Architecture: A Capsule In Time

Anamaria Koeva 3 November 2021
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Prefabricated architecture is the go-to solution for architects and engineers who prioritise quantity over quality. In the West, prefabrication dates back to the seventeenth century. During Britain’s colonisation efforts, building components were manufactured in Great Britain and transported abroad. Compared to traditional building, these earliest attempts at prefabrication marked a significant increase in speed and reduced labour in the construction process on site.

The idea of assembly was quickly followed by that of disassembly and reassembly. As a result, the building industry started borrowing methods from the manufacture of ships and boats. Thus, in the beginning of the twentieth century, industrial technology created favourable circumstances for the emergence of mass housing. The Aladdin homes, for example, were one type of popular mass-produced housing. By creating the frames for the homes off site, the architects and manufacturers substantially improved the precision of fabrication and decreased the amount of waste on site – a considerable advantage to traditional building methods in terms of environmental performance. Another advantage was that no skilled labour was necessary for the construction itself, as the clients could erect their home themselves. Yet, there were two more important reasons why these houses were so popular: first, their catalogues offered variety in the appearance of the components so that the houses were not entirely uniform; second, financing was available for the developer. Despite this, the company went bankrupt during the Great Depression due to decreased demand of housing.

While the Aladdin houses attempted to hide their factory-bound aesthetic, later, in 1932, Howard Fischer wished to expose the industrial aesthetic of his houses, and even aimed to produce them and assemble them just like cars. Fischer’s company strategy was successful because of the high post-war demands. He sourced its parts from companies serving other industries and because eventually he compromised his design intentions and replaced the intended industrial aesthetic with a traditional one. By 1968 the architectural landscape was flooded by mobile and manufactured housing.

Nakagin Capsule Tower curated by Kisho Kurakawa was the first residential building executed using modular containers. Designed to meet the requirements of the contemporary person who is always on the move, the tower took into account not only possible earthquake damage, but also the consumerist attitude of the masses. Although it has long been threatened by demolition, 30 of its 144 capsules are still in use nowadays and the towers are treated as part of Japan’s architectural legacy.

When designing it, Kisho Kurokawa envisioned that the capsules would need to be replaced every twenty-five years. In order for a replacement to be possible, he needed to avoid stacking modules on top of each other. He instead chose to attach them to the circulation core so that they could be detached whenever needed. However, this, coupled with the ambition for high-density, deprived the building’s circulation core from almost any natural ventilation. In addition, the round windows could not be opened and the air in the building was stale and unhealthy.

As the capsule residential design was innovative for its time, Kurokawa had no other choice but to order his containers to be produced in a factory for shipping containers. This considerably reduced the overall construction time, but also led to the containers being smaller than the comfortable minimum for a temporary single-person flat. The entire process only took one year because the in-situ work and the off-site work could be carried out at the same time. However, since the space was too little for a permanent residence, eventually residents chose to use the capsules as temporary homes, offices or storage. Unfortunately, the building’s ground-breaking design caused significant cost increases, and eventually any planned extensions and replications were cancelled.

Nowadays, prefabricated constructions are used to combat homelessness; to house vulnerable members of society; as a temporary solution to overpopulation; as accommodation for seasonal workers; for disaster relief; and most recently – to complement existing healthcare facilities during the Covid-19 pandemic. However, data shows that the demand for prefabricated private homes has also increased, and more significantly than expected – by 50% instead of the predicted 8% in the US. With homes increasingly doubling up as offices, more people are considering the advantages of these prefabricated homes. Currently, modular constructions still offer the best balance of cost and time effectiveness with the added benefit of portability. Furthermore, as location becomes less important with professionals moving away from the city centre and closer to nature, what used to be a drawback of modular housing is now turning into an advantage.

Socio-economical shifts lead to the same old historically proven solution – prefabricated homes. With technological advancement in the creation of materials such as breathing metal, trade-offs like sacrificing ventilation for efficiency might be unnecessary sooner than expected. But first, I am yet to get used to the idea that I can get a garden office delivered in a click – if I can afford to pay £11,000 for a cubicle, that is.