In London, my home city, living has never been more expensive. An ever-increasing portion of our monthly pay cheque is devoted to housing. More often than not, this comprises of hastily converted sub-sub-sub divisions of crumbly period terraces. The modern stuff that is available can also leave a bit to be desired, falling into one of two camps: endlessly repetitive, badly-maintained housing estates, or mind-bendingly dull glass banker hutches.
Given this dreary state of affairs, it’s small wonder that when we escape the city for a holiday, novelty is never far from our minds. Airbnb make a fortune from offering ever more ‘quirky’ hideaways for exhausted city dwellers. For instance, the last year has seen the rise of the ‘bubble hotel’ – essentially an inflated transparent pod plonked in a field. Despite lacking privacy or even basic conveniences, their popularity continues to skyrocket.
“Imagine the weirdly wonderful world that could have been built“
Despite seeming for all the world like a modern fad, however, sleeping spaces such as these have been thought of many times before. Futuristic novelty, impermanence, and apparent romantic connection to nature have captured the imagination of architects for decades. Around the middle of the 20th century, designers across the world began experiments to totally redefine the boundaries of the word ‘House’. In the New Age, they thought, why can’t a house inflate and float like a soap bubble? Why must it have corners, or rooms or even walls?
These projects, often small-scale, high-tech and wildly impractical, sought to free the general public from the tyranny of the straight line. They wanted to pluck us, both mentally and physically, from our fuddy-duddy architectural foundations and allow us to roam free into the future. Mostly they failed, but did so beautifully.
This is a guide to just a handful of the utopian, retro-futuristic houses you can find scattered across the world. I recommend you leave your Victorian terrace to visit them, spend a little time, and imagine the weirdly wonderful world that could have been built.
Dymaxion House by Buckminster Fuller (1933)
Buckminster Fuller, lunatic engineering extraordinaire and inventor of the geodesic dome, was on a mission to change the world. With very little formal training, he approached the myriad issues facing modern humanity from a unique vantage point – visualizing the whole world as a gigantic floating spaceship, held together by calculable dynamic tensions.
The Dymaxion House was his radical attempt to harness those forces to house the booming population of 1930s America. Complete with prefabricated bathroom pods and a revolving closet, it was perhaps the earliest true ‘House Of The Future’. Built of stainless steel, it was supported by just one central strut and suspended from an array of slender bicycle-style spokes. As such, it was far more lightweight and easy to move than a traditional house, which is why the American Army decided to deploy them in the Persian Gulf during World War Two.
After the war, Buckminster wanted the houses to be produced in airplane factories, but the Dymaxion was never built on the global scale he imagined. It did however spark the imaginations of a whole generation of visionary young architects. A working model can be visited at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.
The Bubble House by Wallace Neff (1946)
If you’ve spent any time in Beverly Hills, you will be familiar with the Wallace Neff look. Hugely famous in his own time, Neff supplied the Hollywood elite with grand, sprawling mansions in his signature Spanish Colonial Style. So far, so traditional.
Given this body of work, it may surprise you that he spent the final portion of his career building thousands of identical white bubbles for the poor to call home. Using an innovative ‘Airform’ technique of his own invention, Neff found he could produce incredibly cheap domes with unbelievable speed. He simply had to inflate a large rubber balloon and then spray its exterior with concrete, before deflating the balloon and carrying it out through the door. Hey presto: A house in under 48 hours.
Igloo-like townscapes were erected in Arizona, Los Angeles and Virginia – then began popping up all over the world. A waste estate of 1,200 identical domes was erected in Dakar, Senegal. Eschewing the silver screen glamour of his big client work, Neff himself moved into a bubble in Pasadena, California. Although most of them are now demolished, this one remains – standing as a tribute to an era of boundless humanist optimism.
The Futuro House by Matti Suuronen (late 1960s)
The plastic pod perfection of the Futuro House was a tribute to 1960s optimism. Designed by Finnish architect Matti Suuronen, it was intended to be mass-produced as a holiday home or ski lodge. Despite referencing Hollywood B-movie sci-fi, the unity with the great outdoors that the Futuro delivers also makes it uniquely Scandinavian.
In its day, the Futuro suffered wide criticism for ‘sticking out’ too much in the rural idylls in which it was installed. In fairness, it does go to great pains to ensure it seems to have landed from outer space; each design stands on spindly insect legs and opens via a descending aircraft hatch. This backlash, combined with the plastic price hikes caused by the Oil Crisis, left the Futuro high and dry. Many were simply left to rot where they were left, and today there is a roaring trade in the salvage and transportation of these crashed saucers for installation in the gardens of the super rich.
Today, a working model can be visited at the Weegee Exhibition Centre in Espoo, Finland. There is also a bizarre abandoned town of dilapidated Suuronen houses in Wanli, Taiwan.
Le Palais Bulles (Bubble Palace) by Antti Lovag (1975 to 1989)
As the grandest property on the list, The Palais Bulles (Bubble Palace), lives up to its name. Built in Cannes, France by Hungarian visionary Antti Lovag between 1975 and ’89, this sprawling pinkish pleasure palace bubbles up from the hillside like the undulations of lava lamp oil. Lovag himself considered straight lines an “aggression against nature” – preferring to follow his own uniquely biomorphic vision of the structure of the human sensual experience to guide his exotic elevations.
Originally built for an ultra-rich automobile industrialist, the house was quickly snapped up by Space Age fashion visionary Pierre Cardin – its moon-base aesthetic seeming tailor-made for the designer.
Majestically impractical, the buildings many rooms are formed at the complex intersections of Lovag’s improvisational bubble forms – creating strange, swooshing spaces that beg to be lazed-in on a hot Mediterranean day. It is currently available for private functions and tours or, should the fancy take you, it is available to buy for 350 million Euros (£315 million).