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What the future looked like

Every architectural drawing calls to the future, but some projections surpass their particular contexts to reveal something wider—and highly timely. It’s easy to recognize the currents of anxiety or optimism that run through the moments that populate this issue, but we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking they are familiar; these are past futures that never really arrived. Rather, they lie in wait, giving us renewed routes toward understanding what preoccupies us today.

Article 10 of 13

1956: House of the Future

Unknown photographer. Alison and Peter Smithson, architects. Interior view of the House of the Future looking down from the viewing platform, Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition, London, March 1956. DR1995:0042

Because we have the drawings in our collection, we’ve accumulated quite a bit of content related to the House of the Future. Some of it appears below.

From our collection database:

Peter and Alison Smithson designed the House of the Future for the Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition. The exhibition was held in the Olympia Exhibition Centre from March 6-31 1956 (DR1995:0046:001-006). The House of the Future was never intended for actual production but for theoretical discussion. Designed around a courtyard garden that supplied natural lighting and private outdoor space, there were few windows on the exterior walls allowing the houses to be placed directly side-by-side. For viewing purposes, there was no roof but an elevated platform so exhibition goers could look inside the house from above. Appliances and work areas were hidden from view within cubicles allowing for a large open space in which to live.

Drawing the House of the Future

Drawings by Alison and Peter Smithson

Unbreathed Air

A lecture by Beatriz Colomina
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Beatriz Colomina: Unbreathed Air, 1956: Alison and Peter Smithson's House of the Future
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Colomina delivered this lecture in 2007, when she was in residence here as a Mellon Senior Fellow.

The Sound of the Future

Text by Sabine von Fischer

Alison and Peter Smithson. Detail of plan showing the arrangement of the furniture, House of the Future, Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition, London, 20 December 1955. DR1995:0018

control panel 1: Telephone Dimmers to living rm (to work) […]T.V. control (to simulate working) […] door broadcast receiver unit. (to work when desired) —
Notes on the drawing for the House of the Future, dated 20 December 1955

The House of the Future is a simulation; it is a speculation on a future lifestyle with automated housework, and with technologically enabled broadcasting of image and sound to the world and to Mars. In material terms, the simulation reveals itself in the fact that, while “it was all about plastics,” it was actually built of plywood covered in plaster and emulsion paint, as Beatriz Colomina revealed in her comprehensive 2004 essay and 2007 Mellon lecture.

The House of the Future was designed by Alison Margaret Smithson, in collaboration with her husband, Peter Smithson, and was installed at the Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition in London and Edinburgh in 1956. Unlike other works by the famous architect couple, the House of the Future is not an architectural project, but a scenographic mock-up at full scale of a living unit for a childless couple, set twenty-five years in the future. Visitors to the 1956 Jubilee Ideal Home exhibition viewed the scene from the two levels of the platforms enveloping the house; their view of the exterior was blocked by an enclosing box which directed their view to the interior, repeating the interiorized layout of the futuristic house on display.

The house is spatially detached from the outside; wired acoustics are the only way it interacts with the outside world. The door elevation shows a speaker and microphone system above a mailbox, all to be installed to the left of the blob-shaped, electronically controlled entry door. The line between commodity and fiction is deliberately blurred: flanked by existing pieces such as the “Tellaloud’ loud-speaking phone” manufactured by Winston Electronics Ltd., various modern kitchen equipment and an Arteluce lamp from 1953, imagined devices such as after-shower body air-driers and telephone message recorders are exhibited in the house. Calls are not only transmitted by telephone, but broadcast over loudspeakers through the entire house. The model inhabitants explain their gadgets and activities to the audience over microphones. Spatially disconnected from the world, the house re-connects by electro-acoustics.

Detail. DR1995:0018

The plan of the middle level, with detailed descriptions of the control panels, is filed in the CCA Collection as DR1995:0018. Several “control panels” for the management of light, sound, and furniture positions are marked in this drawing. The word “control” appears six times at the telephone unit (control panel 1), three times in the description for the door, twice at the bathroom and once each at the bedroom and the kitchen. However, only some of these controls are functional, others “simulate” or are a “mock-up” in this vision of a future in which the environment will be fully regulated via wires.

In the stirring silence of the CCA library, the notes on the drawings reveal themselves as a key to understanding the role of technology in the project, and establish the House of the Future as a valid case study for spatial consequences of modern sound technologies in twentieth-century architecture. The air in the library is—very much unlike the vertical tube of virgin air in the patio of the House of the Future—impregnated with inspiring thoughts. Reading the various articles in books and journal by former CCA scholars Beatriz Colomina, Gwendolyn Owens, and Hadas Steiner, my investigation of sound becomes yet another lens through which the post-war enthusiasm for controlled environments unveils itself. Wired control mechanisms, as well as control inherent in spatial configurations, increasingly define the spaces we live in, not only in the imaginary future as Alison Smithson projected it in 1956, but with increasing impact in the future we project today.

Sabine von Fischer was a recipient of a 2010 CCA Collection Research Grant.

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