Silently, they stand like sentinel beings. Some are half hidden in forests, others perched on rocky outcrops overlooking towns, whilst a few lie rusting and forgotten in people’s back gardens. Sleek and egg shaped, you could be forgiven for mistaking them for flying saucers, the rows of windows looking not unlike alien eyes, patiently observing and waiting.
But these curious eggs are in fact homes! In this instalment of ‘Life in Isolation,’ we’re exploring the fabulous world of the Futuro House, the portable, stylish accommodations from the 1960s that could be picked up and assembled wherever you desired, the perfect escape pod to as remote a location as possible! But these Futuro Houses weren’t just plain-looking, pre-fab kits; they were a triumph of mid-century modern design, mixed with futuristic kitsch!
The Futuro Houses were born in Finland in 1965, when one Dr. Jaakko Hiidenkari commissioned an old school friend, Finnish architect Matti Suuronen to design a modern looking ski chalet.
No doubt inspired by 1950s science fiction, Suuronen dreamt up an egg shaped portable home that could be placed wherever the owner wished. “Should your vacation home be practical, maintenance free, indestructible, spacious, economical and……HIGH ADVENTURE!”, teased the sales brochure from the sci-fi sounding ‘Futuro Corp.’
The slightly peculiar looking, flying saucer homes would have many potential uses according to Futuro Corp; from leisure purposes such “Ski, Hunting or Fishing Lodge, Vacation House, Beach House and Resort Housing,” to the more fanciful: “Motel Unit…Penthouse Atop Existing Unit…Year Round Dwelling.”
But the Futuros were sadly short lived. The 1970s Oil Crisis saw the raw materials which made the Futuro Houses triple in price, and production was swiftly halted, with just under a hundred of the futuristic looking homes bought. Today they lie scattered around the globe. Some are known, whilst others simply disappeared, perhaps waiting to be discovered. To find out the inside story of these fabulous flying saucer houses, we spoke with the experts on all things Futuro….the wonderfully curated thefuturohouse.com.
“I first saw a Futuro in about July 2011,” explains Simon Robson, one half of the husband and wife team behind the most comprehensive collection of Futuro information online. “I drove past the one in Royse City, a bit of a wreck but I thought it was cool and architecturally interesting (I like curves) and went home to find out a little on the web, saw there were others around the world and wanted to know more — that turned out to be an endless journey.”
The website is a brilliant resource of photographs, painstakingly tracked down locations, fascinating promotional material and everything in-between, that led the Daily Telegraph to described Robson as, “The world’s greatest expert on the Futuro House”.
Society For Gentlemen Explorers (SGE): Perhaps you could give us a brief overview of the history of the Futuro Houses for our readers?
Simon Robson (SR): Suuronen’s initial idea was for a prefabricated ski-cabin that would be light and therefore easy to transport to remote locations, easy to construct once on site in unforgiving landscapes and efficient when it came to heating and retaining heat in very cold locations.
A large part of the Futuro Houses appeal was their portability. Although imagineered as a ski-chalet that could be installed on a mountain, they could really be placed anywhere.
SR: The main construction material chosen for the Futuro House was a fibreglass reinforced plastic. Derived from oil in a time when oil was cheap, a plastic met all of the requirements; it was relatively cheap and easy to work with, it was light and it offered good insulating characteristics. The construction featured polyurethane insulation which, combined with a powerful electric heating system, allowed the house to be heated from-20° Fahrenheit to 60° Fahrenheit in only thirty minutes.
The Futuro House was manufactured in sixteen prefabricated segments that could be mass produced. The house could either be transported by helicopter pre-assembled or it could be assembled on site with little more work than simply bolting the 16 pieces together.
Traction for the Futuro House started slowly after Suuronen’s first prototype was successfully produced in 1968 in partnership with Finnish manufacturers Oy Polykem Ab. But the stylish looking design was little known outside of Finland until a Finnish trade expo was held in London.
SR: The Futuro (#002, now located in Estonia) earned its name at the FinnExpo but, much more importantly it gained international exposure and the idea that rather than a limited production run ski cabin for Futuro, the business model might actually be cheap and easily constructed housing for the masses.
Polykem aggressively marketed the Futuros, displaying them as the height of modern fashion. Photo shoots often featured girls in thigh high boots and miniskirts, enjoying the sleek homes as they would a swinging cocktail lounge.
SR: The idea of licensing manufacturing and marketing of Futuros around the world became Polykem’s new mantra and agreements were signed with companies around the world with very aggressive plans; for example documents show the Futuro Corporation Of Philadelphia believed they could sell 10,000 plus in their first year.
SGE: Do you know how the process worked about buying one back in the day? Was there a catalogue? Was the interior standard or could you bespoke it yourself?
SR: There were various catalogues and marketing efforts around the world but in general they could be purchased as a shell of fully fitted out with internal fixtures, fittings and furniture. They could be delivered disassembled or fully assembled. US units were manufactured in 8 segments factory sealed into two hemispheres and delivered that way — rest of the world were manufactured in 16 segments
SR: There have always been various ideas as to why Futuro “failed”; poor marketing, poorly managed businesses, problems with the authorities who would not allow them in some jurisdictions and so on. All were likely small factors but honestly in my opinion the Oil Crisis was the Futuro death knell — the price of the raw material for the Futuro tripled as the oil price tripled — it was no longer cheap, affordable housing and over the next several years all of the companies around the world that had signed licensing agreements — and Polykem itself — went bankrupt and by later in the 70’s all production had stopped.
The hundred or so Futuros that were actually made were destined to be scattered all over the globe, looking not unlike alien ruins from the imagination of H.G.Wells.
SR: I guess the unit that serves as the VIP lounge at a Tampa Bay strip club is perhaps the oddest, though they have served many purposes including banks which make for an interesting story. The Swedish Airforce used some on bombing ranges for many years though two of them were recently sold and moved.
SGE: Have you ever stepped inside one? Are there any actually being inhabited as originally intended?
SR: We have been inside several. The most interesting are perhaps Futuro #001at the Weegee Exhibition Centre in Espoo outside Helsinki which is fully restored to original Finnish specs, and Idyllwild in California, which is close to original US interior. I guess if you take the original designs genesis as a ski cabin. Dombai, in Russia, is perhaps the closest to being used as originally intended.
As for lived in it is not even close – Barney Vincelette and his wife have lived in their Futuro in Houston, Delaware for 43 years, he purchased it on 1977.
The other worldly appearance of the Futuro House certainly fires the imagination, which is why we were delighted to find this brilliant illustration that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a stylish Futuro Corp promotional brochure from the 1960s.
SGE: We loved your illustration; it would have been the perfect image to use to advertise them! Did you have any particular inspiration behind it?
Lacy Barry (LB): Thank you! I did my best to capture the Futuro #013 exactly how I first experienced it when pedal boating along the Spree…of course with text and a few exaggerated details, like colourful light rays protruding from behind. It was like a majestic, beaming UFO nestled in this flank of trees. It couldn’t have been more unusually vibrant yet casually stationed there, and I suppose having worked partially as a commercial artist for the past decade it registered looking like a catchy advertisement through my eyes. So Futuro #013 totally stuck out in my memory as it took centre stage against a brilliant late summer sunset.
Like many of the other Futuro Houses, #013 had a storied life that eventually brought it to Berlin.
LB: Futuro House #013 reached Berlin after being showcased at the Hannover Trade Fair of 1969 and bought by the DDR to be placed in Spreepark. It was set up to become the central sound studio for East German radio, however in 2001 the park declared bankruptcy and many of the parks attractions including the Futuro House.
In 2002, Futuro #013 was found and bought by a local Berlin woman and transported to the opposite side of the Spree, in a small Garden near the Funk House, (or East Berlin’s major radio broadcasting building, how fitting)! Fully restored, there it stayed for years as a private residence only open for culture and research. Until moving again in May 2020 on a barge in front of its original home, the cleared grounds of the former Berlin Spreepark. A recently set-up website http://futuro13.de/ dedicated to Futuro #013 states it will be carefully restored for academic research purposes.
SGE: What drew you to doing the first episode of Secret Place Berlin about the Futuro Houses?
I’ve always had a love of mid-century modern architecture, from the more well known architecture stars like Le Cobusier, Mies Van Der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright. I often spent the better parts of my free time visiting their projects all over the Northern Hemisphere. Like these period defining buildings, the Futuro house stuck out as a concocted pre-fab totally defining the idealism of 1960s kitsch. When we found it behind the Funkhaus, I was totally captivated and curious about its liveability, who made it, how it even got to Berlin… jokingly, was it from outer space?
Berlin’s Futuro was especially noteworthy due to its location in a East German Amusement Park and then removal to the opposite side of the Spree to then be positioned again on a vessel outside the old Spreepark grounds. I think sometimes we forget that humans migrate, but then so often do our buildings.
What do you love about the Futuro House?
I love that the Futuro is compact and all that is needed for living fits perfectly in a aesthetic little flat egg shaped home approximately 538 square feet. I mean imagine waking up everyday in a Futuro, you would feel like anywhere you went could be the moon!
One of our favourite Eastern European cities to explore, Berlin, for much of the twentieth century, was at the forefront of world history. Which makes the Secret Place Berlin podcast a welcome companion to uncovering the hidden places in the storied capital.
LB: Secret Place Berlin is a podcast where I invite listeners to explore the sometimes hidden and not so well known histories about Berlin. Each episode uncovers a new secret and personally favourite place I’ve discovered over the last half decade I’ve resided in Berlin. I narrate each location’s history up to its current standing and tell a short description of how I found it. Then I illustrate each place in paper, miniatures and various other materials. Custom music is made for each episode by my friend and collaborator Unnur Andrea, aka Hyperia, in an audio style of the secret place shared. I even produce a specifically curated Spotify playlist to accompany each episode, featuring either music from the episode or tracks I listened to give me a vibe of that secret place while I created its illustration. The song curation for Episode 1 – Futuro House contains an array of intergalactic sounds with laser beam flare.
SGE: What other places do you have lined up for Secret Place Berlin?
I’m fascinated with all sorts of places from various eras of Berlin’s history. Some came totally new, especially the discovery of the Futuro House. For me the time between the end of World War Two and the Reunification were completely washed over by the Cold War. You didn’t hear much else about East Berlin besides people just trying to escape it…interesting in its own right, it was a part of history that was visibly unclear to me.
While some locations pinpoint certain decades in time, I find others journey over time, ultimately telling the story of Berlin through their longevity. In the second episode of SPB, I talk about a 300-year-old plant nursery that had been relocated three times and survived various wars, while retaining ownership under the same family.
This place is incredible because some of the nursery’s earliest operations took place while Napoleon and his French occupying troops were marching through the streets of Prussian Berlin. Followed by the rise and fall of the Kaiserreich, the Weimar Republic, East & West Berlin and eventually the now Federal Republic all the while the Späth family struggled and evolved to continue fostering horticulture.
There are also places relevant time to our time and era now such as a Computer Games Museum… and some topics I cover are not places at all , but interesting monuments embedded in say a lake or forest. In one episode I talk about the delightfully unexpectedly introduction to a fleet of vintage trains that make their appearance in and around Berlin on certain dates. Operated by a group of locomotive enthusiasts who sustain these old engines for fun.
Whilst Futuro #013’s history is well catalogued, many of the few that were actually manufactured, are less well known. Which makes thefuturohouse.com such first rate resource.
SGE: Have you managed to track all the Futuro’s down, or are some still missing?
We cannot definitively answer this question since it is not known exactly how many were manufactured — for many years there was a number of 96 that circulated on the web — however it is not known where that came from and it cannot be proven. The business model had Polykem manufacturing in Finland and then licensing to other companies around the world. In many cases those companies themselves further sub licensed. Even with Polykem there is not a definitive number – Suuronen – from memory only in the late 80’s — listed 20 manufactured in Finland but my research indicates likely there were two or three more than that manufactured there. Around the world there are simply no records. I imagine the total is somewhere between a minimum of 80 and somewhere around 100. I think it very likely there are a few dotted around the world that have been kept private and are not currently ‘known’.
SGE: Is there one particular Futuro House that you’d love to go see?
SR: The ‘Holy Grail’ is potentially multiple — since I started my ‘Futuro journey,’ the most exciting thing that happens is every now and again we find a ‘new’ unit. In terms of visiting Futuros I think that I would love the opportunity to visit Dombai in Russia. Not only is there a Futuro there, but it is way up a mountain with awesome scenery and location, and is the unit that serves a purpose most close to the original idea of a ski-chalet.
It seems a shame that the Futuro House didn’t catch on. The idea of being able to take your home apart into sixteen pieces, and place it in some remote location appeals to us. Add in the vintage sci-fi design, and the Futuro would surely be snapped up today. But they remain a mostly forgotten, mid-century curio, and who knows how many others are hidden around the world waiting to be discovered? The excellent thefuturohouse.com will likely be the first ones to tell you!