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.

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.”

A few HoF II innovations were discernible from our perch. The art on the walls, set in fussy gilt frames, kept changing—from Manet to Monet and back, I think. And HoF II’s dining-room table had plasma-screen place mats showing water rippling over rocks—just the sort of thing a drinking man wants waving away under his eggs in the morning.

Much of what we couldn’t see had been described in an AP piece, “Disney Revives ‘House of the Future’ to Showcase Technology.” Various passages had caught my attention when I’d read it, and raised my blood pressure: “Closets will help pick out the right dress for a party.” Imagine that: a talking mirror telling you, “That makes your butt look big.”

“Countertops will be able to identify groceries set on them and make menu suggestions.” At our house, that would mean the strip of Formica between the sink and the stove piping up in a computer-generated snivel, “I hate broccoli. Meatloaf again?” Probably the fridge would chime in, “Well, if you don’t like meatloaf, make your own damn dinner.” And this is assuming that the kitchen doesn’t have IT problems that cause the countertop to go, “Macaroniandcheesemacaroniandcheesemacaroniandcheese …” Buster already does that.

I’d shown the AP article to my wife. She said, “You don’t sell a house like this, you divorce it.”

I asked Muffin what she thought of HoF II.

“It’s beige,” she said. Beige it is—upholstered, carpeted, and painted in brownish, grayish, yellowish hues. And beige metaphorically, too. Any random dull normal person (we have one in our family) could come up with snappier ideas for the future than HoF II seems to contain. How about self-washing windows? Automobiles have had them since the 1930s. And have you watched the clever manner in which convertible car tops operate? What keeps that technology from being applied to self-making beds? If a house must be smart (and, as a man who is continually outwitted by his wife, children, and dogs, I’d really prefer that it just dummy up and mind its own beeswax), why can’t it be as smart as a Pontiac Solstice?

I didn’t even see one of those robot vacuum cleaners that trundles around hoovering on its own agenda, never mind, say, a helium balloon with a propeller and a mop of feathers that flies about dusting things (it might not do a very good job dusting, but at our house neither do we).

My wife later suggested a “face bidet” for chocolate-smeared kiddies and an iPod “nag chip” that periodically interrupts the music to tell children to do their homework. Muffin wanted to install hot-air driers in our shower floor “to save the Earth’s towels.” Poppet, our 8-year-old, envisioned a system of pneumatic tubes that would deliver the stuffed animal of her choosing to the place of her choice, worldwide.

Buster, who’s 4, said, “Dogs on the potty.” A serious challenge to the plumbing industry, not to mention the dogs, but it’s a worthy goal.

Even if Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, and Life|ware had had no ideas whatsoever, you’d think they could have tapped Disney’s proven reserves of whimsy. Where’s Mrs. Potts, her son, Chip, the officious candlestick, and the chairs that walk around in Beauty and the Beast? Where is the plastic inventiveness of Mickey and Donald cartoons?

Denigration of the future has become an intellectual prop over the past 40 years. Looking forward went out of fashion about the time that Buckminster Fuller’s audacious geodesic domes, meant to cover entire cities, wound up as hippie-height, wobbling, tent-sized structures on Mendocino County pot communes.

Bruce Handy, writing in Time about Disney’s reopening of a deliberately out-of-date Tomorrowland in 1998, began his essay with the sentence, “The future isn’t what it used to be.” He went on, “It’s not a novel observation to point out that our culture has become increasingly backward looking.”

Well, given the future envisioned in Disney’s House of the Future, who can blame us for looking the other way?

Disney’s Tomorrowland is deeply, thoroughly, almost furiously unimaginative. This isn’t the fault of the “Disney culture”; it is the fault of our culture. We seem to have entered a deeply unimaginative era.

Let us not confuse imagination with innovation or even with progress. Man’s descent from the trees and adoption of the brilliant mechanics of bipedalism were innovation and progress of the first order. But what did we do with this progress for our first million years as humans? As best we can tell, we hung around the Olduvai Gorge and beat some rocks together to make “chopping tools.”

On the other hand, the Italian Renaissance was so imaginative that during its three centuries, practically everything worth imagining was imagined. And yet not much was actually invented in Florence, Pisa, or Rome.

Global imagination, like global climate, seems to have cycles—natural, man-made, or whatever. Sometimes what people imagine for the future is bogged down in the literal—call it “blogged” for short. The last thousand years of the Roman Empire, for example, were no great shakes. The Romans had all the engineering necessary to start an industrial revolution. But they preferred to have toga parties and let slaves do all the work.

The Chinese had gunpowder but failed to arm their troops with guns. They possessed the compass but didn’t go much of anywhere. They invented paper, printing, and a written form of their language, but hardly anyone in China was taught to read.

And here we are in 2008. Name an avant-garde painter. Nope, dead. Nope, dead. Yep, Julian Schnabel is what I came up with too. But it’s been a quarter of a century since he was pasting busted plates on canvas. He’s making movies now. And movies are famously not any good anymore. Name a great living composer. Say “Andrew Lloyd Webber” and I’ll force you to sit through Cats and Starlight Express back-to-back. Theater is revivals and revivals of revivals and stuff like musicals made out of old Kellogg’s Rice Krispies commercials, with Nathan Lane as “Snap.” More modern poetry is written than read. Modern architecture leaks and the builders left their plumb bobs at home. The most prominent contemporary art form is one that is completely unimaginative (or is supposed to be): the memoir.

To top it all off, we have just experienced perhaps the greatest technological advance in the history of humans. And what are we using the Internet for? To sell one another 8-track tapes on eBay and tell complete strangers on Facebook the location of all our tattoos. And, apparently, to tell ourselves what to do with the groceries we just bought.

I took a last look into the homestead of the hereafter and said to Muffin, “Let’s get out of here.”

She was nothing loath. I asked her, “What do you think will happen in the future?”

“You’ll buy me a humongous ice-cream cone.”