By Pablo López, Senior Architect at AGi architects, PhD Architecture at Polytechnic University of Madrid. This post is a follow up on “The Eames chair, warfare technology at the service of everyday life”
In 1956 the Daily Mail asked the young Smithsons to, doing projection work in the most literal sense, try to imagine what the house of the future would be like, more specifically an imaginary home, twenty-five years later. This project would take shape in a kind of full-scale model, in an architecture staging that would be showcased in the exhibition “The ideal home” along with the proposals that other disciplines had for the future.
However, the radical budget that guided this project forced the Smithsons to make an equally radical proposal, not only architectural but also sociological, advancing a new way of life. This combination is perhaps what makes this house so attractive and what made it to be rescued and made topical. Paradoxically, the only real thing, the only thing that was not a figuration and that had vocation of permanence were precisely the lighter pieces, their chairs.
Wellsian plastic fantasy
This is how the House Beautiful magazine described the Smithsons’ proposal, and if you take a brief look at the photos that we have of it, the first word that comes to mind is plastic. A house made of plastic and filled with plastic objects. The chairs specifically designed for the house, the Tulip and Egg models, were both experiments with the new material manufactured by Thermoplastics Ltd. the Smithson themselves perceived their model of Pogo folding chairs, made of steel and transparent Perspex, as “relics of a technology of previous construction “. Thus the chairs of the future had to assume the most cutting-edge technology of the time, the one that began to be introduced into domestic life and which the Smithsons deemed essential in the home of the future.
The “Egg” chair (one in honey color and one in lemon yellow) and the “Petal” (red and honey) and the “Saddle” (white) were molded with reinforced polyester resins and seemed to share the character of the double molding Curved of the house itself: the sink of the kitchen, just like the sunken bathtub, all the sinks, the shower cubicle and the dryer, were a fiberglass molding of Bakelite polyester red pepper made by Fibromold. The mattress and pillows for the bed were made of a single red nylon trim sheet. The living room cushion was covered with an electric blue nylon foot. The curtains that separated the bathroom from the entrance hall were made of orange fiberglass. A suspended cloud of pale blue nylon stretched over a light metal structure was also to be installed, though it was not finally done. The work surfaces and doors of the kitchen cabinets were made with Pitch Pine Warerite. Even the food was packaged in vacuum plastic containers.
It was clear that the material of the future was plastic, as it was predicted by the fiberglass chairs of their admired Eameses and Saarinen. Tupperware had been introduced into homes as a product of easy consumption. Popular magazines had proclaimed the arrival of this new material to the American homes and they praised its undeniable domestic qualities for its hygiene and easy cleaning. In the same way, the house looked like a plastic consumer product more, a molded piece with a precise but unchanging contour, ready to be mass produced and easily transportable.
But the reality was that, paradoxically, the house only had the plastic aura, the appearance. The fact is that the house was not built in plastic, it was made of plywood, plaster and paint emulsion. Traditional materials that served to create a plastic illusion. The house was as pure dramatization, not even a prototype, but a model of architecture made full scale. The only real objects, the only ones who were given the courage to be performed in the same way they appeared, were the models of chairs. Perhaps in their attempt to survive the experiment of trying to extend the life of these designs beyond twenty-five days that the exhibition lasted.
A revealing foot. First sketch of the Tulip chair
The first preserved sketch of the Tulip chair presents a model very similar to the ones seen in 1956. The backrest and the seat were unified in a single body that could easily be identified as a molding of double curvature, probably in polyester. The support is drawn by four steel legs probably given the thinness with being represented.
However, the final design undergoes significant changes, so much so that in those changes, in those points that Alison Smithson (author of the drawings) fails to convince its design and finally changes, are those denoting the intention of a greater risk. It seems as if before a completely contemporary first sketch of his time, Alison Smithson were to ask what they should change to that model was appropriate for a house of the future. The answer is disconcerting and revealing, since in the design that the structure was finally constructed, the chair support is replaced by a tangent support in the shape of a half egg and a similar finish to the backrest-seat.
In the first sketch is meant that the Smithsons’ characteristic appropriation of objects that they find and incorporate their imaginary and which they would baptize with the name of aesthetics “as found”, with clear reference to Duchamp’s objet-trouvé or the American ready- made. In this case the chair takes the body of their admired Eames openly. It is understandable the appropriation of Alison if you take into account the characteristics that made them perfectly acceptable designs in the future: ergonomic body, easily washable plastic material, mass-manufacturable, lightweight… All these qualities make them attractive in the eyes of the Smithson and therefore do not hesitate to depart from them, but nevertheless the radical change in the support gives an important qualitative turn to the design. Suddenly the seat becomes static, its stacking is not possible, it is difficult to vary – remember all the variants that the Eames made of their designs, as if these were in fact open systems susceptible of being modified to the taste – and to transport. With this gesture they mark a great distance with the rest of contemporaneous pieces and therefore it is there where it is understood that resides its load of futurible.
To give us an idea of what lies behind this gesture, we should first ask ourselves how the Smithson thought the modern domestic space would be and they did so explicitly as if the home of the future were a car, both for their scrupulous attempts to provide a certain level of performance -the house of the future was designed for a precise task, inheritance of the Lecorbusian positivism- as, by its reference to mobility, “mobility has become the characteristic of our period,” Peter Smithson would say. Social and physical mobility, the feeling of a certain kind of freedom … and the symbol of that freedom is the individually owned car- the house of the future will be a kind of transportable caravan. But above all the reference will be constructive.
One particular car fascinated the Smithson: the Citroën DS 19, designed in the same 1956, the year of the exhibition of the home of the future. Echoing Le Corbusier, they photographed the car in front of their cottage in Fonthill and even Alison would dedicate an entire book entitled AS in DS, which will even take in the contour of the car itself. The DS became an explicit reference for the home of future, Peter writes in this regard:
“My memory tells me that in 1956 Citroën launched its first post-war car, the Citroën D.S. It was a miraculous wholly new idea of a car. Its bodypanels were visually and actually separated . . . water passed between them and was collected in a gutter-pressing behind; flowing out by airpressure and gravity at low level. It was an aesthetic of explicit joints.” (…) “The house of the future played a similar game of doubly-curved body panels and explicit joints. Joints whose placing quietly made the curvature apparent.”
We now imagine how Allison thought about the home of the future in his first sketches, such as the interior of a car, in which all functions are integrated. The structure has nothing to do with what we see; it belongs to the internal logic of the object but does not have to show through. What gets to the occupant is an inner skin that wraps around the cubicle and all its “integrated appliances” by a continuous surface. The chairs designed for this space are now understood as the seats in that cabin, static, fixed in a position, given to the same aesthetic of “everything in place”. The chair also takes reference to the objects designed by Buckminster Fuller for its prototype Dymaxion, specifically the bathtub added in 1937, which already anticipates that independence between skin and structure, so that the second does not condition the organic vocation of the first. The future was definitely biodynamic.