Opinion

The Utopian Dreams Behind the US Army’s Prefab Prison Cells

Rendering of the "Modular Detainee Shelter System" (Department of the Army, via fbo.gov)
Rendering of the “Modular Detainee Shelter System” (Department of the Army, via army.mil)

This past November, the US Army discreetly announced that it is looking to develop “a holding cell for one detainee during combat operations.” The shippable detention unit would consist of a “box-like structure with a door” enclosing a minimum floor area of 40 square feet. In addition to having a bunker-like capacity to withstand hostile climate conditions, the “shelter” would be easily manufactured, transported (“using common military delivery systems”), assembled (“by no more than three people”), collapsed, and, of course, tamper-proof from within. Each unit would remain functional for a life cycle of five years. The request for information even stipulated the exact color of the cell interior — FS 37769, a pallid shade of federal standard beige.

Rendering of the "Modular Detainee Shelter System" (Department of the Army, via army.mil)
Rendering of the “Modular Detainee Shelter System” (Department of the Army, via army.mil) (click to enlarge)

The listing on fbo.gov — the seemingly innocuous, go-to site for “federal business opportunities” — recently caught the attention of BuzzFeed, and rightly so. On the one hand, as BuzzFeed reports, the request reflects an increasing demand for temporary incarceration in war zones where the US Army is engaged and troops have had to devise ad hoc schemes to hold individuals detained during combat. In theory, a standardized solution would streamline this procedure, better ensuring the safety of US troops while obviating ethical quandaries that pit the security and welfare of one party against that of another. But one glance at the renderings for these solitary cells should be enough to rouse serious concern. The two grainy images haunting the back page of the document invoke the complicated history of prefabricated architecture, a concept that has represented progressive social ideals as well as nightmarish conservative realities. With prefab design resurfacing in both civilian and military architectural discussions, a contemplation of the history and ethics behind prefabrication seems especially urgent.

Quonset Huts being assembled at the Londonderry Naval Base (circa 1942–45) (photo by Royal Navy official photographer, Lieutenant Tomlin H W, courtesy the Imperial War Museum, via Wikimedia Commons)
Quonset Huts being assembled at the Londonderry Naval Base (circa 1942–45) (photo by Royal Navy official photographer, Lieutenant Tomlin H W, courtesy the Imperial War Museum, via Wikimedia Commons)

Not surprisingly, the notion of off-site, industrially produced architecture gained considerable momentum in another period characterized by war. World War II shifted American manufacturing forces into high gear, and among the products being churned out by US assembly lines were prefab structures, such as the multi-purpose, corrugated steel Quonset Hut, which is still in production today. Though certainly not the first instances of prefab construction — an idea that can be traced back to 19th century designs utilizing machine-milled timber, concrete, and cast-iron parts — these simple, utilitarian artifacts fed into contemporaneous currents of modernist thought. The idea that systems of pre-made elements could provide the masses with not just functional shelters but innovative housing solutions flourished in the postwar era, inspiring a small boom of avant-garde, prefab dwellings. In one notable example, émigré architects Konrad Wachsmann and Walter Gropius responded to the postwar housing demand with designs for a modular, wood-frame-and-panel construction system. Their “Packaged House” failed to attract sufficient investment, but the legacy of these kit-of-parts experiments endured, preserved in a canon of bespoke prototypes, including Charles and Ray Eames’s Case Study House No. 8, a ludic and colorful live-work space fashioned out of surplus wartime construction parts.

Charles and Ray Eames's Case Study House No. 8 (photo by Nicolas de Camaret/Flickr)
Charles and Ray Eames’s Case Study House No. 8 (photo by Nicolas de Camaret/Flickr)

Prefab architecture, its progressive connotations guaranteed by its noble history, is seeing a remarkable revival today. A sort of Holy Grail of modern architecture, prefabricated or modular design has been hailed as a means of harnessing the power and speed of modern technology to satisfy pressing social needs. The concept places faith in a sort of rational calculus, a well-conceived formula that marshals finite resources to benefit the greatest number of individuals. But with such altruistic intentions comes an inherent risk: the risk of defining — and perpetuating — a restrictive idea of what societies want or need. Lest we forget, on the other side of modernism’s prefab pipe dreams we find nightmares of cookie-cutter urbanism like the Eastern Bloc’s mass-produced and panelized high-rises, or plattenbau. These unimaginative, neglected, machine-churned blocks still haunt the skylines of Eastern Europe and the popular conception of prefab today — and find alarming resonance in the Army’s modular holding cells.

Berlin-Marzahn, the largest concentration of plattenbau construction in East Germany (January 1987) (photo by Hubert Link, via Wikimedia Commons)
A cluster of plattenbau construction in Berlin-Marzahn (January 1987) (photo by Hubert Link, via Wikimedia Commons)

Earlier this month, the Center for Architecture in New York City hosted a panel conversation on “The Future of Modular,” where practitioners debated the role of prefab design in addressing the city’s housing shortage. The discussion rides on a burgeoning interest in modular micro-apartments and other unconventional visions for contemporary urban living. But as we learn to admire the resourcefulness implied in these micro-designs, does not another part of us recoil at the basic assumption that 300 square feet are enough for the average city dweller to live on?

Le Corbusier's Maison Dom-ino at the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale (photo by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra/Flickr)
Le Corbusier’s Maison Dom-ino at the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale (photo by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra/Flickr) (click to enlarge)

Of course, to completely reject the idea of modular building would be to miss the point. There are productive histories of prefabrication to be redeemed, histories that include a range of artifacts from anonymous balloon-frame constructions to Le Corbusier’s theoretically prolific Maison Dom-ino. Without doubt, these histories have enabled us to envision heterogeneous new ways of dwelling. But as we cautiously revisit the modular, we must also question the social circumstances that can get streamlined in the process of prefabrication. For instance, we should pause and ask ourselves: when is living efficiently no longer living, but merely — perhaps inhumanely — subsisting? An even more critical approach should be demanded of the US Army as it experiments with prefabrication. To realize this “modular detainee shelter system” would be to accept a very specific premise: that certain exigencies of our reality permit us to enclose humans inside 40-square-foot cells, for the indeterminate amount of time that qualifies as “temporary,” and with the unthinking immediacy implied in the word “modular.”

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