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

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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

Pho­to­graph by Fe­lix Speller

RIGHTThe 1969 clas­sic Arm­chair with ot­toman, de­signed by Gae­tano Pesce for B&B Italia, at the De­sign Mu­seum.

Cour­tesy Archivio Ugo La Pi­etra, Mi­lano

LEFTIn the 70s and 80s, Ugo La Pi­etra imag­ined the fu­ture home as dom­i­nated by screens, as in his 1983 Casa telem­at­ica.

© Jan Kaplický, Fu­ture Sys­tems, cour­tesy of the Kaplicky Cen­tre Foun­da­tion, Prague

LEFT‘Like a lu­nar land­ing mod­ule rest­ing by an Alpine lake’: House for a He­li­copter Pi­lot, 1979, by Jan Kaplický of Fu­ture Sys­tems.

Pho­to­graph by Gino MolinPradl/Pri­vate Ar­chive Hollein

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.

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