Visionary prefab in the modern age : deconstructing Keaton’s films

Suau, Cristian (2011) Visionary prefab in the modern age : deconstructing Keaton’s films. Docomomo, 44. pp. 81-85. ISSN 1380-3204

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This essay analyses Buster Keaton’s masterpieces: One Week (1920); The Haunted House (1921) and The Electric House (1922). His filmic work reveals the montage of mass housing prefabrication in the Modern Age in the United States: Repetition and mechanisation of the building production; generic layouts; and modular like-catalogue constructions. Rather than following a sequential building process, these cases are executed as mere accidents or flaws. Buster Keaton’s films however show ironically a non-standardized architecture. For instance, One Week is the story of the seven-day construction process of Sears’s mail order Modern Home, a standard catalogue house, with pre-cut fitted pieces and appliances. The ability to mass-produce the materials used in Sears’s homes narrowed manufacturing costs, which lowered purchase costs for customers. Not only did pre-cut and fitted materials shrink construction time up to 40% but Sears’s use of balloon framing, plasterboard, and shingles greatly eased fabrication for home-buyers. Nevertheless, Sears’s designs offered distinct advantages over other construction methods. The Electric House focuses on mechanical appliances. Both films announce a new architecture where walls might fold over; floors shift; an escalator replaces the staircase; the foundation rests on wheels; the programme metamorphoses and the appliances organise the domestic life. Parts could leave the site and return, or the entire building could collapse or become mechanised, folded up or simply be transported to a different location. As visionary Modern architecture, there are particular features that will be analysed in depth: The expanding functions; variable divisions of interior space; and flexible and automated furniture and appliances. What might a non-standard manufacturing Modern house look like? Keaton creates a parody-manifesto against MOMO’s mass production. Keaton anticipates the architecture in motion envisioning adaptable, light and compact spaces, with dwellers in transit. In Keaton’s work, the ability to move, change or adapt are prerequisites for Modern living. This study will analyse and compare Keaton’s filmic production with Catalog Modern House, a prefab dwelling manufactured and shipped by Sears, Roebuck and Co in the beginning of 20th century.