Words by Victoria Spratt
Photography by Benjamin Tietge
Special thanks to Craig Barnes
What will the future look like? This is a question that we’ve always used art, literature and, more recently, film to ask. We imagine the creation of utopias as well as the birth of dystopias, the coming of apocalypses and the happening of miracles. The ability to imagine the future, to dream and project onto our future selves and future realities is a fundamental part of the human psyche. Just as we are fearful of forgetting, of losing our memories, we see ‘lacking imagination’ as a character flaw.
The cousin of nostalgia, this kind of imagination, arguably, is what drives us forwards. For all the creative imaginings of and projections onto the future that are, essentially, doom mongering, there are optimistic speculations too. At the centre of all we do and have done is this question: what will man create, make and do in order to overcome the odds and continue to thrive on planet earth? Creators whether they be writers, artists, scientists or architects look towards the future and attempt to solve the problems that humankind will face.
Currently, in this country, we face a housing crisis. While this crisis is undoubtedly primarily an economic one it is, also, a failure of imagination. Due to the failing of successive governments to think creatively about a simultaneously increasing and ageing population which faces a lack of suitable housing, there is now a chronic shortage across the country and the cost of houses increases exponentially, almost daily, like a nightmare and completely unstoppable runaway train.
Beyond our immediate future, we face even bigger struggles in our slightly more distant future. Many climate change experts are warning that Britain is in a race against time with climate change. Each of the last three decades has been warmer than the last and warmer than any period for 160 years in the northern hemisphere. We are set for warmer, wetter and windier winters than before which will be followed by drier, hotter summers. They say that our housing is not fit for purpose and if we fail to adapt and come up with innovative housing solutions we will be in serious trouble. Will humankind continue to overcome the natural world and rise to the challenge?
These questions are being dodged by our politicians while architects, past and present, are rising to the challenge. In the first few months of last year, as part of an attempt to look to the future for answers, the Royal Academy ran a ‘Future of Housing’ season, which asked 4 architecture firms to present their vision for the future of housing.
This year, in 2016, artist and CSM graduate Craig Barnes is encouraging us to look to the past as a way of moving forwards in an attempt to remind us of the optimism and ambition of architects from previous generations.
Behind London’s King’s Cross Station, on the roof terrace of Central Saint Martins campus, sits an architectural rarity: The Futuro. At once ahead of and before it’s time this flying saucer-esque structure was designed in the 1960s, a brainchild of Finnish architect Matti Suuronen.
The Futuro can hold around 20 people. It was conceived by Suuronen as a portable modular ski chalet, or weekend house. It’s 13 feet tall, 26 feet wide with oval shaped windows the entire way around. It consists of a fibreglass ellipsis atop a metal frame. It is, essentially, a prefab. However, it is wildly different from any imagery that the word ‘prefab’ might conjure up in the British imagination – post war, thin walled, flat, box like structure this is not. Spaceship-esque, you might describe it as, perhaps. But, utilitarian at first glance? No.
Around 60 Futuros still exist. It’s thought that fewer than 100 were made in the late 60s and earl 70s. It was, itself, a victim of economics, falling out of favour when the 1970s rise in oil prices pushed up the cost of production for plastic and fibreglass. 60 or less, in various states of decay, still exist around the world in far and wide ranging places from New Zealand to Finland, and Germany to Antarctica. One can also be found sitting atop a strip club in Tampa, Florida where it serves as the VIP room.
Barnes owns this one. It’s journey to it’s current spot was an epic one – from South Africa to London, spanning thirty years and beginning when he was three years old.
‘On a personal level’ Barnes says, ‘I had seen it when I was three years old’. What stuck with him, he remembers, was ‘the oddness of something that has no right angles’ in the rectilinear world that we live in.
If you think about how humankind has conquered the space around us, the natural world, it is entirely rectilinear. Often taking the form of a grid, like America’s ‘block’ system for town planning. Look out of the window above any urban area in almost any country and you will see rectilinear shapes, squares and rectangles. Glance out over fields and countryside and you’ll see that divided up similarly.
Barnes notes that ‘the square doesn’t occur in nature but the ellipsis does – be it a flower, a shell or an invertebrate’s backbone.’ It was the ‘pure mathematics’ of the Futuro that struck Barnes in this context, ‘there’s a natural rhythm to it’, he says. It is an ‘elliptical form that could disband all wind, rain and snow…akin to a well-smoothed pebble that can transcend time in a way’. Barnes here hits on what is at once foreign and familiar about the Futuro – it looks like something from The Jettsons, from outer space, and yet, it resembles the most common, banal and ubiquitous of natural forms. It is this that makes it curiously ‘timeless’ as he puts it. The Futuro ‘might not be perfect’ but ‘it draws on mathematics, science and evolution. The way it sits in the world – it was at odds with the world in the 1960s and it remains at odds with the world now.’
Suuronen, Barnes says, produced something in the Futuro at a time ‘when no one was building like this, [such designs] were only appearing in publications and manifestos.’ It’s that forward-thinkingness, the dare to dream nature of the Futuro which endures, as Barnes puts it ‘whether the architect intended it to be or not, it’s instilled with the utopian ideas of the late 1960s.’ It is this, he continues, that also makes it very much of the world we live in now, of this particular moment when we must all ask ourselves how to go forward in a late capitalist, post industrial age…’it’s of the world we live in now. There’s a romanticism to it and to that time which is missing now’.
The Futuro was, a failure when it was created in the eyes of some (there is no wall on which you could hang a picture because of the lack of right angles, for instance) and so, as Barnes notes ‘as a commercial offering it was a complete failure.’ And yet, inexplicably, somehow feels incredibly fitting right now. In it’s current location it looks like it has just landed, you get the sense that its visit is temporary but it’s very presence, for however long London is graced with it, poses questions and encourages reflection.
It is, Barnes says, ‘imbued with a naïve romanticism’. The Futuro remains a wandering structure, without fixed location. It’s idealistic and imaginative. ‘I’m interested in what it can be as an active space now’ Barnes finished, as ‘an instigator, a space for discussion around what the future can be.’