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Ed Driscoll

Then: The Machine for Living In. Now: The Container for Living In

November 24th, 2012 - 10:11 am

Or: From Sea-Land to Our House.

In 1923, when modernists were obsessed with the machine (decades before their current rage against it), Le Corbusier put himself on the architectural map with his aphorism, “The house is a machine for living in.”  And as the years went on, plenty of other modern architects took this phrase to heart (to pacemaker?). In Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus to House, Wolfe memorably described the ever-cheapening effect of modern on architecture:

Eventually, everyone gave up and learned, like the haute bourgeoisie above him, to take it like a man.

They even learned to accept the Mieslings’ two great pieces of circular reasoning. To those philistines who were still so gauche as to say that the new architecture lacked the richness of detail of the old Beaux-Arts architecture, the plasterwork, the metalwork, the masonry, and so on, the Mieslings would say with considerable condescension: “Fine. You produce the craftsmen who can do that kind of work, and then we’ll talk to you about it. They don’t exist anymore.” True enough. But why? Henry Hope Reed tells of riding across West Fifty-third Street in New York in the 1940s in a car with some employees of E. F. Caldwell & Co., a firm that specialized in bronze work and electrical fixtures. As the car passed the Museum of Modern Art building, the men began shaking their fists at it and shouting: “That goddamn place is destroying us! Those bastards are killing us!” In the palmy days of Beaux-Arts architecture, Caldwell had employed a thousand bronzeurs, marble workers, model makers, and designers. Now the company was sliding into insolvency, along with many similar firms. It was not that craftsmanship was dying. Rather, the International Style was finishing off the demand for it, particularly in commercial construction. By the same token, to those who complained that International Style buildings were cramped, had flimsy walls inside as well as out, and, in general, looked cheap, the knowing response was: “These days it’s too expensive to build in any other style.” But it was not too expensive, merely more expensive. The critical point was what people would or would not put up with aesthetically. It was possible to build in styles even cheaper than the International Style. For example, England began to experiment with schools and public housing constructed like airplane hangars, out of corrugated metal tethered by guy wires. Their architects also said: “These days it’s too expensive to build in any other style.” Perhaps one day soon everyone (tout le monde) would learn to take this, too, like a man.

And according to ABC News, they’re taking this like a man in the Motor City: “Shipping Containers to Become Condos in Detroit.” And of course, ABC describes it as “Exceptional Green Living on Rosa Parks, Detroit.” Exceptional!

This 20-unit, four-story condo complex consisting of 93 stacked cargo containers – the first U.S. multi-family residence to be built from these discarded vessels – has been in the works for four years. Tabled when the national real estate market shattered, the project is now scheduled to break ground early next year in midtown Detroit. The units will come rigged with ductless heating and air systems, tankless water heaters and other energy-saving systems. “We’re putting money into these energy efficiencies so that the tenant has reduced energy costs,” says Leslie Horn, CEO of Three Squared, the project’s developer. “And we can build in less than half the time.”

Wow, 30 years ago, when Chrissie Hynde sang about driving “Past corrugated tin shacks holed up with kids and man I don’t mean a Hampstead nursery,” she had no idea what was coming.

Incidentally, note that even more “exceptional” cases of “green living” have also been proposed for Detroit.

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