Rather than being an historical movement from the first half of the 20th century, left over and reheated, we think of Modernism as a frame of mind. To us the M word connotes an honesty and curiosity about methods and materials, a belief that mass production and beauty are not mutually exclusive, and a certain optimism not just about the future, but about the present.
What was I thinking ten years ago when I wrote “The Fruit Bowl Manifesto” as an introduction to the very first issue of Dwell? Well, the obvious thing was that I hated the way most magazines depicted people’s homes: no sign of life but for the occasional, suspiciously well-organized fruit bowl. But the real issue was modernism. I needed to nail down a definition of that movement, an enduringly important way of thinking about the world that would outlive any passing fad for Marcel Breuer chairs or Eileen Gray side tables.
What I very badly wanted, a decade ago, was to find a way to bridge the gap between the mutually exclusive disciplines of architecture and American commercial home building—the latter being an industry that seemed to exist entirely in the past, a made-up age of Tudor–Colonial–Mediterranean glory. At the time, prefab represented a tantalizing shortcut, a way to get better design to more people, faster. I was far from the first person to think so. As Le Corbusier famously wrote around 1920: “If we eliminate from our hearts and minds all dead concepts in regard to the house, and look at the question from a critical and objective point of view, we shall arrive at the ‘House-Machine,’ the mass-production house, healthy (and morally so too) and beautiful in the same way that the working tools and instruments which accompany our existence are beautiful.”
But I also noticed that the truly mass-produced homes in the United States were the dopey faux-historical ones built on-site and in large quantities in subdivisions everywhere. It seemed the production home builders were using the “working tools and instruments”—specifically, the economies of scale—in a way that might have made Corbu proud, were it not for the end results. Despite the slow emergence over the past decade of a handful of architecturally ambitious but relatively small-scale modular manufacturers, it still seems as though the sophisticated, machine-made, mass-produced house will never happen in the United States.
For years, this situation has frustrated me. But I’m coming around to the notion that mass production is almost beside the point. Instead, what’s increasingly important is the way architectural ideas are distributed. There’s a powerful generational shift in progress, one that may bring architects and homebuilders closer together. The profession’s bias toward designing custom homes one by one is giving way to an intense interest in multiples. This reversal in attitude—more than any example of factory-built houses—is the most compelling end product of the prefab movement.
Back in the early 2000s, I met an architect named William Massie who was teaching at the Montana State University in Bozeman. Massie was using the computer differently than most of his colleagues, not just as a design tool but also as a manufacturing tool. He embraced computer numerical control (CNC), a methodology that evolved from automated machine tools of the 1940s, and used it to cut precisely shaped building components directly from his computer files. Massie’s vision wasn’t mass production. He wanted to manufacture homes like Boeings, producing small quantities of highly industrialized, highly customized houses in his own workshop. “That to me is the perfect model,” Massie once said.
Now, the Massie approach, once exotic, seems to be verging on ubiquitous. I’ve been touring Brooklyn’s resurgent industrial enclaves and I keep walking into wood shops and metal shops, relatively modest setups, that have CNC-driven routing machines and other fairly sophisticated computerized fabrication equipment. I’m beginning to notice that as CNC technology has dropped in cost and become more commonplace, the CAD jockeys who used to be found only in architects’ offices have migrated to the places where things are actually made. Arguably, custom-mitered complex polygons could soon become as available as two-by-fours. No, it’s not mass production as Corbu understood it, but it is a circumstance that makes the idea of the “Machine-House” more interesting, more variable, and potentially more beautiful.
What I’ve realized is that we’re at the point where architecture, like everything else, can be distributed as pure information—buildings made from ones and zeros. With the latest design software, you can cook up a cool, weirdly asymmetrical little house that minimizes heat gain in summer and maximizes it in the winter. In theory, you could then distribute that design as a set of files, the technologically enhanced version of an old-school stock plan, and an enlightened lumberyard could output the components for the house. Or ten. Or a hundred. Is that prefabrication? Maybe. The point is that as the hardware catches up with the software, and as devices that can be used to output the components of digital architecture are more readily available, the difference between prefab and site-built increasingly becomes one of language and perception.
What’s interesting to me now, a decade after “The Fruit Bowl Manifesto,” is that we’re in the throes of an industrial resurgence—one largely driven by techies who also like making things. As a result, the nature of manufacturing is evolving so quickly that we don’t yet posses the terminology to explain it. For instance, we now have mass production, but without the mass. More than a hundred years after Adolf Loos equated ornament with crime, even the word modernism may have outlived its usefulness. Although what would we replace it with—Zeitgeistiness? Hypercontemporaneousness? Well, maybe not. Granted, there is currently something of a backlash against the style and the cultural implications of modernism, a revolt against perpetual forward momentum. But at the same moment that we are flocking to farm-themed restaurants and harvesting our own honey, we’re tantalizingly close to possessing an industrialized approach to building that could allow us to live the modernist dream, forever in the present.