Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat
World Architecture Day Prefab Panel
Debates the Merits of “Factory-Made”
October 11, 2013
See Other CTBUH Related Events
Read World Architecture News's Coverage of the Event
NEW YORK World Architecture Day 2013 (WAD13), held at the Center for Architecture in New York, provided numerous opportunities to consider skyscrapers from new angles.

A panel entitled “Pre-Fabricating Skyscrapers: The Way Forward, or Fast Track to Failure?” focused on the exigencies of pre-fabrication and modular construction, which are beginning to make forays into the tall building world. Moderated and introduced with a stage-setting presentation by CTBUH Executive Director Antony Wood, the pre-fab panel included Vishaan Chakrabarti, partner at SHoP Architects; Eric Wittner, solutions engineer at GIS software company Esri; and Hani Rashid, co-founder and design partner at Asymptote Architecture.
CTBUH Executive Director Antony Wood (right) hosts a panel at WAD13 including (l to r): Eric Wittner, Vishaan Chakrabarti, and Hani Rashid. Photography © Samuel Lahoz / World Architecture News
The background theme of the conference was “Housing the Next 8 Billion,” and thus the panel was asked to consider the role of modular high-rises as one economical part of the solution to the issue of rapid urbanization. Chakrabarti, whose firm designed North America’s next-tallest modular project, Atlantic Yards B2, was especially strident.
“We are not going to tackle these issues simply by talking about things like green buildings,” he said. “A LEED Platinum office park in New Jersey is not going to save us, I’m sorry. Nor are electric cars. The problem is that cities are getting expensive even as they are becoming more walkable and take on all those qualities that we like. In order to get to affordability, we’re going to have to look at some different methods, and I do think modular construction is one way to reduce construction costs by 20 to 25 % while actually getting better quality.”

Rashid, whose firm is designing a “smart city” for 40,000 people in Changsha, China—the same city in which Broad Group’s Sky City J220 modular tower is rising—said his firm looks at the future of buildings as a kind of infrastructure to which physical elements can be added or taken away with ease, much like “apps” on a smartphone, with all of the standardization and design freedom that implies.

“We want to get to design efficiencies, to use these kind of app-based strategies for building and city planning, but to do so in a spirit of producing effects that increase quality of life through beauty, metaphysics, mysticism, strangeness…,” Rashid said. “These are things that we as architects are experts in, or should be.”
Antony Wood presents at WAD13
Wood took a provocative stance, proposing that 95 percent of tall buildings are “not great pieces of design” to begin with, and asked the panel how modular construction could do anything but attenuate that issue.

T30 is an architectural atrocity,” Rashid said, referring to the Broad Group’s existing prototype modular tower. “It’s completely against everything we stand for. But it is a train coming down the track and we have to deal with it. ‘Bigger, cheaper, faster, cleaner and more sterile’ can’t be the end of it.” He proposed that one advantage of modular construction’s precision was that the armies of consultants now required to build tall would be less tempted to intervene in designs on an engineering or efficiency basis – and perhaps less relevant.
Delegates listen to the presentations at WAD13
“One benefit of prefab may be that you can chuck all but the most essential consultants,” he added.
Chakrabarti struck a deceptively provocative tone that resolved as conciliatory and cautious.

“Ninety-five percent of most new buildings (tall or not) are terrible,” he said. “The issue of whether one can design with specificity and nuance, to me, is not necessarily a typological question. In conventional construction, we standardize all sorts of things. It’s easy to deride [rapidly-built] environments. I want to be very careful about how we talk about the rest of the world. I think it is important not to have any tacit understanding of what we think constitutes ‘good urbanism.’”

The true challenge of the modular future before the industry might be the client’s push for standardization against the designer’s imperative for intrigue, nuance and specificity, the panelists concluded.

“This is the Model T moment in modular,” Rashid said. “In delivering on that automation and refinement, clients will always push ‘cheaper and faster’… this is about developing the acumen and the language and the ability to push back.”

Considered in the context of the backlash against “starchitect” culture and the repetitiveness clients seem to encourage in architects, another warning about pre-fab emerged.

“I am all for architect-led projects, but what scares me is a design that is easily replicated thousands of times in the wrong context,” Wittner said.

World Architecture Day 2013 was organized by World Architecture News, in Partnership with the AIA New York Chapter and the Center for Architecture.