Monday, December 01, 2008

Future Schlock

More than half a century ago, Disneyland opened its House of the Future attraction. I was 10, and I was attracted. In fact, I was in love.

The Tomorrowland dwelling had a cruciform floor plan, a more elegant solution to bringing light and air into a “machine for living” than Le Corbusier had been able to devise. Each side of each arm of the cross was glazed, sill to ceiling. The mullions and rails between the panes were as pleasingly orchestrated as Mondrian’s black stripes.

All the proportions were pleasing. They seemed to adhere to what the ancient Greeks called the “divine proportion,” roughly eight to five. It is the ratio that governs the shape of the galaxies, the Fibonacci sequence, the spiral of the nautilus shell, and the Parthenon’s configuration, and it generated a little piece of Disneyland circa 1957.

Of course, at 10, my critique of the House of the Future was, “It’s neat.” But, within the limits of childish understanding, I would have tried to explain. I was an architecture fan like my friends were sports fans, and a big Frank Lloyd Wright Prairie School booster. And I couldn’t help but boo the diluted, piddle-colored brick version of the International Style that filled the construction sites of my childhood. The only way you could tell a shopping center from a grade school from a minimum-security prison was by the amount of floodlighting and fence wire involved.

Disney’s House of the Future had the clean simplicity prized in the 1950s as relief from decades of frayed patchwork, jury-rigging, and make-do clutter caused by Depression and war. But the spare white form had been warmed with curves. Each quadrant was a streamlined seamed pod, a crossbreed: half jet fuselage, half legume. And, as with an airplane or a beanstalk, the structure rose aloft, flying on a plinth above its house lot.

The House of the Future was sponsored by the Monsanto Company and designed by Marvin Goody and Richard Hamilton from the MIT architecture department. They were prescient in various unimportant ways: the residence contained cordless phones; a flat-screen, wall-sized TV; and a somewhat sinister-sounding device called a “microwave oven.”

The most futuristic aspect of the House of the Future was that it was made almost entirely of plastic. At the time, plastic still enjoyed the benefit of its definition (2a) in Merriam-Webster’s: “capable of being molded and shaped”—into anything you wanted! Plastic was the stuff that didn’t rust or rot or break when you dropped it. Thanks to plastic and a little glue, the clumsiest kid (me) could build splendidly detailed models of Mars passenger rockets and atomic-powered automobiles and many other things that would never be realized. We were a decade away from The Graduate scene that made the word an epithet. I, for one, think Dustin Hoffman should have taken the onscreen career advice he was given, sparing us such later gems as Ishtar, Rain Man, and Outbreak.

Instead, in 1967, it was Disney’s House of the Future that came to an abrupt end. Or not-so-abrupt. Reports have it that a wrecking ball merely bounced on the sturdy polymer seed cases, and the prematurely postmodernist structure had to be sawed apart by hand. (As many a timorous would-be suicide has discovered—with viselike grip on bridge railing—the future is harder to get rid of than you’d think.)

Tomorrowland survived being homeless. But it lost its zest. Walt had died in 1966, and Disney Inc. was deprived of his instinct for America’s flights of fancy.

Nothing speaks of living in the present like getting a complete makeover, which Tomorrowland endured in 1998. Disney, displaying one of the greatest absences of irony on record, gave Tomorrowland a “retro” theme.

Disney’s press release called the new Tomorrowland “a classic future environment.” This explains the Astro Orbitor ride, built in a style that might be called “Jules Vernacular,” with lots of exposed rivet heads and rockets with nose cones shaped like the Eiffel Tower. “Classic future” also excuses the Chevron-sponsored Autopia, a holdover from the Tomorrowland of yore, where tourists can drive on a “superhighway”—with divided lanes!—in small fiberglass imitations of the dream cars at auto shows when Ike was in office.

Continued here (The Atlantic, dated December 2008)