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HOUSE OF THE FUTURE
Alison and Peter Smithson, London, 1956

IS A SPACESHIP HOUSE ON EARTH THE FUTURE?   

Built on a 9 by 15 meter rectangular base, Alison and Peter Smithson designed a house imagined for 1981 that captured the fascination of visitors at the Ideal Home Exhibition in London in 1956. “Staged” as an exhibition house, in the House of the Future, the Smithsons confronted the changes brought about by domestic machines and emergent consumerism, and the anticipated technologies of the future, the 1980s. To the architects, the design was an inheritor of a twentieth-century tradition, a work extending the strategies of Le Corbusier’s L’Esprit Nouveau Pavilion of 1925 and the exhibition design of the Eameses.


As Beatriz Colomina points out, the design was as much a marker of true cultural and technological phenomena as much as it was a work of fiction. (Colomina, “Unbreathed Air”)


To design a totally controlled interior, the Smithsons’ charged the transitory thresholds and seemingly plastic wall surfaces of the dwelling with performative qualities to combat issues of contamination and air stagnation. Beginning with the entrance area, visitors promptly underwent a process of decontamination in order to keep out undesired exterior air. Subsequently, visitors traversed an electro-static dust collector, while remaining air was channeled through the air conditioning system (Colomina, Domesticity at War, 231).


A further striking feature in the handling of air was advanced by the continuous round corners which, well beyond the enforcement of an aesthetic of continuity, also served the purpose of orienting smoothly air circulation. In addition to readily available remote controls, feasible access to everyday appliances, and easy-to-clean corners, the project aimed to project future modes of domestic habitation in the context of 1956.


In many respects, the House of the Future is a carefully designed projection of domesticity that never happened. The precision of the design, did not exclusively involve the channeling of air flow through the plastic curved walls, but also the stage set of a future life, a life contained within a controlled environment around a piece of nature –the garden. The dwellers’ clothing and daily activities were carefully designed leaving us with some of the most striking visual remnants of an odd life in a spaceship on earth that was vividly imagined as the ultimate future life in the late 1950s. More than anything, the House of the Future was a theatrical setting of an alternate life that one could peep into; a life that was a hybrid of the future and the present of the time. As Colomina pointed out, while interviewing Peter Smithson, the House of the Future was “made like in the theater. It wasn’t real. It was made of plywood. It was like an early airplane, where you make a series of forms, then you run the skin over them. The house was made in ten days. The exhibition contractor was fantastically fast. It was not a prototype. It was like the design for a masque, like theater.” (Colomina, Smithson, “Friends of the future: a conversation with Peter Smithson”)

 

KEYWORDS: Electro-static dust collector, Perspex, Thermoplastic

KEY FAILURES

THE HOUSE OF FAKE: The house of fake; the molding of plastic was an image of molding rather than a construction technique, while most of the interiors were made of plywood. This is not really a failure, just a feature to emphasize how the house was more an idea of future living as a built manifesto, rather than an actual prototype.

DISCREPANCY WITH BODY OF WORK: It is hard to overlap the House of the Future- this stunning stage set of future domestic life and sample of total design-, with the rest of the work by the Smithsons; their legacy in CIAM and their substantial involvement in launching New Brutalism in England in the 1950s.