Written by Kerryn Caulfield, Executive Director, Composites Australia Inc.
In the 1960s, the western world had a utopian vision of a bright future for plastics, the promise of infinite potential to shape products into forms that were once inconceivable. Plastics were seen as a solution to the post-war shortage of building materials and as a medium for audacious design, like prefabricated homes that could be manufactured off-site and subsequently transported, assembled and installed on-site.
One of these homes, the elliptical prefabricated Futuro House designed by Finnish architect Matti Suuronen in the late sixties, is symbolic of the vision, architectural style and futuristic ambition of the era.
Suuronen’s initial brief for the Futuro House was said to be for a ski cabin that could sleep eight people, was quick to heat, and easy to transport and erect on a mountainside. The 35 year old architect came up with its aerodynamic shape as a practical solution to deflect the strong mountain winds and with a smooth surface to shed snow. The initial house had an area of 50 square metres (four metres high and eight metres in diameter) and divided by adaptable partitions. Made from fibreglass, the house was light enough to be transported on a flat-bed truck or flown in and lowered into position by helicopter.
Lauded as a cost effective prefabricated dwelling, the initial Futuro House became a prototype for a licensing model through which about 30 companies around the world – including Australia and New Zealand – purchased manufacturing rights, moulds and instructions. Futuro Homes (NZ) Ltd. was licensed by the original Finnish developers and is remembered for its prominent position at the gates of Queen Elizabeth ll Stadium during the Commonwealth Games, held in Christchurch in 1974.
Sadly, the aspirations of ‘plastic houses’ and the associated licensing model were victims of the chaotic and inflationary oil crisis in the mid-1970s. The houses that survive today are tracked by an enthusiastic mob of Futuro House spotters and coveted by collectors who see their historical importance, or who simply just like them.
Recognising the architectural and cultural value, David Walsh AO, owner and founder of the exceptional Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) purchased and relocated a Futuro House from New Zealand to Tasmania in 2018. Melbourne-based architect Nonda Katsalidis AM of Fender Katsalidis Architects, with whom Walsh has enjoyed a long creative partnership, designed and oversaw the restoration of the House for Walsh’s personal collection and private use.
Penguin Composites, based on the north coast of Tasmania, was appointed to undertake the restoration and rebuild. According to David Mercer, then Manager at Penguin, the job was driven up from Hobart by four trucks and arrived in a veritable jigsaw of 140 pieces. The subsequent restoration project took three people 12 months to complete.
The Futuro sphere is formed from two halves, joined by a seam around the girth. The top and bottom halves were each formed from eight fibreglass panels, totalling 16 sections. The floor was made from the smaller sections and laid onto laminated timber bulkheads.
The original fibreglass panels – interior and exterior – were made from very basic general purpose polyester and e-glass and insulated with urethane foam. Many of the materials had aged and weathered, particularly the outer skin which despite its 2mm thickness was chalky from 60 years of exposure. According to John van der Woude, Managing Director of Penguin, every part – piece by piece – was prepped, primed and painted with 2 pack and baked in a paint booth. “The concours finish inside and out has an intense showroom finish – better than any other existing Futuro in the world. The fibreglass matt surface was kept raw and visible around the windows and on the ceiling as a nod to the building’s origins.”
David Mercer estimated that over 400 corroded bolts were replaced with stainless steel ones. The original 16 acrylic windows had weathered and were redesigned and replaced with bespoke domed glass, modern wind-out mechanisms and fly screens.
One of the innovative functional design features noted by Mercer was the internal joining flanges that acted as channels for a draining system that met at a holding and drainage tray under the floor to keep the house watertight. “By working intimately on the project for over a year, I got to know the original architect, his reasoning and design logic. There was a lot of precision in the execution and I’m sure he had plenty of sleepless nights working through the design challenges,” said David.
As a living space, the Futuro House features an entry door reminiscent of an aeroplane hatch that descends and turns into stairs, leading to the entrance hall and into a spacious living area lined with fixed fibreglass seats fitted with denim coloured upholstery. The kitchenette now features bright red shelving and benchtops and is separated from the living area by an acrylic bench. The fibreglass module bathroom and toilet made from four moulds is also accessed from the entryway. The walls which morph into the ceiling are bright white, a theme mirrored in the bedroom furnished in a bold red and white print from the Finnish design house of Marimekko. The ellipsoid theme is carried through the design elements including windows, door handles, light fittings and power sockets.
Having been reconstructed in the Penguin Composites factory on the north coast, the 140 components of the Futuro House were once again dismantled and moved to south-east Tasmania, to be reconstructed on steel plated concrete footings on a plot overlooking Marion Bay.
Suuronen’s futuristic ambitions were further realised with the installation of contemporary ‘smart home’ blue tooth technology that monitors and controls electronic functionality and a suite of appliances. Needless to say, the plumbing system is also more sophisticated than the original.
The Futuro House is an historic cache of materials and industrial practices and thinking. In a time before Computer-Aided Design (CAD) technology, Suuronen would have worked with a fine drafting pencil, a set square, protractor and scale ruler at a drafting board. Each original fibreglass mould, of which there were around 60, was unique and made by hand by master fabricators. It was a time before modern adhesives and sophisticated resins and additives. We are grateful for the vision, benevolence, genius and craftsmanship of all involved.