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‘Dream Home’ for a Family of the Past

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/disney-houses.jpgDisney's New "Innoventions Dream Home in Tomorrowland" and "House of Tomorrow," 1957 (Courtesy of Disney)

Few things look as old as a vision of the future that’s past its shelf life. When Disneyland’s “House of the Future” opened in 1957, visitors were thrilled by its prophecies of microwave ovens, electric toothbrushes and giant wall-mounted televisions. But, within a decade, it came to seem rather musty, not so much a sleek space-age pod as an intergalactic recreational vehicle after a couple of fender-benders, and it was quietly dismantled.

Now Disney has again envisioned a house of the future, the “Innoventions Dream Home in Tomorrowland,” which opened earlier this week in Disneyland. It could well astound visitors — as its predecessor did a half-century ago. But like all such prophecies, it reveals far more about the present than the future.

Its most surprising revelations, however, will not be those planned by its designers. For a model house is not just a work of architecture, but a diagram of a family. Its arrangement of walls and openings, its separation of public and private spaces, even features like the placement of a staircase or picture window, express, in physical terms, the life of a family –- its habits, structures and desires. For this reason, the truly futuristic houses are not those that imitate the imagery of science-fiction, but respond imaginatively to the ever-evolving family.

Some of those evolutions are highly visible, like the increased numbers of working mothers; some less so, like adoptions by single parents or same-sex couples. Others are almost invisible — like the many families that never sit down to a group meal, save on the occasional holiday. A house that did not recognize and respond to those developments, however modernistic its furnishings, could not really be called a house of the future.

For this reason, no rethinking of the American house has been as radical or audacious as the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, a full century ago. Wright did not base his progressive houses on new structural systems — as did Buckminster Fuller, whose globular Dymaxion House was made possible by all-aluminum construction. Instead, Wright’s point of departure was the modern family.

Wright was among the first to notice that family life was changing. With the freedom offered by the automobile and new household electric appliances, it was becoming more spontaneous and informal. The stilted formality of the Victorian house, which depended on a large staff of servants, had become obsolete. Wright seized on the moment to sweep away the rabbit warren of parlors, anterooms and sitting rooms into which Victorian life was shoehorned, breaking down walls to make the household space a relaxed and flowing continuum. The graceful integration of dining and living spaces became the hallmark of the modern house — and remains so to this day.

At the same time, Wright stressed the psychological properties of the house, and the way it fulfilled primal needs of warmth and shelter. He exaggerated these elements symbolically — thrusting his low spreading roofs deep into space and focusing family life around a central hearth. The result was a hearty refuge against the world, in which the sense of communal fellowship was heightened by the breaking down of internal barriers.

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/kitchens.jpg

A century later, the American family is again in the process of transformation. The nuclear family that was the implicit ideal behind the 1957 House of the Future is very different now. In many cases, the grouping has morphed radically. Changes in family size and structure, marital status, the phenomenon of late parenthood, all have ramifications for the nature of family life. The Atlantic recently coined the term “the organization kid” – drawing on William Whyte’s 1956 “Organization Man” – to describe today’s overextended child, racing between scheduled playdates and extracurricular activities, and fastidiously assembling a record to impress a future college admissions board, surely the first children in human history to boast a resume. Any prospective house of tomorrow must take these sorts of developments into account and project them into the future. Has Disney?

In every respect, the Dream Home of 2008 is stunning. Measuring 5000 square feet, it consists of a combination family room/home office, dining room, kitchen and two children’s bedrooms, all centered on a lavish “foyer and great room.” (Oddly, though, there is no master bedroom.) Each room is outfitted with an array of computer-operated devices that show, as Disney’s press release puts it, “how a connected digital lifestyle can simplify and enhance many aspects of daily family life.” The omnipresence of technology is not surprising since the house is sponsored by three information technology firms — Microsoft, Hewlett Packard and Life|ware — whose products and prototypes constitute its principal attractions.

Such product placement is not new for Disney. The 1957 House of the Future showcased the products of its sponsor, Monsanto — then one of the world’s largest manufacturers of plastics. Not surprisingly, Monsanto inveigled as much plastic as possible into the house, not only for its “stylish furniture” but its floors, walls and ceilings. This excessive reliance on one material would, unfortunately, backfire. The most memorable line of the 1967 film “The Graduate” was a bit of fatuous career advice, “Just one word: plastics,” which seemed to sum up all that was false and corrupt in the world. Disney took the hint and in the same year razed the House of the Future. Its greatest triumph came during the demolition process, when the wrecking ball bounced harmlessly off its plastic wall. In the end, it had to be sawed apart, strip by strip.

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Mirror-253x300.jpg

Unlike its predecessor, today’s Dream Home does not impress with its structure as much as its technology. Because it is so heavy on gadgetry, Disney has gone to great lengths to give it a human face. Visitors are to be greeted by cheery actors playing the fictitious Elias family (slyly invoking Disney’s middle name). An elaborate scenario has been developed: the Elias’s have just learned of their son’s winning soccer goal; this means a family trip to the international championship games in China, so they have thrown open their doors for an impromptu celebration. As the story unfolds, and the Eliases move about their house, one new household technology after another comes into play.

None of the Dream Home’s innovations, like voice-activated computers and image-recognition technology, is revolutionary. What is radical is how each is connected with another to form a dynamic and fully integrated system. Whenever someone enters a room, sensors note the fact and the room reacts. The lighting and thermostat automatically adjust, the background music changes, even the virtual pictures on the wall shift to match personal preference. (What happens when several people walk in at once is unclear, though one yearns for something psychedelic.)

At times the virtual technology is spectacular — down to the tiny dog flap that notes the arrival of the Elias’s family pooch. Most astonishing, perhaps, is the teenage daughter’s bedroom. There is “a virtual mirror that projects accessories, hairstyles and the clothes from her closet onto her reflection, fitting the styles to her body so that she can try out different ‘looks’ as she prepares for her brother’s party. . . The virtual skirt even sways as she twirls around!” If this were not enough, the computer also proposes accessories in matching colors and styles. Presumably one form of the “connected digital lifestyle” will be the commercial tie-ins made possible by the virtual mirror. Though the Disney literature does not dwell on the fact, one can only speculate that the latest fashions from J. Crew and Banana Republic – subject to licensing – will soon be swirling around her.

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But the Elias family is considerably less futuristic than the house they inhabit. It creates no mental strain to imagine them sitting quite happily in 1957 at that plastic dining room table of the original House of the Future. Rather than envisioning the family of the future, Disney has conjured up an idyllic and reassuring family of the past.

Nowhere is this more clear than in the architecture itself, which offers no alarming space pods or plastics. This Dream Home attempts no such comprehensive rethinking, offers no new architectural vision. On the contrary, it is a contemporary suburban house by Taylor Morrison, a lucrative homebuilding company that specializes in neo-vernacular houses, notable for their bland inoffensiveness.

In the end, the most revealing feature of the house is that it has, rather distressingly, no bathrooms. Whether that is because the bathroom remains the one bastion of the house untouched by the digital revolution, or because this unmistakable hint of physical reality disturbs the unrelenting theme of virtual reality, is not clear.

What is clear, however, is that the Innoventions Dream Home is not so much a prototype of a futuristic house, complete in every respect, as it is an attractive bit of stage scenery. What it presents is a pleasant domestic backdrop against which the real stars — the digital wares — can strut their high-tech stuff.

Michael J. Lewis, an art history professor at Williams College, has just received a Guggenheim Fellowship for his coming book on pietist town planning. His earlier books include “Frank Furness: Architecture and the Violent Mind,” “The Gothic Revival” and”American Art and Architecture.”

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