Monday, August 20, 2007

An online note-to-Eric

I share with DoResearch an affinity for a different generation of prefabs. I really love the Charles Goodman houses (that's one of his pictured above), many of which were built in and around DC from the late 40s to the early 70s (Hollin Hills is an entire subdivision (!) of his houses in Alexandria, VA, and there are a couple of smaller subdivisions just outside of DC in Montgomery County, MD). His homes were panelized, and buyers could choose one of a small number of configurations. Hollin Hills got a little blurb in Dwell a couple of years ago, and a terrific cover story in the Washington City Paper. (Some more coverage here, and a blog with lots of Flickr photos here, and also apparently the subject of a documentary film-in-progress. And a recap of its designation as historic.)

I say all this by way of wondering whether Eric has seen this during his time away? It's a collection of photos detailing post-war prefab homes in the UK and the people who live in them:

Now I don't know as much as I should about the particular ideologies of early modernist architectural theory. I understand that Bauhaus' early mission emphasized mass production, utilitarianism, and exploding the artist/craftsman binary - the architectural version of the then-burgeoning cultural Marxism. And that the particular brand of modernism it eventually championed by the '30s was largely the product of Mies' own aesthetic, rather than a natural consequence of class ideology. What vestiges of the early relationship b/w class and modern design remain now? Was that relationship just an historical accident that has been largely left behind?

I know that for me, my interest in modern design is borne out of a visceral aesthetic attraction rather than any larger ideology. Quite a gulf, I imagine, between people like me and people who think seriously about prefab for a living. And between people like me and the people who are the subjects of this book (and I’m going just on the blurb and pics here). I’m being grossly conclusory, but where’s the connection between the aesthetics and economics of the homes in this book and, say, a house like mine? Isn’t (a lot of) the original ideology of the Bauhaus movement (and modernism generally) present in the Sears houses and the Levittown houses, notwithstanding their traditional design? How much of the ideology of modernism is really invested in the aesthetic, which – and this is the point – is what I love about it? Or, put another way, isn’t what’s driving the current zeal for modern prefab simply some savvy marketing to people (like me) who like the look/feel/lifestyle of modern homes? As opposed to any class concerns/ideology?

Prefab is still just a meme and all that jazz, but I wonder if it can (or aspires to?) be any more than that right now. I mean, there’s no way that Res4 (or Dwell, its occasional talk to the contrary) is shooting for the same folks who live in these post-war houses. I'm not saying they should be. But for those concerned about cost (and class), where does the aesthetic of modernism come in? Cost is a bottom line concern for Sarah and me, but not in the way that it is for the kinds of buyers who would drive a mass market. So is all the talk about making modern prefab affordable really missing the point? Which is maybe that most people don’t want modern design? And for as long as that’s the case, it ain’t gonna be cheap?

(I wrote this last night - see what happens when you're stuck in the woods by yourself?)


Brandon said...

Great post. You sum up so much of my thinking about modernism and prefab. Good luck on the house.

Fenestrate said...

Thanks for being brave enough to expose your rambles. We currently live in Falls Church in the Holmes Run Acres neighborhood (yes - really - a neighborhood - NOT a just a subdivision!) When these houses were built, they were heralded as a great experiment in prefab, though they were built very close by using a templating process. (Some would argue that this is not prefab). When built in 1954, these homes were no doubt considered quite large - 997sf with the same again in a basement - but today our family finds them to be "just right". Given D.C. housing prices, just right, with pleasant siting, neighbors and great neighborhood amenities will cost you over half a million dollars - not what most had in mind when coming up with ideas for "affordable housing".

It is natural for new technology to start at the top of the cost heirarchy - to support refinement of the technology - before it can move downmarket. Your project and investment (and your blog!) are helping to fulfill the eventual dream of afforadable, and perhaps even aestheically pleasing - prefab housing.

Eric Olson said...

Chris, you're too kind.

I have bumped into mention of the post war prefabs and even passed by a small grouping of them while lost in the outskirts of London. Unlike the wonderful homes of Hollin Hills, the British prefabs are very tough. I'm not sure how to better put it. I guess you could say depressing? From what I've read, they were a last ditch effort to find housing for residents in the very difficult times following the war. I could be wrong, but I think they were never intended to be a long term housing solution.

As for the current scene in the states, you're right. Dwell is in no way shooting for the same group of people as the British prefabs were intended for. One need only look at this sentence from a Dwell Homes sponsorship pack I found while researching the FlatPak:

"Becoming a Dwell Homes Master Partner is the ideal way to significantly expand the impact of your advertising in Dwell while powerfully associating your product with the Dwell brand—a brand that singularly engages affluent, well-educated Design Seekers."

The above is from page 2 of this PDF: dwell_mapapro_07_nologo.pdf

I suppose the "affluent" part isn't a big surprise to longtime Dwell readers who've watched as the magazine has expanded into other areas. This is fine. Maybe even necessary to stay afloat. But the Dwell homes are clearly a higher end product. Again, that's fine, but the major push behind modern prefab came from Dwell and it's fair to say the effort has moved in directions different from those originally stated.

That said, there are some lower cost prefabs out there but they're... tough?

Anonymous said...

I have been following your house construction for sometime with great interest. I am in the business (public sector) of developing affordable housing for low to moderate income households in southcentral PA. I am intriqued by prefab/modular construction and recently visited Charlottesville to take a look at the ecoMOD project which John Quale is undertaking at UVA in conjunction with the Piedmont Housing Alliance, a non-profit affordable housing developer. Their work is definitely modernist and ecological. The question is whether it is truly affordable (if produced commercially) and whether it can garner mass market appeal. I am also half Swedish and have been following with interest the BoKlok (Live Smart) concept that IKEA/Skanska are successfully marketing in Scandinavia and, under license, in Great Britain. Although their designs are not Res4-like, they are scandinavian modern. I wonder whether it would catch on here??

Keep up the fine work on your blogg and your fine home!


Chris said...

Chris, Res4's principal engineering consultant, Greg Sloditskie, is pretty involved in ecoMOD - I think he was just down there for their set? Pretty cool project. Highlights exactly what we're all wondering about how to leverage the economics of prefab, and what relationship the aesthetic will eventually have (or has to have) with the economics.

Anonymous said...

Chris, I understand Greg is the guru in "translating" between the architects and the modular manufacturers. He is on my list to call.