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Living in the machine
On architectural advice from a century ago, car show enthusiasts, and how to get more people into housing they can afford
"A house is a machine for living in", wrote the architect Le Corbusier a century ago. The phrase sounds coldly rational -- is not a house supposed to be more than that? Doesn't a mere house aspire to be a home filled with love, a safe shelter from storms, and a work of art through which the occupants express themselves?
■ A house can be all of those things and many more, but first it really must be a machine: A set of interconnected parts that function together to achieve a useful goal. Giving people a place to live is among the most useful things any machine could do.
■ It's strange that the word "machine" seems so artificially cold in this case. People love machines all the time -- just check out a car show or try to take away someone's smartphone. There is no reason we shouldn't be comfortable with a certain duality: Seeing the house through clear eyes as a machine, and loving that machine because there's no place like home.
■ The widely-recognized problem for contemporary America is that we do not have enough of these machines in all the right places at prices people want to pay. Oddly, though, houses also remain stuck all too often in a mode that defies one of the signature principles of the machine age: Mass production.
■ In almost no other case do we expect a machine to be custom-made on site, often by crews assembled on an entirely ad-hoc basis. There is no shame in buying an RV (another home for living in) off the production line, nor would any sane person prefer a homemade airliner to a one built inside a giant climate-controlled facility.
■ By the obvious logic, it's a mystery why America isn't more open to modular and manufactured housing. Funding rules are complicated, zoning obstacles are all too common, and consumer perceptions of the houses are often irrationally low.
■ If we are to be serious about reducing the cost of housing and improving the overall quality of housing stock in the United States, then voters and policymakers need to look at the whole slate of obstacles and level them as much as possible. A very good case can be made that a lot of American households would enjoy both higher quality and lower prices if there were fewer barriers to obtaining offsite-built machines for living in.