In 1923 Le Corbusier in Vers une Architecture exhorted : ‘Industry on the grand scale must occupy itself with building, and establish the elements of the house on a mass-production basis.’ In the book Imagining tomorrow, Brian Horrigan saw three scenarios for the house of tomorrow . In one version, architects led or inspired by the European avant-garde would transform the house into a paradigm of modern elegance. In another, engineers or would-be industrialists would clone thousands of cheap dwellings from a single prototype. In the third scenario, the efforts of both the architect and the engineer would be eclipsed by those of the purveyors of consumer goods and gadgets.’
In engaging technological change most recorded Architectural history deals only with image transfer as in the case of Le Corbusier, where there was an image transfer from ships to housing rather than technology transfer as in the case of Buckminster Fuller’s work with the Dymaxion houses with their transfer of aviation construction techniques to building.
The chequered evolution of the house of tomorrow and the systems technique of construction has ranged from examples like the inspired Crystal Palace by G. J. Paxton in 1851 and Charles Eames’ Case study house number 9 in 1949 to the cartoonesque 1950’s American Autorama style futuristic dream homes, such as George Fredreck Keck’s 1934 Crystal House and to the purely pragmatic Dymaxion houses
In reality the building Industry is dominated by thousands of small businesses. It is far too fragmented to support the type of research and development carried out by either the transportation or industrial sectors and architects cant realistically charge any one single client for all the research necessary to make great leaps in technological innovation, unlike the architects to the Pharaohs or Bill Gates.
The suburb and the detached single family home are not ancient time honoured archetypes, absolute and unchanging. They are in fact really new and while highly desirable for all sorts of reasons, the notion that we have the definitive and Holy formula for the design and construction of our houses and cities and the welfare of our populous is ludicrous. The rookeries and squalor of Victorian England provided the ammunition for a philanthropic and moral crusade to index moral degeneration, crime and poverty with urban population density, living conditions and living arrangements to reveal the intimate bond between physical and moral degradation. These ideas fuelled a Victorian desire for change in domestic arrangements. ‘Where there are bad homes there are bad hearts and bad deeds…’ In the 1840’s domestic architecture was for the first time deployed directly against the twin evils of vice and ill health in towns. Charles Booth’s Descriptive Maps of London of 1889, overlaying housing typologies and the relative degeneracy of the occupants amounted to the conception of a moral geography. ‘The layout of the house mapped out the moral condition of the family and the street layout mapped the moral condition of the community.’ Model house projects where developed to circumscribe the movements and intercourse between occupants to reform and improve their moral condition, creating a more isolated, insular domesticity. These created whole new housing typologies. Three became the magic number for the number of family bedrooms as it ensured the essential moral separation and secrecy. This fundamental logic was then extended to the street, ensuring appropriate separation between the houses and house and street, giving a moral structure to public space. From this logic the suburb emerges as a figure and ground composition where discrete, articulated building objects sit in a continuous landscape, a moral moat. Happily this image squared precisely with Marc-Antoine Lagier’s 1753 rusticated wooden Greek temple hut set in a romantic Rousseau inspired, egalitarian landscape that had become the template motif for classical architecture. It then became the template for modernism and the modern suburb. It was just that in much modernism the garden became more important often than the building. This logic underscores the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse and the great garden city projects by Ebenezer Howard, Raymond Unwin and Barry Parker and Walter Burley Griffin’s extraordinary Canberra. Each detached rational edifice having the capacity for unique expression, an architecture of freedom and honesty replacing the decadent, outmoded systems of the traditional city. These houses are more like cars, discrete autonomous envelopes parked in a continuous landscape. The garden suburb is a global phenomenon. The car made the suburb possible. Television and the phone have made it bearable creating a telematically connected and controlled, spatially gated global community. Why do we not look at the improvement and evolution of the suburb and housing as a global issue not a local issue?
Clone. Pattern based construction.
In Sense and Sensibility Jane Austen has her character Robert Ferrars extol the virtues of life in a cottage Ornée. “I protest that if I had any money to spare, I should buy a little land and build one myself…and collect a few friends about me and be happy” The cottage Ornée, Eighteenth Century pattern book architecture, represented the quintessence of the chic life style designer accessory. Like a Range Rover it was the SUV of choice for those in the know. Cottages Ornée were not designed but copied. Kirstin Downey, in the Washington Post in February 2006 talks about the current American revival in pattern books to detail and inspire building projects. On the Gulf Coast people are turning to Government endorsed pattern books to rebuild the thousands of homes destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. In Roman times Vitruvius’ 10 volume treatise on how to properly build a house led to the desirable standardisation of Roman towns throughout the empire. In the current building industry the developer decides how a house should appear rather than the occupant.
Although designed from pattern books, suggesting regimentation and a restriction of individual expression, Cottages Ornée appealed because they gave their Eighteenth Century occupants a feeling that they were escaping from the conventions of society. It is this Romantic dimension of the Cottage Ornée that inspired Frank Lloyd Wright to build his own version of the Cottage Ornée, the famous Fallingwater house for the Kaufmanns at Bear Run, South Western Pennsylvania. Cottages Ornée like Houghton Lodge, described as being among one of the most romantic Historic Houses in Hampshire, now provide us with the definitive backdrop for the bench mark contemporary glamorous fashion plate wedding, romantic, stunning and beautiful, “with no horrible long corridors to walk down”. There is nothing innate to pattern book architecture that is uninspired, mundane or undesirable.
This romantic lifestyle package image is not the one most referred to when the issue of mass production or pattern based design is invoked in discussions about housing and architecture. Mass production has made substantial inroads into the building industry but through the back door, as a purely convenience based enterprise rather than as a liberating one. It has come with the skyscraper and with the 'homeburger'. In 1996, the Economist reported that nearly one in three new single-family homes sold in America that year were factory built. That was approximately 340,000 homes. By that year there were 9 million factory built homes in America and 18 million people, 7% of the population lived in them. At factories like that of Schult Homes in Middlebury, Indiana workers fabricate about 17 house units a day.
The typologically standardised house for the working class nuclear family was a theme that appeared as part of all international expositions at the end of the 19th Century. Modernism attempted to develop appropriate technologically perfected systems to build such homes. Almost every significant modernist architect designed a mass producable standard house and car. The idea of conveyor-belt manufacture using standardised components to produce factory made housing was influenced by the efficiency expert Fredrick Taylor and by Henry Ford's conveyer belt based system of mass production. The principles of Taylorism, which Ford used in his mass production of automobiles, were always quoted by architects as points of reference, and a goal to strive for. At the time, in the popular imagination the goods made available from mass production promised liberation from hardship and deprivation. However questions of standardisation and prefabrication became tainted by the stigma of a pragmatism and a functionalism that seemed only serve the building industry. It has never been consciously addressed in mainstream architectural thought. Invariably the spectre of a soulless uniformity and anonymity arises. The solution to the danger of a numbing uniformity arising from factory based production for building is to concentrate on a system of parts that allows for an infinite number of unique combinations. An excellent example of a traditional modular building technology that achieves this is the brick. For a contemporary system careful scrutiny of the available mechanical and electronic systems is necessary to produce an integrated modular system for a diversity of solutions. Buildings should be seen as flexible systems for enabling change not as rigid and defined structures that inhibit or permanently contain choices. Narrow and traditional definitions for controlling the contributions made by the various technical disciplines greatly restricts the potential for innovation in building. Synthesised solutions integrating technologies and disciplines can produce radical leaps forward.
The Case Study houses project [1945 to 1964] created by John Entenza and published in serial form by Arts and Architecture magazine in Los Angeles exemplifies a contemporary model that subscribes to the logic of leading by exemplar and pattern. The program of published designs was a laboratory for experimentation in building with new materials in new social conditions. It was open source. Very significantly most of the projects where actually built proving to be much more valuable this way as platforms for ideas and performance evaluation. All the results and processes were published. Entenza, the editor of Arts and Architecture, hoped that these examples of progressive design would widely impact on public taste and the building industry. The case study program has become by default the Twentieth Centuries domestic pattern book. Why has this powerful and successful process not been repeated?
Globe. Distributed systems of production. The global car industry and the AUTOnomy Project
With the AUTOnomy Project, launched in 2002, General Motors introduced the idea of a formalised distributed system of production for cars embedded in every aspect of the design and manufacture process. The intention was to optimise on production investment in high performance technology while maximising local end-user variation. Simply, all of the demanding technological infrastructure would be standardised to reduce costs and manufactured in a limited number of locations. In car terms this is the chassis and the engine. The body shell and interior furniture could then be manufactured where-ever the end users were and it could be configured to meet local demands and conditions. The core chassis are only made in a very limited number of sizes [probably 3] and configurations. Since system performance is controlled by computer, the characteristics of the chassis and engine can easily be ‘chipped’ to meet local requirements and then an interchangeable body popped on. The core chassis are made in vast numbers bringing down the cost while allowing for cost effective increase in technical sophistication and performance. Local firms supply the body panels and assemble the complete vehicles. “In high end markets , this kind of arrangement might mean that new chassis might debut every three or four years… but that customers could purchase a new body module annually. In less affluent markets, the chassis would comprise durable hardware and could be financed for much longer periods, perhaps decades.” By this logic there is a uniform supply of higher technology to all markets but the modular interchangeable design philosophy means easy changes and upgrades and support of smaller localised distributed production ensuring an intelligent responsiveness to local conditions. This process is described as Mass Customisation. This logic applied to housing would see the rationalisation of all service infrastructure, creating a global technology platform, so that it can be made without regard to the particular end facility. Services can be inserted, upgraded and repaired without damaging the rest of the building. All wiring, lighting, water, sewage, data and air-conditioning would come as an integrated arterial system nested into prefabricated structural shell components. With the AUTOnomy system General Motors sees a twenty-year roll out period required to institutionalise the change over.
Toyota have taken a step in this direction with the Toyota Dream House PAPI, built in 2005, located in Nagoya. Designed by Professor Ken Sakamura the project has sought to optimise performance, energy efficiency and construction quality and fabrication speed by using factory built modular construction techniques. The design system extends to in-built modular mobile storage units, automated security features and an integrated shopping cart in your city car for easy grocery transport. Toyota intends to bring this technology to market. In Japan large numbers of houses are already factory built by companies like National Panasonic and customers are able to customise their home from an extensive menu of parts and finishes just like a car. Customers can see all of the component parts in city show rooms, have their recipe virtually constructed and then take a virtual tour wearing data gloves and head up display goggles to see how it feels and if the kitchen shelving is set too high.
JC Herz, author and a member of the American Defence Advanced Research Project Agencies Study Group on Patterns of Emergent Behaviour, has extensively studied open source gaming protocols and the resulting product evolution patterns. She has observed that by making their source code available to the mod community, gaming manufacturers have not only created a powerful advanced viral marketing campaign for their products but these gamers have massively increased the richness and performance of the games, making them better products in a way that the companies could not have otherwise afforded. With a game such as The Sims, a sort of neighbourhood level virtual doll’s house, 90 per cent of the content is produced by the player population, the users. This open source community is a completely bottom up distributed, self-organising system. None of these people are on the manufacturer’s payroll. Why do they do it? Herz believes we are witnessing a kind of twenty-first century folk art driven by a combination of personal satisfaction and community derived kudos. Herz asks what can we learn from these relationship patterns? She does not see this impulse as being specific to computer gaming. She believes that the critical features are the preparedness of manufacturers to open up their product specifications and detailing to public scrutiny and creative public input. For the gaming industry this process has resulted in phenomenal profits, rather than collapse, compromise or chaos. Herz observes that the networked ecosystem of online gaming synthesises information and knowledge into new forms at uniquely high rates of speed and in great volumes. She sees this process as being readily transferable to other manufacturing sectors. The internet is another powerful example of an open source non-local distributed system currently transforming the global communities activities.
Traditional building practitioners see buildings as entangled fused structures not as assemblies of discrete modules, able to be unpicked and unpacked with ease. Further to this, an on-site production culture developed during the Thirteenth Century for building Gothic Cathedrals still prevails, along with a similar set of performance criteria. No Twentieth Century products such as cars or computers are built like this, outside in mud pits in the rain, assembled from a procession of supplies when they manage to arrive. Kent Larson of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology House_n project observes that houses “should be more like a personal computer or a car. It should be affordable, built mostly in a factory, and with parts that are easy to repair or replace. You should be able to design your own home online, just as you can today with a Dell laptop or a Honda minivan. The key to making it happen? Follow the lead of other industries: standardise and accessorise. …Before houses can get built this way, though, the industry needs standards analogous to the USB standard for computers”. You don’t have to precisely know what each final fitting will be but you have to agree on how they are connected. Such a standard will only be useful if it is developed across a very large constituency, at worst continental, at best global. In an attempt to address this challenge the MIT House_n project has proposed ‘open source building’. Borrowing from Dutch architect N. John Habraken and American author Stewart Brand, the House_n project divides up the house into six major systems from the site itself through to the loose interior fittings. Each system has a different life expectancy cascading from hundreds of years to tens of years, each therefore requiring more or less replacement repair or upgrade, exactly in the manner of the Casa Barcelona project undertaken by Construmat in Spain in 2001 and the GM AUTOnomy project in America.
The current models and paradigms shaping our cities are not timeless or absolute. They are flawed, expensive, wasteful and utterly inefficient. The intentions have at times been good but the system betrays us. There exist contemporary models of design and manufacture that readily suggest alternative modes of practice with vastly improved outcomes. They all have one thing in common. To exploit the performance and cost benefits of modern technology we need modular design, uniform standards or protocols of connection and a global approach. Local legislation in the evolution of our housing has no place. The perspectives, experience and actions of local government will continuously thwart the necessary innovation required to evolve the manufacturing of our houses. The writing is on the wall. If we are to move forward we must embrace the message in Marshall Mcluhan’s Global Village. We must live in one.