An illuminating exploration of today’s home

   seen through the ideas of 20th-century architects and designers moves from the Russian revolution to 70s escapism and some strangely accurate predictions…

  Rowan Moore

  Rowan Moore

  Sun 11 Nov 2018 08.00 GMT





  House for a Helicopter pilot, 1979, by Jan Kaplicky of Future Systems.

  ‘Like a lunar landing module resting by an Alpine lake’: House for a Helicopter pilot, 1979, by Jan Kaplicky of Future Systems. photograph: Business Graphics Datentechnik GmbH

  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.

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  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 author Geoffrey Hoyle predicted ‘vision phones’, which would help you work, learn and shop from home

  The Home Futures exhibition at the Design Museum is a lively, illuminating, sometimes enthralling journey through a century’s-worth 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.

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  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 Austrian-American 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 techno-Walden 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.

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  Hans Hollein in his transparent Mobile Office, 1969.

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  Hans Hollein in his transparent Mobile Office, 1969. photograph: Gino Molin-pradl, Copyright: private Archive Hollein

  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, fast-growing 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.

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