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Parameters for Prefabrication

Dora Epstein Jones

Dora Epstein Jones, Ph.D, is a theorist and teacher of architecture culture, at SCI-Arc. She has been a long-time collaborator with Jones, Partners: Architecture. She sat down with with inter·punct in July 2013 to talk about prefab and modularity.

For additional information and to view Dora’s full lecture, visit the CMU School of Architecture website.

i·p: The word “parameter” carries connotations of scientific optimization, a process central to industrial production and, in particular, prefab construction. If we interrogate the roots of the term, “para” and “meter,” we paradoxically discover that the word can be read as “beyond measurement.” How much does this alternative reading of the term play into the process of postwar prefabrication?

Dora Epstein Jones: I suppose that part of the crisis of architectural theory and thought in the postwar period developed from a similar crisis in our belief in scientific rationalism. It was this hopefulness in a scientifically- rational approach that fueled the critique of functionalism and tended to make poor Le Corbusier the strawman of most critical interrogation. And, it’s that same sense of scientific rationality that permeated the logic of prefabrication based on a single module and a single system, really turning that into an elemental and fundamental
quality of prefabrication. So, along the lines of postwar critique, this may be where prefabrication has failed architecture, or, I would even say, where architecture has failed prefabrication, as the refusal of the fundamental quality is more architecture’s problem.

When I hear a word like a “parameter,” I have to admit to a feeling of a bit of nervousness, not so much because scientific investigation is bad – scientific investigation can be very good for architecture – I just feel like the belief structure still posits scientific investigation as a panacea, in this case, the not-as-logical scientism. That, I find dangerous, and I think it has been at heart of architecture’s problematic relationship with prefabrication.

But, when you say that you’re rephrasing “parameter” as “para·meter,” that seems more exciting to me: First of all, because of the more literary component that escapes the scientific logic that now seems to accompany the word “parameter.” The word is supposed to rear in your mind this association with scientific logic and the kind of “truthiness,” as Stephen Colbert would say, of scientific logic, but as soon as you break that and hyphenate, punctuate the word, you’ve done a kind of postmodern operation to it, which allows one to imagine a parameter not as having a fundamental quality to it in the sense of science, but rather, in para·meter, it carries a sense of the necessity of the supplement. The para·meter becomes a kind of supplement. Once you’ve turned it into a supplement, no matter how necessary the supplement is, it’s still a supplement, in which case, I’m kind of excited about it, because it reduces this so-called truthfulness. That seems to me really the point, that architecture’s problem with prefabrication has been its association with the idea of this fundamental truthfulness. I think that architecture survives far better with this kind of play, the exuberant and the expressive and the facet of it that eludes. I’m not saying that architecture doesn’t have a truthfulness – there’s certainly nothing more truthful in a sense than architecture and its relation to human experience – but I’m saying a reliance on a scientific approach to a method of delivering architecture is the wrong form of truthfulness for architecture.

i·p: Regarding Jones Partners’ own work with the use of prefabricated shipping containers, you mentioned during your lecture that a lumping together of prefabricated parts allows for a more exciting investigation of the space between – conceding to the constraints of the system while allowing for the architectural indulgence of difference, change and variety. But, as with the rogue column that finds itself necessary as additional support to Gropius’s paneling system, there is also some desire to remove these impurities from the system. By placing that secondary system outside of the prefabricated system, allowing both to act somewhat independently but in dialogue with one another, does the integrity of the prefab container remain intact? Going back to the revised definition of para·meter, “para” can mean not just beyond, but beside or alongside of – is the architecture that which remains alongside the measured, standardized prefabricated parts, while not necessarily operating within the system? Can you talk about the relationship between the measurable modular space of the container and the fuzzier space of the in-between?

DEJ: The idea of this kind of lumpy logic mostly comes from Wes; he’s been contending with it for a long time, before I walked into the picture as collaborator with Jones Partners. For Wes, it was very important to enjoy, celebrate the natural strengths and proportions of the container. They’re very pleasing; containers by themselves carry a deep architectural pleasure within their proportions. Certainly, when you see a 20-footer, you just don’t feel as happy about it, but then when you see a 40-footer, there’s just something that has a pleasing proportional aspect to it. It’s also very strong when it’s self-contained. The problem Wes encountered when he started to experiment with them – and it really took getting out there and cutting them, physically working with them – is that once they do get cut, they just fold. The tendency among other architects has been to use the containers as a kind of base, but then to make these drastic cuts into them, requiring a steel frame on top of that, which, to Wes, never made sense. By using them structurally, though, their lack of interior space becomes the issue. People are so gregarious about wanting space – especially people who pay for architecture. They want more space. I started collaborating with Jones Partners on the first Pro/Con package house scheme at the Hammer Museum in 2001 for a show on the un-private house. That’s what I mean by this is more Jones Partners’ investigation; when I came in, I was asked to work on the history and theory of it. I see that you’re trying to correlate the lump, the container, with a kind of pure form, or essential element, and then correlate the other stuff with the free space. I like that you call it fuzzy – that’s a word that is used in the office a lot; we talk about the fuzz and liking the fuzz. And I see you trying to correlate the relationship between the fuzz and the lump with the idea “para·meter”; I think that works theoretically, but it doesn’t work in the same sense as the Derridian kind of necessary supplement.1 Instead, the container itself is the thing to be enjoyed. The freespace, meanwhile, is a friend with benefits. It’s not the same as the supplement and the necessity or the privileged term. You certainly can do the single container – if the space is demanded, you can just do the container. There’s a rooftop container project where it’s just the little container guy: he flips out and it doesn’t necessarily have all the free space. But when you say fuzz, that’s a different story. The fuzz is a kind of necessary supplement. I don’t mean that in the same sense of the free space in the example of the Dwell home or in Pro/Con. Fuzz is all of the ducting and the wiring and the delivery of water and sewer service, etc. There’s a kind of basic approach to the technological here that I think we have to grapple with as an architectural culture: Do you hide the technological? Do you put it behind a panel, or bury it in the floor? Or do you expose it and celebrate it and enjoy its visual effect? I think Jones Partners have really wanted to celebrate it. So the attendant fuzz necessary to turn a container into a living apparatus becomes a kind of cause for a visual enhancement and elaboration in an already technological scheme. In that case, the fuzz does become a sort of necessary supplement. It starts to turn the single container, certainly, into a more architectural proposition, and, in that case, there is a parallel to this idea of para·meter, while the free space is more of a companionship relationship.

i·p: In Walter Gropius’s work on prefabrication, he eventually reaches a state where, for him, the architect becomes less a designer and more a coordinator, as Gropius works within the predefined system of prefabricated panels. This in many ways parallels contemporary discussions on parametricism, where the architect is someone who merely “tweaks” a series of parameters. In many ways, this reduces the authorial control of the architect, yet seldom do we think of this as a fulfillment of the post-modern “death of the author.” How do you think that this shift from design to control differs from the critical distance sought by late twentieth-century theories between the author and the work?

DEJ: For Gropius, in Gropius’s time, this was the liability. This was exactly what spurred him to stop doing prefabrication, to stop being interested in it. He was no longer the Architect. Well after Gropius, the critical fear of the author, in my mind, eventually directly translated to things like parametric design. I don’t think that they’re merely analogous, but that parametric design is a descendent, if you will, even if arguments have been made for the fact of authorship in parametric design. Nobody’s denying the role of the author in parametric design; there is some person, some final decision-maker, in parametric design, and I think the discourse recently has been fairly healthy. And, I think bringing these two really different architectural scenes up in the same breath is my way of warning architecture to reconcile its relationship to the author.

If you will excuse me, I’m going to speak on behalf of my feminist background. In feminism, you can trace two very different attitudes – one that embraces the same critical thinking that felt that the author was exerting an authority, felt that the author was sort of a dangerous fellow, and another, that understands the control of authorship as a sign of an empowered subject. In this dual formulation, the authorship question is not answered by doing away with the author (as the computer would seduce us into trying) but rather to introduce the possibility of “responsibility,” mutual limited control and freedom and play within constraints. I think that once we eliminate authorship, we start to get into some dangerous territory when it comes to our relationship with architecture. As long as we have modernity, we’re going to have architecture. But then as long as we have modernity, we’re going to have authors. Authorship needs to be changed or layered or mandated as having a level of responsibility. If that’s the case, I don’t see why parametrics can’t also have that – if they’re already kind of authors they can also be kind of responsible.

i·p: In your lecture, you astutely placed Greg Lynn’s work within the context of prefab and modularity. In my mind, it opened up a distinction between the spatial effects of standardized modular units that operate within a finite combinational set of Durandian elements, and the infinite morphological capacities of topology. Would you say that even the mass-produced elements of Gropius’s prefab still result in a humanist space, while Lynn’s work finally belies perspective and the Cartesian paradigm? Does this finally offer prefab a legitimization as “Architecture,” because it can finally participate in cultural discourse and produce novel spatial affects?

DEJ: I think that everyone wants to believe that Lynn’s work could finally signal the great wresting away from modernity – as in the end of the hegemony of perspective and the Cartesian point-plane reference. Having worked with Lynn, however, I think he’s not interested in those potentials as much as he is deeply involved in the evolving paradigms of a capital-A architecture. The work uses the animation software because that is what was available when Lynn first started asking questions about architectural geometry back at Princeton; and just like Roger Rabbit, it’s pretty easy to start to imagine the possibilities of the otherworldliness of the animate figures. But, with Lynn, the end point is not the subject’s formation-relation to geometry in the philosophical sense, even if that would be super-cool, but rather to re-imagine architecture at its word in, dare I say, a Classical sense, which is as surface solids. I point to him in my lecture because this interest of his may have started out with the one large surface-solid object, as in the Embryological House, but has recently shifted to an exploration of using them as “bricks,” stacking toys for the Venice Biennale tables or his BlobWall at SCI-Arc. In my mind, this reduction in the scale and purpose of the surface-solid form signals something akin to the desire that architects start to exhibit regarding prefabrication – that is, shrinking the module in order to introduce greater design variety. I see a parallel, and the fact that it is in a field of architecture that is highly experimental doesn’t faze me – if anything, it strengthens my argument that architecture has a long-standing but rather limited relationship to produced forms.

i·p: I was also wondering if you could speculate about the relationship between America’s postwar interest in nomadism, via the mobile home, the automobile, the Eisenhower highway system, etc., and a similar kind of lightness in dwelling offered by prefabrication, which never really caught on in the same way. You’ve argued that the reason “architecture has failed prefabrication” has little to do with public interest, but architecture’s own – if this is the case, then is it architecture’s absence from life on the road that permits its success? If architecture had been somehow more invested in the design and construction of the trailer, the car, the highway, would that have meant better trailer homes, or no trailer homes at all?

DEJ: Architecture was very invested in both! But first, let’s differentiate the prefab from the trailer. During the 1930’s there were a lot of trailer homes by architects, Schindler, Neutra, Prouve, all did one – and Corwin Willson, a major trailer designer, was an architect. But, the war killed the trailer home, or should I say, the need for sanitary defense housing. Trailering was always very popular in the US – still is! – but only on a part-time basis. When it became a full-time way of life for folks in the 1930s, the trailer became associated with squalor and tax evasion, all kinds of criminal activity. You only need to think of Eminem’s 8-Mile to verify that that attitude is alive and well. This doesn’t mean that architects ever stopped designing trailer homes – they’re just not anything you may have heard of, really because the economy for them is still so poor.

Prefabs on the other hand were the definitive fantasy of the European modernists – and here think of Le Corbusier’s Maison Dom-ino. It answered the goals of proletariate housing (i.e., inexpensiveness), modular construction, and a way of tying building industries to architecture. It could be made lightly – but even more it finally answered that call made by Durand in 1804 – the logical and rational assemblage of parts to fit functional typologies. And yes, this was not about the road, but about the hope that the road system could be effectively used to unify the goals of architecture with the reality of people’s lives. In other words, architects didn’t refuse to design trailer homes, or cars, and especially not prefabs, they simply met resistance once they did. The resistance could be external (there wasn’t a market; professions, such as car design, became more specialized) or internal (the geometry didn’t satisfy? architects need more variety?). I’m interested in the internal.

i·p: Something that I’m particularly interested in is how the nomad evolves, from a migratory tribe that travels together – a pack of humans roaming alongside a pack of animals – to a much more individualized culture of travel. What are the architectural implications of this continuity in a desire to move? In terms of the environment, there are practical reasons to purchase a prefabricated home, and a rationalization for keeping a large pack of humans and animals on the move, but why is the trailer, the car, the highway so fetishized in postwar America? How does this neo-nomadism become so important to the culture of that particular milieu?

DEJ: Wow, I have very little expertise to answer that question. I do know one thing, and that is prefabs don’t move very much. They typically have in-place foundations or footings – mobile homes and trailers too. Reyner Banham wrote a great essay on the topic actually, titled “Taking It With You,” that directly addresses the dual tendency to want to roam against the need for permanence, and while his is more interested in the gadgetry of the airstream trailer and an appreciation of its form, I think he communicates this anxiety well. And, at the end of the day, in addition to perhaps asking that we rethink heavy/light, moving/still in order to resolve our own contradictory tendencies, I agree with Banham on the Airstream. Architects will always dream about it even if they find they can’t persist in architecture as a trailer designer. And, it has very little to do with nomadism as much as theory-speak may lead us to believe; it’s because it’s shiny.

1. The editors recommend the writings of Mark Wigley on deconstruction (1988) for further reading on the Derridian necessary supplement in architecture.