Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Prefabrication and New Orleans

The Museum of Modern Art just opened its new exhibition, Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling (July 20-October 20 2008). The curators have developed a very informative website that includes a timeline of prefabricated housing and archival footage of American mass production beginning with Henry Ford's Model-T (1908). One of the contemporary projects featured in the Museum's Fifty-fourth Street lot is the Larry Sass/MIT Digitally Fabricated Housing for New Orleans, a 196-square-foot shotgun house that implements laser-cut joinery. The prefabrication, comprised of some 600 plywood and plastic sheets, is documented in stages on YouTube.

Noted New Orleans architectural historian Samuel Wilson, Jr. (1911-1993) wrote that as early as 1849, documents in the city's notarial archives made mention of prefabrication, in portable ready-made structures of canvas and cement. The Paris Universal Exposition of 1867 featured a "demountable" cypress Louisiana Cottage fabricated by the local Roberts and Company, which once occupied 299-307 Gravier Street. To read Wilson's article in The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians [22:1 March 1963 pp. 38-39], consult JSTOR.

In 1935 New Orleans, concrete was being explored as a new material for affordable residential housing. The Lone Star Cement Corp., a subsidiary of International Cement Corp., approached the local firm of Weiss, Dreyfous and Seiferth with a commission to design a $10,000 concrete house. The so-called Lone Star Home, located at 5500 S. Claiborne Avenue, was erected in nine successive concrete pours with patented metal forms and was featured in both American Architect (January 1936) and Pencil Points (March 1936). For current photographs of the house, see TSA Visual Resources Curator Francine Stock's flickr Regional Modernism set.

In the late 1940s, the New Orleans-based Higgins Incorporated began to develop its own method, what came to be patented as the Thermo-Con Cellular Concrete System. Its concrete was an ambiguous admixture of Portland Cement, water, and "three chemicals." The company's advertising department took pains to communicate the product's heat-shielding properties (left) and to distinguish its approach from any correlation to prefabrication:

The Thermo-Con cellular concrete system is in no way a pre-fabricated construction method. The forms are designed on a one-foot modular principle and can be arranged to fit any desired plan for a home or commercial building. Any architectural style may be chosen and interior space arranged to suit individual needs.

The Southeastern Architectural Archive maintains project drawings for the Lone Star Home in its Weiss, Dreyfous and Seiferth Collection. Higgins company advertising brochures for "Thermo-Con" cellular concrete are located in the SEAA's Trade Catalogs Collection, Box 7.

Image: "Concrete Evidence" of heat-resistance of Thermo-Con Cellular Concrete. Photograph of a model's face being shielded from an active oxyacetelene torch by a Higgins Inc. concrete slab. From Higgins Inc. Booklet 72, SEAA.