written by:
illustrated by:
October 1, 2010
Originally published in Ten Years Of Dwell

Rather than being an historical movement from the first half of the 20th century, left over and reheated, we think of Modernism as a frame of mind. To us the M word connotes an honesty and curiosity about methods and materials, a belief that mass production and beauty are not mutually exclusive, and a certain optimism not just about the future, but about the present.  


“The Fruit Bowl Manifesto,” Dwell, October 2000

Courtesy of 
Copyright Henrik Knudsen 2008
2 / 2
Image converted using ifftoany
Image converted using ifftoany

What was I thinking ten years ago when I wrote “The Fruit Bowl Manifesto” as an introduction to the very first issue of Dwell? Well, the obvious thing was that I hated the way most magazines depicted people’s homes: no sign of life but for the occasional, suspiciously well-organized fruit bowl. But the real issue was modernism. I needed to nail down a definition of that movement, an enduringly important way of thinking about the world that would outlive any passing fad for Marcel Breuer chairs or Eileen Gray side tables.

What I very badly wanted, a decade ago, was to find a way to bridge the gap between the mutually exclusive disciplines of architecture and American commercial home building—the latter being an industry that seemed to exist entirely in the past, a made-up age of Tudor–Colonial–Mediterranean glory. At the time, prefab represented a tantalizing shortcut, a way to get better design to more people, faster. I was far from the first person to think so. As Le Corbusier famously wrote around 1920: “If we eliminate from our hearts and minds all dead concepts in regard to the house, and look at the question from a critical and objective point of view, we shall arrive at the ‘House-Machine,’ the mass-production house, healthy (and morally so too) and beautiful in the same way that the working tools and instruments which accompany our existence are beautiful.”

But I also noticed that the truly mass-produced homes in the United States were the dopey faux-historical ones built on-site and in large quantities in subdivisions everywhere. It seemed the production home builders were using the “working tools and instruments”—specifically, the economies of scale—in a way that might have made Corbu proud, were it not for the end results. Despite the slow emergence over the past decade of a handful of architecturally ambitious but relatively small-scale modular manufacturers, it still seems as though the sophisticated, machine-made, mass-produced house will never happen in the United States.

For years, this situation has frustrated me. But I’m coming around to the notion that mass production is almost beside the point. Instead, what’s increasingly important is the way architectural ideas are distributed. There’s a powerful generational shift in progress, one that may bring architects and homebuilders closer together. The profession’s bias toward designing custom homes one by one is giving way to an intense interest in multiples. This reversal in attitude—more than any example of factory-built houses—is the most compelling end product of the prefab movement.

Back in the early 2000s, I met an architect named William Massie who was teaching at the Montana State University in Bozeman. Massie was using the computer differently than most of his colleagues,  not just as a design tool but also as a manufacturing tool. He embraced computer numerical control (CNC), a methodology that evolved from automated machine tools of the 1940s, and used it to cut precisely shaped building components directly from his computer files. Massie’s vision wasn’t mass production. He wanted to manufacture homes like Boeings, producing small quantities of highly industrialized, highly customized houses in his own workshop. “That to me is the perfect model,” Massie once said.

Now, the Massie approach, once exotic, seems to be verging on ubiquitous. I’ve been touring Brooklyn’s resurgent industrial enclaves and I keep walking into wood shops and metal shops, relatively modest setups, that have CNC-driven routing machines and other fairly sophisticated computerized fabrication equipment. I’m beginning to notice that as CNC technology has dropped in cost and become more commonplace, the CAD jockeys who used to be found only in architects’ offices have migrated to the places where things are actually made. Arguably, custom-mitered complex polygons could soon become as available as two-by-fours. No, it’s not mass production as Corbu understood it, but it is a circumstance that makes the idea of the “Machine-House” more interesting, more variable, and potentially more beautiful.

What I’ve realized is that we’re at the point where architecture, like everything else, can be distributed as pure information—buildings made from ones and zeros. With the latest design software, you can cook up a cool, weirdly asymmetrical little house that minimizes heat gain in summer and maximizes it in the winter. In theory, you could then distribute that design as a set of files, the technologically enhanced version of an old-school stock plan, and an enlightened lumberyard could output the components for the house. Or ten. Or a hundred. Is that prefabrication? Maybe. The point is that as the hardware catches up with the software, and as devices that can be used to output the components of digital architecture are more readily available, the difference between prefab and site-built increasingly becomes one of language and perception.

What’s interesting to me now, a decade after “The Fruit Bowl Manifesto,” is that we’re in the throes of an industrial resurgence—one largely driven by techies who also like making things. As a result, the nature of manufacturing is evolving so quickly that we don’t yet posses the terminology to explain it. For instance, we now have mass production, but without the mass. More than a hundred years after Adolf Loos equated ornament with crime, even the word modernism may have outlived its usefulness. Although what would we replace it with—Zeitgeistiness? Hypercontemporaneousness? Well, maybe not. Granted, there is currently something of a backlash against the style and the cultural implications of modernism, a revolt against perpetual forward momentum. But at the same moment that we are flocking to farm-themed restaurants and harvesting our own honey, we’re tantalizingly close to possessing an industrialized approach to building that could allow us to live the modernist dream, forever in the present.

son of fruitbowl printing press
Bill Massie American House Massie 0296

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...

Latest Articles

45 dva 2270 persp1 cmyk 0
The prospect of retirement doesn’t just signal the end of a career; it offers the chance to recalibrate and re-prioritize in life.
July 25, 2016
18
You don’t have to choose between sustainable energy and curb appeal.
July 19, 2016
jakemagnus queensland 1
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
July 06, 2016
content delzresidence 013 1
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
June 29, 2016
abc malacari marwick stair 01 0
A simple set of stairs is a remodel’s backbone.
June 28, 2016
Design Award of Excellence winner Mellon Square.
Docomomo US announces the winners of this year's Modernism in America Awards. Each project showcases exemplary modern restoration techniques, practices, and ideas.
June 27, 2016
monogram dwell sf 039 1
After last year’s collaboration, we were excited to team up with Monogram again for the 2016 Monogram Modern Home Tour.
June 27, 2016
switch over chicago smart renovation penthouse deck smar green ball lamps quinze milan lounge furniture garapa hardwood
A strategic rewire enhances a spec house’s gut renovation.
June 26, 2016
young guns 2016 emerging talent coralie gourguechon treviso italy cphotos by coralie gourguechon co produced by isdat planche anatomique de haut parleur1
Coralie Gourguechon's paper objects will make you see technology in a whole new way.
June 26, 2016
green machine smart home aspen colorado facade yard bocci deck patio savant
Smart technology helps a house in Aspen, Colorado, stay on its sustainable course.
June 25, 2016
Compact Aglol 11 television plastic brionvega.
The aesthetic appeal of personal electronics has long fueled consumer interest. A new industrial design book celebrates devices that broke the mold.
June 25, 2016
modern backyard deck ipe wood
An angled deck transforms a backyard in Menlo Park, California, into a welcoming gathering spot.
June 24, 2016
dscf5485 1
Today, we kicked off this year’s annual Dwell on Design at the LA Convention Center, which will continue through Sunday, June 26th. Though we’ve been hosting this extensive event for years, this time around is particularly special.
June 24, 2016
under the radar renovation napa
Two designers restore a low-slung midcentury gem in Napa, California, by an unsung Bay Area modernist.
June 24, 2016
Exterior of Huneeus/Sugar Bowl Home.
San Francisco–based designer Maca Huneeus created her family’s weekend retreat near Lake Tahoe with a relaxed, sophisticated sensibility.
June 24, 2016
light and shadow bathroom walnut storage units corian counter vola faucet
A Toronto couple remodel their home with a special emphasis on a spacious kitchen and a material-rich bathroom.
June 24, 2016
Affordable home in Kansas City living room
In Kansas City, an architecture studio designs an adaptable house for a musician on a budget.
June 23, 2016
modern lycabettus penthouse apartment oak vertical slats office
By straightening angles, installing windows, and adding vertical accents, architect Aaron Ritenour brought light and order to an irregularly shaped apartment in the heart of Athens, Greece.
June 23, 2016
kitchen confidential tiles custom cabinetry oak veneer timber house
A modest kitchen addition to a couple’s cottage outside of Brisbane proves that one 376-square-foot room can revive an entire home.
June 23, 2016
feldman architecture 0
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
June 22, 2016
Blackened timber Dutch home
A modern dwelling replaces a fallen farmhouse.
June 22, 2016
hillcrest house interior kitchen 3
Seeking an escape from bustling city life, a Manhattan couple embarks on a renovation in the verdant Hudson Valley.
June 22, 2016
angular
Atelier Moderno renovated an old industrial building to create a luminous, modern home.
June 21, 2016
San Francisco floating home exterior
Anchored in a small San Francisco canal, this floating home takes its cues from a classic city habitat.
June 21, 2016
modern renovation addition solar powered scotland facade steel balcony
From the bones of a neglected farmstead in rural Scotland emerges a low-impact, solar-powered home that’s all about working with what was already there.
June 21, 2016
up in the air small space new zealand facade corrugated metal cladding
An architect with a taste for unconventional living spaces creates a small house at lofty heights with a starring view.
June 21, 2016
young guns 2016 emerging talent marjan van aubel london cwai ming ng current window
Marjan Van Aubel makes technology a little more natural.
June 21, 2016
urban pastoral brooklyn family home facade steel cypress double
Building on the site of a former one-car garage, an architect creates his family’s home in an evolving neighborhood of Brooklyn.
June 20, 2016
Modern Brooklyn backyard studio with plexiglass skylight, green roof, and cedar cladding facade
In a Brooklyn backyard, an off-duty architect builds a structure that tests his attention to the little things.
June 20, 2016
the outer limits paris prefab home living area vertigo lamp constance guisset gijs bakker strip tablemetal panels
In the suburbs of Paris, an architect with an eco-friendly practice doesn’t let tradition stand in the way of innovation.
June 20, 2016