Future Schlock

In the 1950s, Disneyland thrilled visitors with its imaginative House of the Future. Now Disney has opened a new House, with a new vision of future domesticity. Our correspondent looks in—and finds that what’s to come will be tough on the stomach, relentlessly beige, and, in every sense, subprime.
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Illustration by Ross MacDonald

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.

My family and I arrived at Disneyland on a hot June day. We had spent the preceding two hours stuck in traffic on an un-super Interstate 5, idling away $4.35 gasoline in a rental car that was no one’s idea of a dream. Autopia did not appeal.

But one part of moldy old Tomorrowland wasn’t past its sell-by date. A freshly minted house of the future had had its ribbon-cutting—with laser scissors?—earlier that month. These digs were completely original and all brand (specifically: Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, and Life|ware) new. Also new is the name, “The Innoventions Dream Home,” but typing that even once has proved traumatic, so I will henceforth refer to it simply as HoF II.

My wife took our younger children, Poppet and Buster, “to infinity and beyond” (Buzz Lightyear being integral to the classic future’s canon). And I led my 10-year-old daughter, Muffin, to utopia’s latest abode.

Muffin asked where we were going. I told her and she said, “So it’s really, really, really modern?” It was more modern than that. HoF II has a subprime mortgage, or so it appears. The joint was closed up.

“Technical difficulties,” said a Disney “cast member.”

I invoked what media privileges I have and called Disney public relations. John McClintock, a senior publicist, could not have been more polite and understanding. He did what he could to get my daughter and me a walk-through and a look-around. That was all you got with the old House of the Future anyway, although HoF II comes with performers portraying a future family (which still has one mom and one dad, amazingly enough).

McClintock called back. “Technical difficulties,” he said, plus a firm no-go from his higher-ups.

Muffin and I could do no more than look over a railing into the ceiling-free household one floor below us. It has a single-story open plan with a circular shape, though the circularity seems to have more to do with the preexisting shape of the building and with crowd control than with futurism. Not that there were any crowds trying to get in. As far as I could tell, nobody but Muffin and me noticed that HoF II wasn’t open.

I hoisted Muffin so she could get a better view. “It looks like our hotel,” she said. Not even. And where we were staying is best described as “Schlitz-Carlton.”

According to Disney, the shape of things to come can be found at Pottery Barn, with a quick stop in Restoration Hardware for “classic future” touches and a trip to Target to get throw rugs and cheap Japanese paper lanterns. HoF II was designed by the Taylor Morrison company, a home builder specializing in anodyne subdevelopmental housing in the Southwest. The company’s president and CEO told the Associated Press, “The 1950s home didn’t look like anything, anywhere. It was space-age and kind of cold. We didn’t want the home to intimidate the visitors.”

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