If you’ve ever seen one of the old Buck Rogers movie serials, with their packing-crate robots and Art Deco rockets shooting sparks, you can appreciate how quaint another era’s vision of the future can be — and how difficult it is to get it right. Yet speculating on things to come, whether in writing, in images, or in three dimensions, is something humans find irresistible.
Architects are no exception. The Futurist movement of the early 20th century, for instance, saw technology as man’s savior, and liked to wax poetic over things like turbines and high-voltage towers. Yet to many modern eyes, their stark, mechanistic cities of tomorrow are not so much redemptive as sinister.
During the 1920s, the Russian Constructivists saw architecture in equally edgy terms. Thanks to Stalin’s growing distaste for their work, their most ambitious ideas, like those of the Futurists, were never built. This fact has ironically worked in their favor, since speculating on the future is a good deal safer than actually trying to build it in three dimensions. Paper predictions remain snugly encased in the context of their own time, while real structures must actually occupy — however uncomfortably — the future they were meant to predict.
Disneyland’s 1957 House of Tomorrow, an all-plastic home designed by MIT and sponsored by the chemical giant Monsanto, is a classic example of this phenomenon. With its plastic furniture, plastic dishes, and molded plastic walls, it turned out to be an almost comically inept predictor of housing’s future. While plastics did find limited acceptance in many kinds of building materials, from drainpipes to windows, the predicted plastics revolution augured by the House of Tomorrow never materialized. Indeed, the actual building trends of the late twentieth century show a steady retreat from man-made polymers and controlled environments, back toward organic materials and more environmentally-sensitive design.
Theme parks and expositions in general have been a steady source of futuristic centerpieces, from the Trylon and Perisphere of the 1939 New York World’s Fair, to the globe-like, 140-foot tall Unisphere at the 1964 fair held on the same site, to the more recent Spaceship Earth, the Florida EPCOT Center’s eighteen-story geodesic sphere of 1982.
Overshadowing all of these is the 605-foot tall Space Needle, centerpiece of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. With its concave pylons and flying-saucer superstructure, the Space Needle evoked the sort of future in which people would have robot housekeepers and fly around in jet-powered backpacks — that is, when they weren’t out driving their atomic cars. This space-age optimism even permeates the color names used in the tower’s paint scheme: Astronaut White, Orbital Olive, Re-entry Red and Galaxy Gold.
As a now charmingly-retro hallmark for Seattle, the Space Needle has been an unqualified success — even today, it remains the city’s biggest tourist attraction. As a predictor of future architectural trends, though, the Needle missed the mark.
The fact that the Space Needle and its futuristic brethren already seemed quaintly outdated within a decade of their completion shows just how risky building a vision of the future can be. It’s a sure bet that our own “House of Tomorrow” predictions about computer-orchestrated homes — the sort of scenario in which your toaster automatically goes online to buy more Eggos — are just as likely to come to naught.
Still, architects will no doubt keep offering you their ideas of what’s to come. Whether our predictions pan out or not–well, the future will be here soon enough.
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