Rowan Moore on Home Futures at the Design Museum
An illuminating exploration of today’s home viewed through a century of aspiration moves from the Russian revolution to 70s escapism with some strangely accurate predictions
Home Futures Design Museum, London W8; until 24 March
For a brief moment around
1970 everything was going to be inflatable. In the future, imagined some of the most progressive architects and designers of the time, homes would no longer be weighty and static. They would be portable plastic membranes that you could take to your nearest wilderness, with the help of a handy air pump, and blow up into a comfortable bubble.
It never happened, partly because these concepts assumed limitless supplies of cheap energy to heat and cool the wandering shelters, an illusion that the oil crisis of 1973 abruptly ended. The bubble popped, you might say. Architectural fashion moved on to postmodernism, a style that made no claim to change the world or people’s lives, but only to entertain and comfort them. Sometimes, as with the Austrian architect Hans Hollein, who moved from inflatables to postmodern boutiques, the shift was embodied in a single person.
It’s a repeating story. Designers dream of homes that are as unlike existing homes as possible – mobile, not fixed, light, not heavy, transparent, not opaque, open, not enclosed, curved, not straight – taking their inspiration from technology that moves faster than house building, such as cars, aeroplanes and spaceships. Then reality bites. The home of the future, when it arrives, turns out to be quite like the home of the past. The most significant changes – the kitchen becomes part of the living space, for example – are less glamorous than predicted. Designers then find themselves decorating the world rather than shaping it.
The Home Futures exhibition at the Design Museum is a lively, illuminating, sometimes enthralling journey through a century’sworth of aspiration and fantasy, presented in a dreamy, translucent installation by the Brooklyn-based architects SO-IL. There are the attempts of Russian architects, in the early revolutionary years, to reimagine what a home is. There are Alison and Peter Smithson, in the Ideal Home Exhibition of 1956, projecting a House of the Future in which everyone wears nylon and the dinner table (why?) rises from the floor. There is Future Systems’ House for a Helicopter Pilot of 1979, an object resembling the Apollo missions’ lunar landing module seen resting by an Alpine lake.
There are a wheeled kitchen by Joe Colombo and mobile showers and lavatories by Ettore Sottsass; also the protracted ruminations on the Endless House by the AustrianAmerican Frederick Kiesler. Never translated into reality, this was a structure without straight lines and right angles, whose curves were to respond better to human needs and emotions than conventional buildings. A persistent yearning for Arcadia emerges, for upping sticks and escaping to some technoWalden in the forest or on a prairie. Imagine, you can hear Ono and Lennon crooning in the mind’s ear, no possessions…
Sometimes breathless optimism comes tempered with doubt or irony. You can see, for example, the speculations of the Italian group Superstudio in the early 70s, that the world would be covered by a universal grid, supplied with electricity and other services, wherein modern nomads could make their home as they choose. It’s left ambiguous whether this future is considered a good thing. In the 1920s Sergei Eisenstein sketched film scenarios involving a transparent house, prompted by contemporary architects’ fascination with all-glass structures, in which the loss of privacy and possibilities for surveillance become scary rather than liberating.
The show is the Design Museum’s response to the prevailing fascination with the home and with housing, but it makes no claims to find “the solution”, as the now overworked headline has it, “to the housing crisis”. The most enduring and significant exhibit, in practical terms, is Margarete
Schütte-Lihotzky’s Frankfurt kitchen of 1926, captured in a grainy photograph, which pioneered the labour-saving fitted kitchen we now take for granted. Mostly, though, it is an exhibition of exotic blooms, fastgrowing and fast-withering. As with most futurology, the concepts on show tell you more about the times in which they were made than about what would actually happen.
But hang on. Here is the Italian Ugo La Pietra imagining in the 70s and 80s that the home would be dominated by screens. Here, in 1972, is the author Geoffrey Hoyle predicting “vision phones”, which would help you work, learn and shop from home and have food delivered straight to your fridge. This is not so far off the mark.
And here, on other hand, is Amazon’s smart speaker Echo, which, as the show’s curator Eszter Steierhoffer points out, was an explicit attempt to make real the speaking starship computer in
Star Trek. She also mentions that The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is Elon Musk’s “personal bible”. The future, in other words, is actually arriving, in forms that were at least partly guessed.
Our lives have indeed become more transparent, and notions of privacy have changed in ways that are not entirely comfortable. What was less understood was that technology would short-circuit the physical, that it would become detached from furniture and architecture. La Pietra imagined homes with multiple screens attached to the backs and armrests of chairs, or to beds, not that they would be portable and therefore separate from the question of furniture design. The material of houses, whether see-through or opaque, is immaterial if the internet dives through walls into our personal lives. Homes become transparent even if they are not made of glass.
Meanwhile, a different kind of domestic future has imposed itself on the dwellers of affluent modern cities that has little to do with technology, which is the difficulty of those who do not already own a home in finding an adequate place to live. It is perfectly irrelevant to imagine a mobile shower if you don’t have the space for it to roam.
What technology can and does achieve is the shrinkage of physical space by replacing it with digital space. A bookcase, a filing cabinet, a record collection become less essential if the needs they serve are met online. You have less need for food storage if you have Deliveroo, less for a garage if you have Uber.
Designers of houses and physical objects cannot keep pace with digital developments, still less mimic them. In the time it takes to build a house, new and possibly life-changing apps can appear or fade. What matters is the spatial setting for the physical lives we still have, within the effects of faster technologies playing out. That, and the little matter of finding sufficient shelter for everyone. The Design Museum show doesn’t claim to have answers to all these questions, but it provokes the visitor into asking them.
In 1972, Geoffrey Hoyle predicted ‘vision phones’, which would help you work, learn and shop from home
RIGHTThe 1969 classic Armchair with ottoman, designed by Gaetano Pesce for B&B Italia, at the Design Museum.
LEFTIn the 70s and 80s, Ugo La Pietra imagined the future home as dominated by screens, as in his 1983 Casa telematica.
LEFT‘Like a lunar landing module resting by an Alpine lake’: House for a Helicopter Pilot, 1979, by Jan Kaplický of Future Systems.
LEFTHans Hollein in his Mobile Office, 1969. Architects have long been fascinated with all-glass structures that balance transparency with loss of privacy and the possibilities for surveillance.