This 'spaceship' is actually a home (for humans)

Throughout his childhood, Craig Barnes was a regular visitor to South Africa, where one of the 1960s prefab “spaceship” houses was located.

“The first time I saw this Futuro home, I was 3 years old,” Craig Barnes says.

Whenever he visited the area with family, he always wanted to see the Futuro House. On a return trip to South Africa many years later, the London-based artist realized his childhood dream of buying the Futuro, and he embarked on a journey of restoration.

The Futuro House was designed in the swinging 1960s by Finnish architect Matti Suuronen as an easy-to-assemble vacation house. Its fresh look and modern shape reflected the spirit of optimism and experimentation that characterized the decade. Futuro homes were built around the world. But they fell out of fashion, and many of the original ones were abandoned, which is how Barnes found his example, crumbling and faded, in urgent need of repair. Fortunately, he was up to the challenge, and he has returned this iconic piece of architecture to its former glory.

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“I’m a habitual collector of things,” Barnes says, “and I like to find items on my travels.” However, he concedes that collecting a house on his travels and attempting to bring it home was on a rather larger scale than anything he’d previously attempted. “It didn’t quite fit in the suitcase this time!”

Taking care to number each section of the structure, Barnes carefully dismantled and packed up the Futuro to be shipped back to the U.K. “We thought it could fit into one shipping container,” Barnes says, “but it was too big, so we had to squeeze it in, then hold it tight with cables — as many cables as we could find in the town.”

Fortunately, after a nerve-wracking two months as it made its way across the seas, the Futuro arrived unscathed in the U.K. — where it then sat in storage for six months. At the end of 2013, Barnes moved it to a barn in Herefordshire, England, and started the slow but steady process of restoring it. Living in London by this point, he commuted back and forth to the barn to spend time working on the project.

Keen to do his research properly, Barnes traveled to Finland to meet Marko Home, the author of the sole book on the history of the house, Futuro: Tomorrow’s House From Yesterday.

Widely regarded as the leading expert in the field, Home first became interested in the world of the Futuro in 1995. “At that time, Futuro House was pretty much forgotten, and was not presented in the architecture and design books,” he says. So along with film director Mika Taanila, he had to put together the story of the Futuro from scratch. “We interviewed Matti Suuronen and other people involved with Futuro back in its heyday, went through all kinds of archive material, and generally collected every piece of information on Futuro that we could find,” he says.

“What I find most fascinating about the Futuro is that, despite its failure as a commercial product, it survived the test of time to have a second life as the icon of late 1960s Space Age architecture and design, and even an art object.”

The Futuro House was marketed as a flat-pack vacation home or weekend skiing retreat. The design meant it could be easy to dismantle and rebuild on a slope or other rough terrain. “It encapsulated the spirit of what was such an optimistic, experimental era,” says Albert Hill, founding director of The Modern House, a real estate agency dealing exclusively in modern architecture. It was also designed to be cheap and light, so it was constructed from polyester — a new material at the time.

The Futuro was launched in July 1969, the same week Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. “It rode the wave of space-related euphoria,” says David Walker of Wowhaus, a website that showcases interesting architecture. “It was your very own spaceship and, even today, looks like everyone’s idea of an alien spacecraft.”

However, despite a blaze of initial publicity (one was even sailed down the Thames in 1968 on its way to an exhibition), the Futuro was a commercial failure. Fewer than 100 were made, and despite becoming cult items for collectors, many were abandoned as time moved on and fashions changed. Some cite the 1970s oil crisis as the culprit, thanks to the inflated price of plastic; others believe it was the circular shape that people just couldn’t handle. “Imagine fitting your current furniture and belongings into a Futuro House, and you can see the problem,” Walker says. “Great concept; not necessarily a practical living space.”

Which was how Barnes’ Futuro ended up in such a sorry state. “Before I bought it, the Futuro had changed hands several times,” Barnes says. “It was being used as a house, but it had fallen into disrepair. The front door had fallen off and been thrown away, and the interior was crumbling.”

Barnes managed to persuade the current owner to sell the Futuro to him, and then it was just a case of getting it home.

Back in the U.K., Barnes started the laborious task of sanding down the exterior panels. Taking care to fill in any deteriorated sections, he worked on each panel in turn, getting them ready to be sprayed back to their original glossy turquoise color.

“I wanted to restore it to the original Finnish design,” he says. “I believe in respecting the integrity of an object; I’m not always a fan of upcycling. That’s not to say there aren’t ways I might look to build on the existing design in the future, but I wanted to return it to its original condition first, rather than change it too drastically.”

The interior was in a sorry state too. Fortunately, though, a small section of the seating was still intact, so Barnes was able to have molds made from this to recreate the original interior seating.

He was also able to salvage one of the original elliptical windows, and he used this as a guide to have new ones made.

Because the front door had been thrown away, Barnes, pictured, had to have a new one built from scratch. “It’s not something that can easily be bought from a DIY store!” he says. Another Futuro owner had a mold from his own front door made for this, and a new set of steps had to be crafted.

Barnes reinstated a (fairly snug) double bed, which is tucked into a corner. In many of the original Futuros, this would have been screened off to create a sleeping area.

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The rest of the interior has been kept deliberately minimal. “I wanted to keep it stripped back to the architecture,” Barnes says. “I feel that when you add trinketry, it starts to break down as a space.”

This door leads out of the main living and sleeping area and into the “porch,” off which the bathroom is situated.

The small bathroom pod to the left of the front door has been equipped in a similar style to the original. Many of the original Futuros had showers, toilets and small sinks.

Work continued at a steady pace until, as with all projects, a deadline appeared and the pace picked up. This deadline was in the shape of an opportunity to exhibit the completed Futuro at a London gallery.

In October 2014, after 10 months of hard work, the finished Futuro was transported to London for its unveiling at Matt’s Gallery. Polished up and returned to its former glory, the quirky piece of architecture has obvious appeal. “They are such lovable little buildings, it’s hard not to smile when you see them,” Hill says.

It’s thanks to enthusiasts like Barnes that examples such as this are still around. “It could well have been confined to the scrapheap of history but for a few devoted fans,” Walker says.

Several months later, the Futuro landed at its current location on the roof of the University of the Arts London’s Central St. Martins college, where it’s open to the public one day a month and can be rented by groups.

So what’s the future for the Futuro? One day, Barnes would like to find a permanent home for it, but for now he feels that using it as a public space is important.

“Like any artwork, it needs to be experienced by people to come into its own,” he says. “In an ideal world, I imagine it being a traveling ship performing various functions. It’s an important piece of architectural design, and I want others to be able to experience it.”

Home agrees. “The Futuro perfectly captured the spirit of 1960s utopian architecture that challenged the prevailing practices, and its legacy should be kept alive as [a] reminder of this experimental spirit alone, not to mention the countless other reasons.”

And on a personal level? “A trip around the world to visit the other remaining Futuros would be amazing,” Barnes says with a laugh.