Building a Library 40: The Prefabricated Home, by Colin Davies
Robert Harbison picks 50 books that should feature in any architectural library.
The Prefabricated Home
By Colin Davies, 2005
Its author would probably be outraged to be told that this book makes a small subject big. After all, Colin Davies says that the prefabricated house is the most important subject in the history of modern architecture.
Especially in the early parts, the excitement of the book springs from the distance between its reasonable tone and its radical message. Davies is both an architect and a historian, a combination that equips him to tell a mischievous alternative history of modernism as a series of failures: one after another the great architects of the 20th century solve pressing problems in the realm of ideas and accept defeat in the realm of facts.
Later “theoretical” chapters are even more adventurous. Who else has imagined that the history of mobile homes or container ships or gated communities had serious lessons for designers and historians? Grimshaw’s toilets for student housing are “conceptually daring and disastrous in practice” while in Travelodge bathroom pods “architectural banality obscures technical achievement”. The book takes so many unfashionable positions and dislodges so many complacencies that it must rub every reader the wrong way at least once.
The attack on the idea of authorship in architecture is probably the most contentious. Whatever you think about that, it’s a legitimate enlargement of the subject into the realm of individual egos, and gives some clue to the passion that powers this maverick work.
Near the end there’s a surprising interlude on the traditional Japanese house. This includes the best short description of these buildings I’ve seen, followed (not preceded) by an explanation of what this subject is doing here. Efficiency is not the only or the most compelling argument for standardisation, we’re told. A 12th century poet (“an early master of prefabrication”) is quoted in support: the real beauties of prefabrication are spiritual.