Julia E. Robinson: Maciunas’ Models Thought in Three Dimensions

You see, the reason I am so concerned with [functionalism] is that that’s an architect’s training. I mean, that’s the way the architect thinks, he thinks in functionalism otherwise he’s not an architect, he’s a sculptor or a stage designer.1

George Maciunas’s Prefabricated Building System was the most literal expression he ever made of his lifelong devotion to functionalism. His commitment to this ideal, which included an equally unwavering concern for efficiency and economy, was immanent in everything Maciunas made, but the Prefabricated Building System put these principles to the test. The serene, even elegant appearance of the realized model belies the intricate, obsessive and rigorously engaged planning process through which its form was derived. Like most other projects Maciunas touched, the model appears today as a refined design object, whose lucid presence all but transcends the exhaustive calculations guiding its utopian aims.

Maciunas’s Prefabricated Building System (1965) was in fact a critique of an existing system – a late-1950s prefabricated housing model made in the Soviet Union – it was conceived as an alternative to that “solution” and other less efficient designs developed contemporaneously for the same purposes. Maciunas’s building project followed directly on the heels of his scathing critique of several examples of modern architecture written the year prior. Both led up to his most significant feat of architectural planning, the system of co-operative artists’ lofts that shaped the area of lower Manhattan called SoHo (then known to the fire department as “Hell’s Hundred Acres”), a project Maciunas initiated in 1966 under the banner of the “Fluxhouse Cooperatives.”

In 1964 Maciunas wrote “The Grand Frauds of Architecture: M. v. d Rohe, Saarinen, Bunshaft, F. L. Wright,” a diatribe criticizing the preeminent modernist architects for betraying their own principles. Maciunas put the case that in the Chicago Lake Shore Drive apartment project Mies had travestied the glass curtain wall, rendering it mere decoration, when he incorporated a structural wall behind the gridded glass shell. Wright, for his part, had positioned the windows of the Guggenheim museum at eye level, compromising the very purpose of the building – to display art in ideal viewing conditions – and necessitating an unforeseen additional lighting system. The list went on. Maciunas argued that the ideals of functionalism had been undermined in numerous ways by the architects’ moves to privilege the aesthetic aspects of their designs. He condemned these modern architects for having become mere “stage designers.” Cuauhtémoc Medina has argued that Maciunas “was right in sensing that buildings such as the Guggenheim Museum signaled the crisis of the functionalist paradigm of modern architecture, for they implicitly recorded the changes that the Western capitalist economy was undergoing at the end of the 1950s.” Medina calls Maciunas’s critique “an attempt to contain the changes that architectonic and design values were suffering under the pressures of contemporary capitalism,” and, perhaps, “an eccentric reading of the emergence of consumerist society.”2

What we see in the realization of Maciunas’s Prefabricated Building System of modular units is the existing evidence of Maciunas’s serious attempt to define an efficient, flexible, adaptable and economical proposition for mass housing. He intended to improve upon the Russian model – of which three million units had been built in the year 1960 – the example he saw as the most efficient in the world at that time. As Medina describes it:

Maciunas designed an ingenious prefabricated building system composed of only nine massproducedcomponents, most to be produced in modern plastic materials. Except for a “Service Cubicle” that integrated kitchen, bathroom, and heating facilities, the system allowed its user a maximum of flexibility and functional adaptation, from private homes to offices and public buildings, and was always easy to expand, contract, or reshape.3

Because of the many non-structural walls, and their pragmatic placement, residents had the choice of translucent or transparent exterior walls, to define their own light and temperature conditions, and the choice to adapt the interior spaces according to usage, by sliding the interior walls to create a range of spatial configurations. The result was the prospect of a home whose form took on the prioritization of its uses. Still created from the most cost-effective means, it could be differentiated by individual dwellers.The plans for Maciunas’s Prefabricated Building System were first published in a 1965 pamphlet called “Communists Must Give Revolutionary Leadership in Culture,” mostly conceived and written by Henry Flynt, and designed by Maciunas.4 Maciunas’s utopian goals fit well in this context.  The pamphlet conducted a systematic appraisal of the political and social implications of contemporary design within the apparatus of culture spanning an extraordinary spectrum of fields from architecture, to music, and from cars to film.

At the height of the burgeoning commodity culture of the mid-1960s this was a rare analysis to conduct. Such a programmatic, politicized working through of the way in which design shapes the life of the individual is unparalleled in that moment and perhaps even unprecedented.5

As usual for a Maciunas design project, the formatting acted as a crucial auxiliary to the content of the document in conveying its message. In fact all aspects of the design stood to demonstrate that message. As was the case for An Anthology –Maciunas’s first collaboration on the production of a radical avant-garde publication (albeit of a different order) – what was most striking about this object, at first sight, was its design. The pamphlet was printed in Maciunas’s signature sans serif, IBM typeface on a large, broadsheet-format page. It comprised eight text sections and seven explicatory Appendices. In the interests of full disclosure of every design decision, one segment Maciunas contributed to the pamphlet was titled “Note on the Graphics.”  This elucidated the efficient and economical means by which the document had been produced, and justified all elements of the format the reader would encounter. In the rationale for the choices of the various components, the logic of the pamphlet design echoed that of Maciunas’ Prefabricated Building System. Maciunas’s Building System aimed for economy but had opted for adaptable and durable materials. Maciunas admitted that it exceeded the Soviet example in cost but, importantly, not in “value.” With the same logic, he explained that the paper stock he had selected for the pamphlet was “more rugged and durable than newsprint,” which might have been the cheapest option, but this paper turned out to cost as little “because it is not bleached.” The text goes on to justify the rather unusual form, scale, and distribution of the typeface according to the same reasoning. “One type is used throughout. Larger sizes are obtained by photo-static enlargement. Costs and arbitrary stylistic choices are eliminated.” Though the text is tightly spaced, the individual sections of the document are clearly divided by a line of numbers, formally evoking the mass-produced seriality under discussion. Section Four,for example, is bracketed by the 444444444444444444444444444444444444444444444444444, which runs across its upper border. The Appendices provide images and graphic analyses of statistics relating to the examples described. In Appendix 2 Maciunas explicates his Prefabricated Building System in the format of a diagrammatic chart presenting the elements: (1) Method of Design Development (including columns devoted to “workability,” “economy,” “adaptability,” and “durability”), (2) Description of Numbered Components, (3) Erection Procedure, (4) Isometric Cross-Sections of Components, and so on.

The Appendix immediately preceding this one treats the Soviet Prefabricated Building System and mounts a “Comparative Analysis of Prefabricated Building Systems,” which includes Maciunas’s own, the Soviet model, the Levitt housing, and examples of projects by Buckminster Fuller (the Wichita House and the Geodesic Dome). Another columnar chart presents “Comparative Data on Housing in Various Countries.” If the depth of Maciunas’s research testifies to the seriousness of the engagement that led to the creation of the Prefabricated Housing System model, the formal means through which he presented that research provides equally important evidence of the architecture-based ethos that underwrote his approach to all the projects he undertook. While particularly relevant to Flynt’s polemical aims in this context, Maciunas’s graphic expression of the data, his columned, diagrammatic charting of all the critical considerations, the pros and cons of various approaches and design decisions, and the criteria for critique, also formed the very basis by which Maciunas drafted a “manifesto” or mission statement for Fluxus organized into a column-based chart, with “Art” on one side, and on the other side, as opposed to, say, “Architecture” – the non-function of art versus the functionalism of architecture – Maciunas placed “Fluxus Art-Amusement.” Fluxus was positioned to counter the status of art, to pit unpretentiousness against pretension, inclusiveness against exclusivity, new distribution forms against institutional dependence, mass-production against uniqueness, and so on. Like the chart-based questioning of the raisons d’être of various building systems, the politics of Fluxus were brought into evidence by the formal juxtaposition and quantification of attributes characterizing the status of the art object.

Like the adding of dimensions, which occurs in the trajectory from score to performance, or in architecture, from plan to model to building, the pamphlet likewise took on a materiality that evoked its projection of ideals. Through Maciunas’s design it embraced a “concretism,” as the two-dimensional document came to be realized in three dimensions.6 Departing from the basis of its graphic layout the document demonstrated its purposes through taking on object status, and with this it acquired a dimension of “functionalism.” In Maciunas’s final presentation, the broadsheet page was folded such that its top surface revealed the title section. This was then sandwiched between pieces of expanded polystyrene and plastic layers on the top and bottom – both were elements required to demonstrate the lightweight materials used in Maciunas’ Prefabricated Building System – equipping the document with protection and a clear surface and casing that could serve as a mailing container. Like his tireless fabrication of Fluxus objects as “anti-commodities,” the pamphlet’s packaging was no less serious a statement on ethical, efficient production than the grand plan of Maciunas’s Prefabricated Building System.

Now coming to be understood to be one of the most significant artistic figures of the 1960s, George Maciunas was rare in integrating design into art in a highly specific manner: using design as his very medium. The force of this strategy – propelled by the logic of architecture and its critique of non-function – meant that design both mediated and generated Maciunas’s critique of the accelerating commodity status of the art object. In the astute deployment of “design” in all its complexity, not as merely a referent of art but as an integral medium, Maciunas’s only real peer was Andy Warhol. Benjamin Buchloh has described the Brillo boxes as “120 wood simulacra made by Warhol (and/or his assistants),” noting the Pop artist’s matter-of-fact recognition that the new status of the art object would “imply a transformation of the artist’s role.”7

Maciunas’s utterly unprecedented function in the production of Fluxus – less artist than designer – reveals that he also had recognized this development. But if the Prefabricated Building System can tell us anything at all about Maciunas’s overall project, it is that the founder of Fluxus – for all his “factory production” and hyper-designed “anti-commodities” – never produced “simulacra.” In a move that may soon appear as having a significance on the level of Duchamp’s initial critique of the art object in the age of mass production (the readymade), Maciunas did not simulate commodities, perhaps more radically, he fused the work of art and the commodity (oppositely to Warhol), and created a counter-model with which we have yet fully to reckon. Still, there is one aspect of this we can now glimpse, as never before, with the realization of the model for the Prefabricated Building System: the extent to which Maciunas’s training, his internalization of the logic of architecture, with all its uncompromising formal exigencies, provided him with the fundaments of one of the most profoundly original artistic critiques of the postwar period, and the singular critical stance that defined “Fluxus.”

Julia E. Robinson
May, 2008


1 George Maciunas, interview with Larry Miller, 1978. Transcript repr. in Jon Hendricks ed., Fluxus etc./Addenda I. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman  Collection (New York: Ink &, 1983), 24.
2 Cuauhtémoc Medina, “Architecture and efficiency: George Maciunas and the economy of art,” Res, No. 45, Spring 2004, 276.

3 Medina, “Architecture and efficiency: George Maciunas and the economy of art,” 280.
4 Henry Flynt, Communists Must Give Revolutionary Leadership in Culture, (New York: Worldview Publishers,
5 We are speaking here of the American context. It was, of course, a central feature of Soviet Productivism of the 1920s, of which Maciunas was a devotee.

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