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A Utopian Manifestation: Part 2

by Judy Cheong

Steadily the architectural landscape of our society is changing. Buildings are steep, sharp lines cutting through an urban landscape, a far cry from the blue shutters and picket fences of yesteryear. In a daring landscape that is changing with the desires of artists, designers and architects alike, aesthetic values saturate our everyday lives from designer wireless kettles to designer monolithic museums and concert halls.

Last week, I looked at prefabricated architecture with renewed interest. Once a stopgap housing solution, architects are using prefab buildings to push the envelope in creative spaces and realize fresh possibilities in environmental sustainability. If so, why do I not see more architects jumping on the bandwagon of churning out such homes?

On the other hand, public awareness is growing, courtesy of groundbreaking art exhibitions pushing the ideals of prefab dwellings in celebration of its merits. If actual execution couldn’t convince, would its approach in the name of art sway prefab as the shape of modern architecture? After all, art—to me—is quite simply an exercise in emotion and reaction.

And I note with great interest the exterior of many prefab structures resemble Gerrit Rietveld’s Rietveld Schröder House built in 1924, whose architecture was styled exclusively upon the principles of the Danish De Stijl artistic movement. Though the ties seem completely irrelevant, there may be some interlocking ideology between the two concepts to pick on.




The De Stijl movement pursued a utopian ideal embodying secular tranquility and societal order. Its pioneers favored abstraction and sought to deconstruct forms and eliminate restrictions by distilling shapes and colors to its natural residue. They worked only with primary colors, including black and white, and utilized only horizontal and vertical lines. As associate professor Charlotte Jirousek of Cornell University indicates: “The philosophy was based on functionalism, with a severe and doctrinaire insistence on the rectilinearity of the planes, which seem to slide across one another like sliding panels.”

This influence may not be wholly distinctive in its movement, but modern prefab ideology parallels shreds of De Stijl’s founding concepts. Drawing comparisons from design to philosophy between the two, one may detect a hint as to the direction prefab might eventually head towards. Where the strength of the De Stijl movement diluted and diversified towards its end (it ended after inspiring broader modern movements in the 1930s, most notably the Bauhaus style) the only question remains is whether prefab can escape a similar fate.

Where in art the artist expresses, in prefab the architect self-realizes. And as an educated audience, there is a lot more to just a blind admiration of these home exhibits. Prefab architects seek a human connection to their art the same way one “feels” a painting or identifies with a particularly appealing photograph. The personal spaces these architects craft bears a message of possibility, and in each aesthetically pleasing line, audiences are brought to appreciate and comprehend not just the differences of traditional and modular building styles, but predominantly the ideas behind it that has flamed its progress.

Using prefabrication as an art form generously allows an architect all explorative potential. With every definitive line his pen draws across the blueprint he sets out to challenge (preconceptions), defend (ideology) and illuminate (the future). When ready, architects will be able to illustrate the development of prefab into its next era. But before this manifests itself in a society built responsibly, many of us are still hanging upon its learning curve. Each individual’s or community’s reaction towards this progress will chart prefab’s growth in society. For now it is one of the numerous dreams and trends that have materialized with the help of technological progression, which architects have at their disposal to mold as they wish.




As many as there may be who will welcome and embrace prefab as a possibility in their near future, there are many more today who will politely appreciate prefab as another art form. The reality still stands that as much as prefabricated architecture provides the much needed environmentally-friendly housing solution, it is not an effective addition to many of the world’s overcrowded, bustling cities.

I agree with exhibition curator and New York School of Interior Design (NYSID) professor Dr. Evie T. Joselow when she asserts in an interview that “they [prefab houses] become more expensive with delivery and with actual construction” as the movement progresses. For its Dwell Home competition, the construction of Mountain Retreat by Resolution: 4 Architect went over budget, a probable hint at the indispensable truth of monetary economics. Architect Gregory La Vardera of Ecocontempo considers: “It will take more time, but in the end prefab may not be the mechanism that delivers houses on par with the status quo. It may simply be the catalyst for modern breaking into the mainstream housing market.

Google “prefab” today and you will be barraged by countless websites vociferously offering this cost-effective, energy-saving option, with or without a customizable touch. Take a closer look and perhaps you might be questioning whether this notion is applicable to your surrounding conditions. Escalating costs tied with the introduction of customizable options are starting to debunk one of prefab’s original assurances of affordability, a grim predictability we somehow have no way of escaping. This irony occurs neither through the fault of the movement nor the ambitions of the architects, simply because we live in a fast-paced world eager to exploit and evolve.

While prefab’s ardent supporters endure and soldier on through its trials and tribulations, the rest of us wait with bated breath as the redesigning landscape of the world rises and falls at the whim of another’s imagination. The De Stijl movement may have faded and collapsed upon its own rigidity, but the nobility of prefab’s ideals in addressing solutions for disaster-prone areas surpasses the fate of its predecessor.

Predicting where prefab will end up is premature at this moment when the possibilities are still expanding. However, there is no doubt where it could lead – only forward. Whether or not the homes of the rich and famous are built in Los Angeles and carted half way around the world at their whim, or the homes in New Orleans built to withstand the floods with prefab’s progressing technology, one can only wonder. I wonder this with little skepticism, as I stand looking out my window 23 storeys above the teeming streets of my urban city.



JUDY CHEONG
Junior Assistant Editor, Product Design Correspondent
TAXI Design Network



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Tomas Brechler began to draw, firstly on furniture before paper and other materials, since he was able to hold a pencil.

Click on his picture to read more about him.
Creative NY Contributor


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