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Monday, May 05, 2008

Book Review: Prefab Prototypes

Prefab Prototypes: Site-specific Design for Offsite Construction by Mark Anderson & Peter Anderson
Princeton Architectural Press, 2007

Architects Mark Anderson and Peter Anderson started their firm as a design-build construction company in 1984. Nearly 25 years later, this integration of design and the means and methods of bringing them to fruition comes across clearly in this large-format monograph on the duo's primarily single-family residential projects. We see this integration in highly-detailed axonometrics (sometimes exploded, rendered lovingly with shadows, no less), well-crafted models, construction and finished photographs, and of course in the designs themselves. The tectonic expression of each house is immediate without being being a one-liner. Needless to say, the creation of space is as important as the creation of the construction elements.
This book is more than a monograph on the Seattle- and San Francisco-based office; it is a treatise on prefabricated and modular construction. Split into seven chapters (Panelized 2x4, CNC Timber Framing, Concrete Systems, Steel Framing, Sandwich Panels, Modular Systems, Further Experiments), the 30 projects run the gamut in the now hot topic of prefab, showing how the architects find the right expression and construction to each unique circumstance, rather than trying to make a particular prefab design fit every solution, what many prefab designs try to do. The difference between the two means Anderson Anderson Architecture's designs might take longer and cost more than designs bought off the internet or from a catalog, but if this book is any indication these aren't the concerns of their clients. The Orchard House, for example, took three years to complete (due to a thorough design process, not difficult construction), and with a five-acre site in Sonoma County, California, a limited budget did not point the way to prefab.
This difference should not be read as a criticism of the duo's work or choice of clients, but rather a questioning of prefab's role in residential architecture, something that is commonly seen as a way to bring Modern architecture to the masses through the low costs of offsite construction. All too often these low costs are still higher than the typical suburban developer cookie-cutters that also use prefabrication and modular construction, but to different effect. Is it perhaps better to see prefab as an undeniable aspect of contemporary architecture and construction, rather than a separate route for the two? Should architects and their designs be considered either prefab or not, as the media seems to lump them? Or should architects stop denying the level of prefab already found in buildings that don't bear the Modern style and embrace it as a something that could influence not only construction but expression?
A yes to this last question would point to the Andersons. Refreshingly they have created a practice, and now a book, that places prefab high in their design thinking, without forcing out the other particularities of architectural programs that influence design, such as site and client. Definitely a certain modularity does pepper their designs, but that is not as pronounced as the variety and freshness of their output. The highest praise on this book might be to say that unlike other books and magazines on prefab where one finds repetition, flipping through these pages one sees potential.

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