Sunday, July 27, 2008

"Prefab" housing: not all of it so "fab"

Ever heard of a "Lustron" house? I hadn't either, until I moved to Binghamton. That's probalby because nearly all of them are located east of the Mississippi. Here's the short version:

After WWII, there was a severe national housing shortage. Building on the principles of mass production, an enterprising guy got a huge federal government subsidy (which later exploded into a major Senate corruption scandal), took over the old Tucker car manufacturing plant in Ohio, and started turning out prefabricated ranch-style homes made out of . . . steel coated with porcelain. If that sounds like the same material that bathtubs are made out of, it is.

Between 1948 and 1950, about 2,500 of these modest, one-story homes were produced. Marketed as requiring very little maintenance, someone forgot that they posed their own unique maintenance problems. Oh, and the fact they are freaking weird- that, too. At least they came in 5 flavors, uh, I mean, colors: pink Maize Yellow, Dove gray, Surf Blue and Desert Tan. Nice try from the marketing department, with the exotic imagery, but you can't fool me: these are all various shades of chalky-pepto-50s drab.

I first learned about these things because there are 5 of them in the Binghamton area. The super strange part is that I met two of those five homeowners within a few weeks! The jokes do not end with these houses: "How do you hang pictures? with MAGNETS?" "Do you use shower-scrubber to wash the thing?" I'm hilarious, I know.

In doing my research on these oddities of architecture and American kitsch and marketing, my fascination with prefabricated housing only deepened. So I was pretty excited when I read that the Museum of Modern Art in NYC was doing a special exhibit on prefab housing, including commissioning 5 prefab houses and erecting them on an open lot adjacent to MoMA. Opening weekend was this weekend and we were there!

The museum exhibit was pretty cool- for example, who knew that Thomas Edison made a bunch of "single pour concrete" houses in New Jersey? They even had a partially-reconstructed Lustron house that you could walk through (extra-special for me, since I haven't been able to convince either of our friends to give me a tour of their bathtub houses yet- perhaps it's my jokes).

Guess what? There is a great reason these things didn't take off: they are really ugly. Even worse, close up, than I would have thought. That low-maintenance finish? Well, it chips, just like a bathtub would, and how do you repair that? I think you can refinish a bathtub, but who do you call to do this to your house? There are a zillion other odd things about these houses- like they were heated by radiant heat from the ceiling or something, and had almost everything built-in so you needed an acetylene torch to reconfigure stuff. Lord help you if you wanted to add-on to these little things, either!

My disappointment is not reserved solely for the ill-fated Lustron; while the museum's exhibit was good (covering the past 200 years and including everything from residential Quonset huts to capsule-apartments for bachelors in Japan to Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion House), the 5 pre-fab houses in the adjacent lot were really lame. These were the winners of an international competition, involving 600 entrants? Come on: one of them was made from plywood and looked like a sort-of-cool lifeguard station (inexplicably, with a granite kitchen counter and yet no other nice finishes). One of them- the tiny metal cube in the foreground of the photo- was smaller than a sleepover car on a train, yet, also inexplicably, included a big espresso maker that took up about 1/3 of the "kitchen" (with a sink, but no heating elements, of course) space.

There is so much cool stuff going on with manufactured housing lately- my favorite, of course, being the "Seatrain House," made from train boxcars on an industrial site near downtown Los Angeles. Dunno, maybe I missed something. Regardless, there's no such thing as a "bad" visit to MoMA- I mean, really, who can argue with the view?

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