Inside the rain-battered tents of last week’s Art Basel Miami Beach art and design fairs, there were bears made from feathers, a painting made from shoes and shoelaces, and a stabbing incident involving an X-Acto knife that was not a performance piece. Among these and other, expected curiosities were two architectural prototypes: an aluminum and steel dining pavilion designed by Zaha Hadid with Patrik Schumacher, which sprouted like a kind of Martian flower over a molded timber table and chairs, and a 350-square-foot white box sheathed in laminated plywood designed by Gluckman Tang as an art pavilion. (It would certainly make an appropriate container to house one’s art fair purchases once home.)
The structures and other “bespoke, architectural collectibles,” as their developer, Robbie Antonio, called the designs, were for sale through a new company called Revolution Precrafted Properties that aims to deliver limited editions of small houses and pavilions designed by big names within a few months of an order.
Daniel Libeskind, Marcel Wanders, Tom Dixon and others have offered up designs, including Marmol Radziner, the California-based modernist architectural firm that has built houses for Tom Ford and members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Mr. Antonio’s project takes the promise of prefab — well-designed, mass-produced housing that is economical because of its scale — and turns it on its head, which is either visionary or confounding, depending on your point of view. (Cannily, he’s described his wares not as “prefabricated” but “precrafted,” a word that conjures up an artisanal product like a handmade whiskey.)
It’s a collision, too, of other, contradictory themes: the appetites of global wealthy collectors to amass name-brand luxury products, like limited-edition furniture, contemporary art and now, perhaps, branded architecture, as well as the tiny house movement, which is all about living simply and new materials that address sustainability issues.
Pavilions will cost from $35,000 to more than $450,000; houses, $250,000 to over $450,000, a price that includes systems like HVAC, kitchens and bathrooms but not delivery charges. The only instructions Mr. Antonio gave his designers was to make a structure from 50 to 250 square meters (about 540 to 2,700 square feet) with components that could fit in a shipping container.
It wasn’t just architects he reached out to. (Mr. Antonio said he had signed up close to 40 designers, including some fashion designers.) David Salle, the artist, teamed up with Aldo Andreoli, a principal of the Williamsburg architectural firm AA Studio, to design a series of 12-by-24-foot modules with tilted roofs for solar panels, a rainwater collection system and metal wall panels etched with work by Mr. Salle.
Kenny Scharf also received a call. “But I couldn’t get any details or clear answers about the project, so I just gave up,” he said. “It was too vague. He told me he wanted to pair me up with an architect and gave me a whole list and I said, ‘Sure, I’d love to work with Zaha Hadid, but I’d need a contract defining how you go forward and what it would entail.’”
Mr. Salle said he agreed to produce a prototype for Revolution to manufacture that Mr. Salle would then construct on a building site in Marfa, Tex. “We can figure out the business stuff later,” Mr. Salle said. (Mr. Antonio declined to define the terms of his arrangements with the designers.)
“Our response to the project being so vague was to design to that limitation,” said Tom Dixon, the British industrial designer, whose 120-square-foot modules would be constructed of extruded aluminum frames that fit together like Lincoln Logs, with panels of various materials.
The idea, Mr. Dixon said, is that they could be built by anyone in any location. “Having seen a few of the other designs,” he added, “their ability to be built in different locations with different skill sets is limited, whereas mine can be built anywhere by anyone. I think we’ll offer three or four different paneling systems, depending on how hot, cold, windy the site is. Even the frame could be infilled with local building materials, like bricks in London. I don’t know what I could stick in Miami, candy floss?”
The difficulty with the flat-pack model is it doesn’t cross borders very well, Mr. Dixon said. “People have different plugs and building codes, which restrict the use of a universal system for these things,” he said. “It would be impossible from London to specify a system that works for everybody. So mine is just a frame. I’d be delighted to furnish one or two, but essentially it’s a blank canvas.”
The sum of Revolution’s designs are so idiosyncratic, and so wildly different from one another, the mind boggles a bit imagining their production. (Mr. Antonio said that he “intends the business to be disruptive in its technologies,” and that the components would be produced by factories in Asia, Europe and the United States.)
Mr. Libeskind created an amoeba-like pavilion he hopes will made of some sort of composite material by a 3-D printer. SelgasCano, the Spanish architectural firm, offered a nifty-looking glass and metal tube shaped like a Quonset hut with wings and feet. Ron Arad’s tea pavilion is also a lovely winged object, sort of like the Sydney Opera House, made from polymer-coated timber. Ms. Hadid’s is a kind of interstellar blossom.
Ryan Stone for The New York Times
Revolution Precrafted Properties joins a slim number of design-forward prefab companies in the United States. This year, Christopher Burch, a co-founder of Tory Burch, and Ed Mahoney, a custom home builder, began selling glassy, modernist miniatures up to 480 square feet made in factories in New Jersey and Shanghai for under $300,000 (their five-year-old company is called Cocoon9).
For eight years or so, Lindal, a 71-year-old kit house company in the Pacific Northwest, has offered an “Architects Collaborative Collection,” including five designs by Marmol Radziner, for about $200 a square foot (modernist kits now make up 55 percent of Lindal’s sales, or about 150 houses a year, according to Michael Harris, the architect of the company’s modern program).
Since 2005, Dwell magazine, in collaboration with Turkel Design, has been making its own branded prefab houses that start at $250 a square foot, selling about 25 a year.
Mr. Antonio, a 38-year-old Filipino with a taste for contemporary art, luxury brands and big-ticket architecture, would seemingly have the relationships and the resources to produce architecture at any scale.
In his country, he’s created entire neighborhoods, in collaboration with Paris Hilton, Donald J. Trump, Philippe Starck and fashion houses like Missoni and Versace, building an armada of glass and steel “hyper-luxury” projects, as he puts it, the most ambitious of which is the 60-story Century Spire, a Libeskind-designed, faceted tower (with interiors by Casa Armani) that will erupt into three knuckles at its crown when it’s finished in 2018. He has also, he said, invested in shelter housing designed by Shigeru Ban.
“I am obsessed,” Mr. Antonio said, “with architecture and design.” Self-taught in this arena (he has an undergraduate degree in economics from Northwestern and an M.B.A. from Stanford), Mr. Antonio will tell you proudly that he has never used an art adviser.
When he’s at home in Manila, Mr. Antonio lives in a hulking, 25,000-square-foot black concrete structure he calls “Stealth.” Designed by Rem Koolhaas, the provocateur architect and urbanist, it includes a public gallery hung with, among other installations, a collection of portraits of Mr. Antonio by artists like Mr. Salle, Mr. Scharf, Takashi Murakami, Julian Schnabel and Damien Hirst (Mr. Hirst rendered the developer as spin art) in a project Mr. Antonio called “Obsession” and Vanity Fair named “The Museum of Me,” a headline that still irks, he said recently.
When Mr. Libeskind visited Mr. Antonio there, he declared “Stealth” was more “Robbie than Rem,” as Mr. Antonio recalled. “Robbie is very edgy,” Mr. Libeskind said. “He’s creative and he’s got a vision and he’s not somebody who just sits back and counts the money. He’s not wanting the same stuff over and over.”
Ike Edeani for The New York Times
There are two dreams embedded in the promise of prefab, said Karrie Jacobs, founding editor of Dwell magazine, which arguably brought the words design and prefab back into the conversation in this country when it started in 2000.
“The first dream,” Ms. Jacobs said, “is the mass production of quality houses for everyone, the Bauhaus dream.” The other is to recast architecture “from a process that’s more couture to ready-to-wear.”
“That’s a lovely dream, and I don’t fault him for that,” she said, “but it looks like he’s got a whole bunch of different kits. It doesn’t look like any of these designs have any overlap, and that’s kind of complicated.”
From its first issue, Dwell encouraged architects to play with the form, with varying degrees of success, because in the United States, producing prefabricated, single-family homes economically is stymied by transportation costs, and the entrenched habits (and union restrictions) of the construction industry.
“The problem,” Ms. Jacobs said, “is that for prefab to be meaningful” — to produce affordable good architecture — “it needs industrialists, not architects. It needs capital money to build real factories. Architects limp along, but for the most part, they can’t make it happen, not for real.”
Allison Arieff, Ms. Jacobs’s successor at Dwell and the co-author, with Bryan Burkhart, of the 2002 book “Prefab,” suggested that Revolution’s wares might just as easily be made the old-fashioned way. “That this project is prefab is a cute way of getting to it, but it’s not an essential way of getting to it,” she said. “It’s not saving any money, and it’s not trying to disrupt anything. I’m glad he’s giving architects work, though.”
In other countries, well-designed prefabricated housing is a healthier story. Ikea has been making house modules for years, and selling them in Finland, Norway and Sweden. And in Japan, where the average life span of a house is 38 years, prefab is an intuitive choice for so-called disposable housing, which is why Muji, the Japanese housewares company, has teamed up with designers like Konstantin Grcic, Jasper Morrison and Naoto Fukasawa to create affordable kit houses.
“Architectural jewelry” is how Michael Haverland, the Manhattan-based architect who has designed modernist structures for Calvin Klein and Mr. Salle, among others, described Mr. Antonio’s offerings. “How much do you want to be talking about the notion of prefab and how much do you want to talk about these as art objects which happen to be made in a factory, which doesn’t necessarily mean prefab,” he said. “Anyone’s custom kitchen done in a millwork shop is prefab; so are your windows, whether they’re made of steel, wood or vinyl. Is prefab being used as a fashionable term or is it trying to develop and advance the fundamental tenets of what prefab is supposed to be, which is affordable, mass production, not couture dwelling?”
A little bit of both, Mr. Antonio would answer. He said that some prototypes may end up in the master plans of large developments, in Asia and South America, and that a foundation will be created to “support homegrown C.S.R.” — corporate social responsibility — “efforts and nonprofit third parties,” according to Revolution’s website.
Photo by: Ryan Stone for The New York Times
Nonetheless, it’s a proposition that doesn’t quite make sense to a few observers. “It isn’t clear to me why the prototype would be a collectible that might subsequently be improved in some way for wider distribution, a paradoxical approach to the industrialization of architecture,” said Barry Bergdoll, the former chief curator of architecture at the Museum of Modern Art, where he organized “Home Delivery,” the museum’s 2008 exhibition on prefab housing.
“Either one is making a traditional building as a one-off, or one is developing something” that can be reproduced, Mr. Bergdoll, now the Meyer Schapiro professor of art history and archaeology at Columbia, added. “I can’t follow the logic of reproducing in a limited number other than to make something that is minimal in size maximum in value, which seems more to belong to the world of gems than the world of socially responsible architecture.”
Of course, sometimes the opposite is true, when that which is designed for everyone becomes, through the passage of time, a precious object attainable only by a few, like the furniture of Charles and Ray Eames, or, more poignantly, the housing imagined by Jean Prouvé.
After World War II, Prouvé designed a series of tiny, portable houses that could be mass-produced and quickly assembled to create temporary housing for Europe’s newly homeless population. At Art Basel Miami Beach two years ago, one of the few that was actually made, his 8 by 8 “Maison Demontable,” sold for $2.3 million.
Mr. Haverland was reminded of the 14 outbuildings Philip Johnson planted around his Glass House — an eccentric architectural theme park. Johnson made buildings for sleeping, reading, working, hanging out and contemplating art. There’s a Gehry-like gatehouse, a postmodern library, a glassy sculpture gallery and an underground painting gallery. Johnson even made a kind of jungle gym, the Lincoln Kirstein Tower, named for the co-founder of the New York City Ballet, an elegant 30-foot white tower that the architect was fond of climbing.
At heart, Revolution Precrafted is mostly a collection (with a few exceptions) of high-end follies, bits of architectural whimsy one could strew around one’s property. You can imagine how certain individuals would want to collect them all.
An article last Thursday about notable architects who are designing tiny houses and pavilions to be sold on the Internet described incompletely the event earlier this month where prototypes of some of those designs were on display. It was the Art Basel Miami Beach art and design fairs, not just the art fair.