Pretend it’s the ’60s and you’ve been tasked with building the house of the future. You might ask yourself, What’s the most futuristic thing imaginable? Space. Who lives in space? Aliens. What do their houses look like? Flying saucers. And so your prediction might look a lot like the Futuro house, a prefabricated plastic ellipsoid with porthole windows and a fold-down staircase that bears a striking resemblance to a child’s drawing of a UFO.
Finnish architect Matti Suuronen began work on the Futuro in 1965 after a friend commissioned him to build a ski cabin near Turenki, Finland that would be simple to construct and efficient to heat. A Finnish company called Polykem marketed his design as an affordable, portable vacation home for the postwar masses, and licensing rights were sold for the Futuro to be mass produced around the world. It stood approximately 13 feet high and 26 across, with one large room and a tiny bathroom, and sold for around $12,000 to $14,000 (about $84,000 to $105,000, adjusted for inflation).
Buyers could have it delivered via truck (in 16 segments) or helicopter (already assembled), furnished or not. Exact specifications varied slightly by region, but a 1970 Tampa Tribune article describes a "furnished model with shag rug, wall hugging curved sofa, hooded fireplace and dimmer controlled indirect lighting." Suuronen’s design had its roots in “pure mathematics” (something to do with pi), not a utopian ideal, according to the writer Marko Home, who has co-produced a book and a documentary about the house. Still, the Futuro “perfectly captured the ideas of space-age architecture and design.”
“During the ’60s some architects began to question why buildings were still being constructed using the same old methods as decades before,” Home told me. “They proposed that architects could harness space-age technology and cater for new social trends such as people’s increased leisure time and mobility. They saw the home of the future as a dynamic, portable unit.”
The Futuro is hardly the only example of space-age architecture — there’s the octagonal Chemosphere, planted on a slope in the Hollywood Hills; Taiwan had Sanzhi Pod City, an abandoned town of “UFO houses”; Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome is immortalized as Spaceship Earth, the symbol of Disney's Epcot — but its simplicity makes it one of the most striking. Relatively cheap and easily reproducible, the Futuro had the potential to become the Ikea of housing.
As you have probably noticed, this did not happen. According to the impressively thorough website The Futuro House, just 96 were built and 67 remain standing. It has become the kind of cult object that inspires Flickr Pro subscribers to take cross-country road trips. Futuros can be found on every continent except Antarctica (where there are two Futuro-looking houses called Googie Huts; they’re technically their own thing), and there’s one in Tampa Bay serves as a strip club’s VIP room. But outside of Finland and architecture forums, the design is largely unknown.
Kate Wagner, who writes about architecture on the blog McMansion Hell, visited Futuro 001, which is kept on display at the Exhibition Centre Weegee in Helsinki. “There’s something about skiing and vacationing that invites weird architecture,” she said. Examples of this include the Swiss A-frame, and the geodesic dome, which is often found in mountain hotspots. The Futuro is in keeping with this leisure time housing legacy. Add in the most extreme elements of modern architecture and “’60s pleasure dome counterculture,” and you have “the perfect storm for buildings.” Wagner said the Futuro functions more as a “party hut” than an actual home. “They’re totally an embodiment of the counterculture. The whole house is pretty much devoted to lounging. There are no bedrooms. There’s a little fireplace and a little excuse for a kitchen and bathroom but really it’s all about chilling. You have to admire that, frankly.”
The 1960s were a time of reimagining the future. Think of civil rights and anti-war protests, or women’s and sexual liberation movements — these were ways of insisting that a different, better future was possible. Obviously having cooler housing isn’t nearly as important as achieving equality, but still: there was a time when it seemed like split-level ranches would eventually have to compete with spaceships and domes and other weird shapes. “That’s really what modernism was all about, this real celebration of technological innovation,” Wagner said. “It went along with a sort of social liberalism or social democracy—the idea of providing things for people that were now possible.”
The New York Times ran an article (revisited here) about the Futuro’s American launch on July 20, 1969, the same day man walked on the moon; its place in our future must have seemed almost inevitable. (The same goes for space travel.) Instead, the Futuro and houses like it are a symbol of retro-futuristic kitsch, like lava lamps and Jello molds, when they’re remembered at all. Why did we abandon the futuristic future and instead choose to go in such a boring direction?
Part of the issue is that no matter how much people are into the idea of the future, they don’t really want to sleep in the physical embodiment of it. “Even in the ’60s most of the architecture was bland and Futuro and other such examples of exciting architecture were just exceptions,” Mark Home said. The demand for Futuros was never particularly high. “People were very curious to visit Futuros whenever they were on public display, but preferred a traditional wooden hut when they were buying a summer cottage or a ski-cabin. So aesthetically an ellipsoid plastic house like Futuro was definitely too way-out and weird for most of the people.”
The first mass-produced Futuro, near Lake Puulavesi in Finland, was protested by neighbors who thought the structure didn’t fit in with the scenic Finnish landscape. According to Atlas Obscura, “Some U.S. towns banned Futuros outright; other Futuros were destroyed or vandalized.” In 1973, the oil crisis hit, tripling the price of petroleum-based materials, making the plastic-heavy building prohibitively expensive. Production of the Futuro soon ended.
Today, the closest Futuro to New York is in Willingboro, New Jersey, about halfway between Trenton and Philadelphia. From 1973 to 1975, it sat in a mall parking lot, functioning as a branch of the City Federal Savings and Loan Bank. The bank then donated the house to the city, at which point it was put on a flatbed and driven a short distance to Mill Creek Park, where it still greets visitors as a tarnished reminder of a weirder future that didn’t happen.
Over the past 34 years, it has at times served as the park’s information office, as local Police Athletic League headquarters, as a place for storage, and — in the words of a longtime resident who recently saw me taking pictures of the place — as a “whorehouse.” (Given that the inside is essentially a single room, it more likely functioned as a place where people with nowhere else to go could get some privacy, rather than as a bordello proper.)
Time has not been kind to the flying saucer. Some of its windows are boarded up, and a permanent shed had been added to enclose the staircase entryway. This shed’s door is now in badly need of repair. The Futuro house proper appears to have fallen into disuse long ago and now has the vibe of a motorhome that hasn’t been driven in decades. Sun and seasons and plastic don’t mix, and it turns out that shag as shag carpet ages, it starts looking charred.
On the built-in bench seating inside, I found a 2014 automotive calendar that appeared to be from someone who had once lived in the place; on the days were written notes like “church” and “food pantry” and “no work,” and affixed to the image was a wasp nest that had been constructed and abandoned in the intervening time. The outside of the building appeared reasonably maintained; nevertheless, the gelcoat was faded and streaked with dirt, the remaining windows were clouded, and the stairs seemed structurally questionable. (I arranged my visit with the Willingboro Recreation and Parks Department. For safety reasons, the building is normally locked and off limits to the public.)
Kate Wagner told me that this material degradation was basically inevitable. “I think that a lot of the stories of modernism are stories of some new material getting developed and architects going [wild] with it, and then they’re just kind of done with it.” When the Futuro was developed, plastic was still fairly new and exciting. It was the era of “better life through technology.” Architects came up with innovative ways to use synthetics like fiberglass, acrylics, and polyurethane in their work, prefab housing being one of them.
Then the reality sank in. “People are like, well, there’s actually issues with creating plastic houses: they leak, they melt, they smell when it gets really hot.” There is still plenty of plastic being used in building — for things like insulation, doors, pipes, etc. — but you almost never see whole structures built out of it, outside of McDonald’s PlayPlaces.
The oil crisis didn’t just raise the price of plastic; it also helped send the country (and much of the world) into recession. People were no longer buying vacation cabins, regardless of material. By the time the economy picked back up, plastic had become synonymous with cheap, or worse. “It’s destroying the world, it’s not something you want to heroicize,” Wagner said. At the same time, aesthetic tastes had changed. “The cool pleasure dome experience became a thing of the past,” she added. With the Reagan ’80s, architecture ended up in a “really conservative, historically minded phase.”
Bizarre buildings are still being constructed, but rarely for individuals. “We live under capitalism and it’s not profitable to make geodesic domes, so people don’t do it… Frank Gehry can build a concert hall in L.A.,” Wagner said, but houses still just look like houses. “Architects are always doing cool shit and weird buildings — you see them one on architecture websites — but it doesn’t have any effect on normal people. It’s not practical or feasible to do buildings in those styles on a small scale. So what you have is architectural innovation happening on a really large scale, that never really becomes something that is salable to normal people. But back in the day with modernism, you could just buy a Futuro house.”
After the Futuro, Suuronen and Polykem launched a line called Casa Finlandia, which used plastics to build gas stations, and a small prefabricated cottage, called the Venturo. These, too, were casualties of the oil crisis. He returned to more traditional architecture, but he spent much of the following decades struggling with money. “He did not know how to take advantage of the fame of Futuro, to make money out of it,” his daughter Sari told The Guardian. “He had many health issues and didn’t have the energy to pursue more designing contracts. A recession in the ’90s slowed construction in Finland. He was also too slow to lay off his personnel and he used up my mother’s inheritance. The bank took their house and sold it at auction for very little money. So they lost everything.’’
Suuronen died of cancer in 2013, at age 79. He may not have gotten rich off his most famous design, but he did live long enough to see it become a cult favorite. In a 2005 New York Times article, he's described as being happy with the attention, if a bit bewildered by the whole thing.
Visiting the house in Willingboro, I had a similar reaction. The Futuro was easily the coolest building I saw on the two-hour drive from Brooklyn to Central Jersey. It may be unbelievable that anyone once thought this cramped and tattered building could be the future of housing, but it’s even more amazing that dozens of them were actually constructed and remain standing half a century later. I certainly wouldn’t want to live in it, but it thrills me that, at some point, someone did.