As the newly restored first edition goes on show, Justin McGuirk explores an emblem of 1960s architectural utopianism. Just don’t call it a spaceship.
Before the recession and the return of architectural probity, the phrase “like an alien spaceship” was all over architecture journalism like a cheap suit. Faced with anything that didn’t look like a brick box, critics and headline writers would ransack their imaginations before inevitably reaching for the extra-terrestrial. Frank Gehry? Future Systems? Zaha Hadid? Yep, spaceship-mongers. Well there’s only one building where that simile is inescapable, and that’s the Futuro house, designed by Finnish architect Matti Suuronen in 1968.
Commissioned to design a ski lodge for a slope in Finland, Suuronen produced what he and many others believed was the prefabricated home of the future. An 8m-diametre “rotating ellipsoid” – geometry jargon for “like a 1950s Hollywood flying saucer” – the Futuro remains an emblematic image of the 1960s, despite having been a total sideshow as far as architectural historiography is concerned. Though they went into production in both Finland and America, only around 60 were ever produced (no one knows exact numbers). What is certain, however, is that the very first edition, cabin number 001, went on show last week at the Weegee Exhibition Centre in Espoo, 20 minutes from Helsinki. And as I was in Helsinki for the buildup to its festivities as World Design Capital 2012, I paid it a visit.
There it was, painstakingly restored and eye-achingly yellow, resting on its metal frame (the pod house was often helicoptered on to its legs), its hatch door with integrated staircase lowered invitingly. Entering a space that you know well as an image is usually either a shock or an anticlimax. In this case, it was the overpowering odour that struck me. It turned out to be the glue a restorer was using to put the finishing touches to the floor in preparation for the opening that evening. But it heightened the sense of being in a totally artificial environment. Circular rooms are strange in themselves, accustomed as we are to corners, but this plastic womb was more unheimlich than homely. With its built-in chaises longues arranged around a central hearth, it’s more like a swinger’s fantasy anyway – Playboy magazine featured it as the ultimate bachelor pad and it was used as the setting of a 1970s sci-fi porn film called The Goddesses of Galaxia.
What remains intriguing about Futuro, however, is that it’s the closest housing ever came to product design. In the 1960s, the mechanisation of the domestic interior, particularly the kitchen, was in full force, as we accumulated labour-saving gadgets like washing machines and blenders. Suuronen’s plastic capsule had the moulded integrity of a mass-produced consumer product, it was the house-as-gadget, a device for the nomadic lifestyle. What it relates to best is the pop space age furniture of the period – the Bubble chair designed by fellow Finn Eero Arnio or Joe Colombo’s Boby trolleys – except this was furniture blown up to an architectural scale. Futuro belongs in a tradition of 1960s utopian radicalism. It picks up where Buckminster Fuller’s earlier Dymaxion and Wichita houses (also designed for mass-production) left off, and it floats somehow in the same soup as Archigram’s comic-book hi-tech or the Metabolists’ capsule buildings. But it had none of the urban vision. For this reason, Futuro sits outside the architectural canon, a kitschy one-hit wonder. It was also a commercial failure.
When it came to London as part of the Finnexpo fair in 1968, the Daily Mail wrote (anticipating critics of the future): “This object, looking like everyone else’s idea of a flying saucer from outer Space, is the Finnish idea of the perfect weekend cottage.” Except that it wasn’t. When the original owner of cabin 001, Matti Kuusla, installed it on the wooded shore of Lake Puulavesi, it caused a local outcry. Suuronen’s capsule was far from their idea of the perfect country cottage, because the whole point of country cottages was nostalgic ruralism – the back-to-nature birch-whipping in the sauna that was their escape from the city and its encroaching plastic futurism. An American company, Futuro Corporation, had high hopes for it, but it was a flop there too, never rising above the level of the urban freak show – among other things it was used as a bank in the car park of the Woodbridge mall in New Jersey. The oil crisis of 1973, which tripled the price of plastic, was the final nail in the coffin. And there went another piece of 1960s utopianism. Well, if it calls itself the future, it’s probably not.