It's always a little risky to see in one headline about the architecture business, or in the fate of a single firm, a parable for the profession as a whole. But news that the prefab specialist Michelle Kaufmann has suddenly closed her Oakland office and laid off all 17 of her employees does seem to have Larger Symbolism written all over it.Hawthorne puts his fingers on the disconnect in the recent years between prefab's promise and reality:
Kaufmann's is hardly the only prefab firm to face trouble in recent months. Empyrean International, the company that built houses for Dwell magazine's prefab arm, abruptly shut down last fall. Marmol Radziner, the Los Angeles firm known for smartly designed Neomodern houses, has mothballed its prefab factory in Vernon in what it says is a temporary move. [Full article here.]
How to make the leap to high-volume business remains prefab's central dilemma. You don't become the prefab version of a big residential developer by building houses one at a time on steep city lots and in vacation spots, as many high-design prefab firms have done. You reach that point by colonizing big swaths of flat land and building 1,500 identical houses at the same time.
As a longtime subscriber to Dwell, I drooled over their modern designs and the promise of cool architecture at an affordable price. But then when I actually looked at the prices of these houses -- they weren't all that affordable. Too often they were second house play things for those with disposable income rather than design for the masses (which may be one reason why Dwell editor Allison Arieff left the magazine citing, "a "fundamental change in the magazine's mission and philosophy").
That's the paradox that prefab still has not been able to overcome -- affordable architecture for the masses necessarily relies on mass production -- and yet few people want to live in a neighborhood of 1500 identical houses. We want the promise of prefab's lower costs and environmental sensibility, without prefab's downside of forcing us to live in identical little boxes.
The fashion industry faces the same problem -- people want low cost but they also want their clothing choices to be distinct and an individual reflection of their personality. The fashion industry's solution was to outsource production to Asia where child labor, police states, and crushing poverty keep wages down -- while producers make small batches of lots of different designs which creates the appearance of individuality. But of course that's no solution at all.
In many respects -- the economic downturn should create the climate in which to PROVE the genius of prefab modern housing -- mass production and low cost should be more desirable than ever. And yet, that home run prefab design, development, or company has yet to emerge.