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A movable feast

From chairs to houses, ICA exhibit showcases designs for flexible living

A dream -- or a nightmare if you'd rather call it that -- of the Modern movement in its architectural heyday was the idea that a house was just a kit of parts, and you could put the same kit together lots of different ways for different people in different places. It would be a universal solution.

It's an idea that's never quite died, and it's somewhere at the philosophical heart of a superb new show at the Institute of Contemporary Art. Some 150 objects are on display, and they all, in one way or another, are changeable. They morph. They range in size from tiny lamps to entire houses, and they come from many cultures, present and past. There are hundreds of photos and drawings, too. It's an amazing compilation of the ingenuity of the human mind.

''Living in Motion: Design and Architecture for Flexible Dwelling" is the last exhibition that will be held at the ICA's longtime home on Boylston Street. It's an appropriate show for an institution that itself is on the move. ICA director Jill Medvedow makes the connection in a press statement: ''Objects designed for life on the go are particularly apt for the ICA now, as we prepare for our move to the Boston waterfront and into a building designed by the innovative architectural firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro."

''Living in Motion" was created in 2002 for the Vitra Design Museum in Germany by curator Mathias Schwartz-Clauss. It has traveled in Europe, but the ICA will be its only American venue. Borrowing a ready-made exhibit makes sense at a time when the ICA's staff is busy figuring out what to do with its new building, due to open in September.

What makes a house a home, says this show, isn't the fixed shell, although solid shells are how we tend to think of architecture. What matters are all the movable and rearrangeable things you put in that shell -- your personal furniture, pictures, hangings, plants, rugs, paint, dog, whatever. Even unpacking your suitcase in a hotel room can be a way of making the space your own.

From the idea of the rearrangeable interior comes the idea of the totally rearrangeable house. The biggest object in the show is a one-room house designed by Wes Jones of California, who calls it the Pro/Con Package Housing System. The idea is that you can order it with variant parts and features, as you order a car, and then it can be shipped in a box only 5 feet on a side. It gets packed, unpacked, and assembled. When you move, your house can move with you.

At the other end of the scale are the rearrangeable small pieces -- cabinets that morph into stairs, chairs that turn into tables, furnishings that pop out of walls -- even, in a design by Japan's Shigeru Ban, whole rooms that wheel outdoors in good weather.

Fascinating, too, are the parallels that emerge between the present and the past -- and between ideas that we think of as ''futuristic" versus ''traditional." The 20th-century Utopian Buckminster Fuller created the ''Dymaxion House," a round domed object made of aluminum that still looks, today, like something that landed from Mars. But the ICA cleverly parallels it with images of a traditional yurt in Kyrgyzstan, driving home the essential sameness of the two ideas.

The show is able to engineer such informative juxtapositions because of the way it's arranged. Objects are not sorted according to their geographic sources, nor to their historic date. Instead they're gathered under six headings that define different modes of flexibility: The yurt and the Dymaxion House, for example, are placed under the heading ''Assembling and Disassembling," which features things that can be taken apart, moved, and reassembled.

The show points out that in our clothing, we've already adopted the ''layered look," in which outfits are assembled or disassembled to adapt to social or climatic circumstance. It predicts, for the near future, the assembled wrist machine: a phone, e-mail server, TV, watch, and GPS locator.

Despite the older stuff, this show is still about the Modern movement. It was the invention of the production line, in which rifles or cars were rapidly assembled from prefabricated parts, that first led designers to think that clothes or furnishings or dwellings could be treated the same way. It was the Modern movement that imagined a single culture, worldwide, in which you could ignore differences in local taste or climate (a view that produced today's glass skyscrapers in the deserts of the Middle East).

There's much to be said in favor of movability, but there's a lot, too, to be said for rootedness, for the development of the interdependent local community over time. The problem with Fuller's round shiny house wasn't that you couldn't build it or live in it (although it was tough to furnish). It was that there was no way these isolated, egocentric, inwardly focused pods could collect comfortably into streets or neighborhoods. They looked temporary, like visiting UFOs.

But we're all nomads at one time or another, and this is the show for the nomad in us. The only thing it fails to notice -- as does its huge catalog, as far as I can tell -- is an obvious example. That's the touring museum show itself, which is disassembled, packed, shipped, and reassembled from one museum to another. One of the best examples of living in motion is ''Living in Motion" itself.

Robert Campbell is the Globe's architecture critic. He can be reached at

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