to find real solutions. Designers on both sides of the Atlantic were investigating industrialized construction techniques as a means of making better, affordable housing. As early as 1910 the German architect Walter Gropius advocated the industrial production of interchangeable housing components, and in 1914 Le Corbusier’s Domino house system employed a standardized framework. It was perhaps inevitable that many of the resulting products were mechanistic and austere, emphasizing structure and detail at the expense of esthetic considerations. This new, efficient way of making architecture was grasped as an opportunity to realize the house as “a machine for living in.” The first half of the twentieth century is replete with designs for systems and components, too numerous to include here. Suffice it to identify a few key individuals.
The French blacksmith and steel fabricator Jean Prouvé (1901–1984) began experiments with prefabricated construction in 1925, in partnership with Aluminium Française and the car manufacturers Citroën and Renault. Given impetus by electric welding technology, after 1931 he produced building components and entire prefabricated structures. In collaboration with the architect Eugene Beaudouin and engineer Marcel Lods, Prouvé built a transportable structure for the Rolland Garros Aeroclub in Buc, France (1935), a forerunner of their Maison du Peuple in Clichy (1936–1939). By adjusting its movable floors, sliding partitions, and openable roofs, the Maison could be adapted within an hour to become a covered market, a meeting hall, or a cinema. In 1945 the French Ministry of Reconstruction and Planning commissioned Prouvé to produce prototype low-cost, mass-produced housing units. Using a technique he had developed with Pierre Jeanneret and Charlotte Perriand in 1939, he designed his “tree” buildings: a folded-steel central portal (erected without scaffolding) carried aluminum roofing, stiffened by profiling and held in place by external “buffers”; wall panels hung as “curtains” from the buffers. In 1951 the twenty-five dwellings were erected as part of an experimental project in Meudon, proof that industrialized houses were economically feasible. The government shelved the scheme. Although the firm was otherwise successful, serving France and her colonies, Prouvé abandoned it in 1953. His biographer John Winter has remarked, “No one can say of industrialized building that it cannot be done, for Prouvé has done it. He has not adapted building to machine processes; he has worked it all out from scratch as if no one had ever built a building before.”
The most influential pioneer in the United States was the architect, engineer, and inventor Richard Buckminster Fuller (1895–1983). Enthralled by the possibilities of technology, Fuller began what he called his Dymaxion investigations around 1927, with a design for an affordable, easily transportable, environmentally efficient, mass-produced house. The structure of the hexagonal house employed aluminum upper floor and roof elements suspended from a central mast. The ground level was open. Proposals for a Dymaxion Bathroom Unit and a Dymaxion Deployment Unit (for Butler Manufacturing Co.) followed in 1937 and 1941. Then toward the end of World War II, Fuller persuaded the Beech Aircraft Corporation of Wichita, Kansas, to underwrite production of the Dymaxion house. Although the materials used in airplanes and the house were similar, the cost of tooling was so high that many thousands of units would have to be made. Fuller resisted suggested design changes, and the partnership was dissolved after only two prototypes of the circular “Wichita” house (1945) had been built.
In 1946 the French government commissioned Le Corbusier to build a prototype of his “vertical city” in Marseilles. The underlying idea was that standardized self-contained housing units could be slid like drawers into a building frame; the result was the Unité d’Habitation (completed 1952), a stack of 340 cramped “superimposed villas” penetrated by internal streets of shops and services. Adored by contemporary students of architecture, the block was and is detested by the people forced to live in it. It should have furnished the designers and providers of public housing with a salutary warning, but it did not and many similar schemes followed.
The inexorable march of industrialization meant that by about 1960 standardized building components had become commonplace, simply through market forces. Some architects accepted the modular dwelling unit as the primary element in larger housing developments. Wherever they were, like their counterparts of thirty years earlier, they linked industrialization, housing, and urbanism.
In London, Archigram briefly and brassily emerged. In 1964 Warren Chalk coined the expression “capsule homes”—it has a similar ring to “units”—prefabricated modular dwellings that could be stacked up to form a tower. Another member of the group, Peter Cook, proposed the Plug-in City (1964–1966), in which self-contained living units could be temporarily plugged into structural towers. The individual house became an anonymous, interchangeable, wedge-shaped pod, with all the ergonomic efficiency and technological sophistication of a space capsule. The main components were to be pressed metal, plastic, or even pressed paper. Thankfully, nothing was ever built.
But Moshe Safdie’s Habitat was. Constructed as a permanent model community along the St. Lawrence River, and as part of the Montreal Expo 67, Habitat employed 354 prefabricated reinforced-concrete modular boxes, measuring 17.5 by 38.5 by 10.5 feet (5.35 by 11.8 by 3.2 meters), to generate 158 dwellings (900 were originally proposed) of fifteen plan types. By ingeniously stacking the units and fixing them with steel cables, Safdie produced a highly sculptural building with pedestrian walkways, small gardens, and decks. The success of industrialized building lies in the number of units produced, and as in so many other cases, the construction costs of Habitat were prohibitive.
It is clear that a people’s image of “house” is a cherished and entrenched cultural value, so innovation and the visionary ideas of architects are not readily accepted. This is one of the main reasons for the repeated failure of industrialized building. Others have been cited as inaccurate reading of the market, excessive profit expectations, inappropriate use of materials, and professional inertia. Nevertheless, experiments continued to the end of the twentieth century. American architect Wes Jones designed the Technological Cabins in the High Sierras for two Californian academics, using standard steel shipping containers as the module, fitting them out before transporting them to the site, and assembling them to form the house. A similar approach at De Fantasie in the Dutch new town Almere, in the late 1980s, proved disastrous from a climatic point of view. Also in the United States, Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk have maintained the link between the manufactured house and its environment by applying New Urbanism principles when assembling units in a Rosa Vista, Arizona, home park. Perhaps the answer lies in the approach taken by architect Deborah Berke, who assembles modular units to create the conventional and familiar spaces of North American house types.