Reuniting Inhabited Space in Prefabrication

MUJI’s Vertical House was designed in collaboration with Kengo Kuma and intended for the dense urban context of Tokyo.

Prefabricated housing incorporates the functionalist logic that considers the needs of domestic housing, with cultural elements borrowed from the existing social fabric, while still allowing for the creation of a diverse urban fabric. The entire process is unmistakably industrial and undoubtedly echoes the functionalist creed that changing technologies warrant changing aesthetic ideals. The program of domestic housing has to be able to change with changing social constraints—that should be the undisputed priority. In the image below, we see a section of a contemporary, prefabricated house.

Some may argue that it is a radical departure from traditional notions of the home, but first we consider two points. Firstly, if we consider the plan of the Functional House for Frictionless Living by Alexander Klein alongside this section, we see that this prefabricated unit bears striking similarities to Klein’s plan if stood up against the vertical axis—that is, if Klein’s plan was instead a section, it would have the same logic as this prefabrication.

Secondly, while the design of this prefabricated space is a functional diagram that encapsulates Hannes Meyer’s program, I argue that it still maintains the domesticity of a structure that suits the concept of a human dwelling. The typology isn’t reinforced via familiar arrangement of space but instead by way of context—in this case the contextual relationship with the Japanese urban landscape. This example reincorporates the suburban lifestyle with the spatial constraints of an urban, multi-story unit. The section brings a unified domestic layout to urbanism, in what Robin Evans may describe as “reuniting inhabited space”. It bears a “corner for reading poetry, an alcove, a bathtub, a kitchen” that receives the family in harmonious space.

A prefabricated home is both a primitive shelter and a machine produced engine. Though it requires a rule or model, prefabrication does not necessarily have to spawn a uniform landscape. If we can identify the significant cultural typologies, it can be used to our advantage to create a housing grammar that not only pipelines prefabrication for fast construction but also customization that promotes participation and cultural adaptability to respond to local lifestyles. Prefabrication is this pipe dream that reconciles practical considerations (cost, environmental footprint, etc.) with the dignity and design of a traditional home. It gives us the opportunity to prioritize functionalism and redefine housing typologies in this newly formulated design grammar.