The House of the Future is in Your Pocket

In their short essay “But Today We Collect Ads” of 1956 Allison and Peter Smithson make the case that architecture has become irrelevant in the face of advertising:

“Gropius wrote a book on grain silos,
Le Corbusier one on aeroplanes,
And Charlotte Periand brought a new
object to the office every morning,
But today we collect ads.”

They incorporated the spirit of mid-century advertising into their work through their plastic “House of the Future” they prepared for the “This is Tomorrow” exhibit of 1956 (while proposed a seamless plastic home,  in reality it was even less substantial- the mockup was built by a contractor out of bits of wood and plaster and covered over with glossy paint).

Beatriz Colomina, in her essay about the House of the Future titled “Unbreathed Air 1956” quotes Allison Smithson:

“A house designed like a car is at some disadvantage, for the appliances would be so closely integrated into the structure, that to change the refrigerator would be like getting a larger glove compartment in a ‘Volkswagen’ dashboard—it would be simpler to get a new car.” (Colomina 37)

Colomina correctly points out “the house becomes expendable, a throwaway object” because it would be impossible to adapt it as the occupants’ needs changed. Architecture is now, in 1956, seen as a mass-produced commercial product. They were ready to move beyond the age of the monumental grain elevator and into a glossy, disposable future. The 1950s were a time of increasing prosperity in Britain as rationing came to an end. Colour magazines and television were available, and American consumer products were being imported along with the American idea of planned obsolescence (Andrew Jackson talks about this era in his Designing Britain series here).

Critic Reyner Banham was  similarly seduced by successful consumer goods- particularly American ones. Even more specifically, he is in love with self-contained gizmos like the outboard boat motor, transistor radios and portable welding kits. His essay “The Great Gizmo” goes as far as to praise Americans for one-upping Archimedes because “the American gizmo can get by without any infrastructure.” Banham praises devices that “leave craftsmanship behind at the factory” and attributes Sears and Roebuck to making the West “habitable and civilized.” This is all coming from a man who spent a large portion of his career writing about infrastructure, from grain elevators to the Los Angeles freeway system. “The Great Gizmo” was written in 1965, about a decade after the Smithsons’ piece.

Allison and Peter Smithson’s experimentation with a plastic future only lasted a brief moment, they returned/continued with Brutalism  (a term they had created just a few years earlier in 1954). This essay shows them struggling with societal change and architecture’s response by embracing the new. However, their resulting architectural output, their House of the Future, was nearly forgotten. The work that became best known and subsequently defined their place in architectural history were the heavy concrete buildings of the 1960s and 1970s:

Robin Hood Gardens, by Allison & Peter Smithson
Robin Hood Gardens, by Allison & Peter Smithson

Banham differs in his approach, as he deals with the consequences of technology in his essay. He points out the weakness of American domestic architecture when compared to industrial architecture conceived for production, and discusses the shortcoming of contemporary American cars built for the newly expanding freeways. In this instance, he accuses the infrastructure (the freeways) of causing the gizmos (the cars) to become dependent on them and therefore, worse. He points out that the temporary and unrefined nature of American homes may be a temporary phase until a “definitive shape… emerges to fix the style of the gizmo-residence.” He recognizes that the gizmo itself is intrinsically related to the rest of society.

While Banham readily admitted that there would ultimately be a form housing would take that would be complementary to technology, the Smithsons suggest embracing all that is new immediately and making a home that responds to the very minute. “Collecting ads” seems in actuality to be a call to embrace the consumerist impulse of the moment and build a world out of it.

The buildings the Smithsons built did not lend well to adaptation, and a lack of commitment to long term maitenance and government policy changes prevented Brutalist housing from living up to its potential. The Smithsons’ own Robin Hood Gardens is under threat of demolition and other Brutalist landmarks (the movement they named) have already been torn down. In some cases, they are being ‘regenerated’ by developers  (Own Heatherley tackles the regenerationof Park Hill in Sheffield in an excellent piece for The Gaurdian). In the end, the housing Allison and Peter Smithson built because as disposable in the eyes of the mass public as the House of the Future they suggested in the mid-1950s (though most people think Brutalism is fine for the wealthy and nobody is calling for the demolition of the Barbican). Many of the grain elevators they saw as relics of the past inthe 1950s will outlast Robin Hood Gardens.

Today, there is little discussion about what a House of the Future would look like- in fact, the most famous example (by Monsanto at Disneyland) dates from the 1960s and resides at yesterland.com. The typical home of today in both Britain and the United States is still a traditional-looking shell (though often made of vinyl and fake brck) and enabled by technology. The gizmo has won out over the building and the “gizmo-residence” is anywhere with WiFi or 3G wireless service.

The iPod is the (present) ultimate in self-contained gadgets- it requires no hard-wired infrastructure connection, mouse, keyboard or peripherals. In fact, it doesn’t even provide you with a method for connecting them. While the Evinrude outboard motor that Banham loved may have allowed you to mount a motor on any boat with  little in the way of skill or tools, the iPhone is limited only by what software developers create for it (and manage to get approved by Apple, of course).  Banham focused on mechanical devices that did specific tasks and failed to see that in the future you wouldn’t need a “precise gadget” to deal with a variety of tasks- one gadget can now function as your phone, camera, research library, file cabinet, Rolodex and more. Social networked and augmented reality applications allow another world to be created on top of the physical one.  Banham believed the most futuristic home (circa 1965) was the recreational vehicle that allowed its residents to be endlessly mobile. Instead of needing a traveling home, we live our lives in virtual space enabled by a gizmo that fits in your shirt pocket. I think Reyner Banham would approve.

Today, you don’t need a new environment to live or work in. You just need a new application.

1. Alison and Peter Smithson, “The Appliance House,” Design (May 1958): 47. Reprinted in A. and P. Smithson, Changing, 116 cited in “Unbreathed Air 1956”  by Beatriz Colomina, MIT Press Grey Room Spring 2004, No. 15: p. 37. K. Beckman et al. ed.

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