Originally designed as a Finnish ski lodge, the Futuro House has captured the public imagination like few other modernist homes
They’re rare, they’re mysterious and they look as though they’ve landed straight from Mars. Fewer than 100 were ever built, and those that survive are to be found in locations as far apart as Kentucky and Kuala Lumpur, Adelaide and the Antarctic.
Yet the pull that the Futuro House exerts on people is as strong as any magnetic force wielded by aliens. The first Futuros cost about $14,000 (£8,229) to buy. Nowadays, when one of these spaceship-shaped structures comes up for sale, queues form and people pay more than £100,000 for them. That’s not including the cost of repair or transport back to the buyer’s home, often halfway around the world.
The total number of Futuros made is between 80 and 96, depending on your definition. Eight have been demolished (some were used for drive-by shooting practice in the United States), while a tantalising 10 (at least) are somewhere out there, waiting to be discovered. Arguably, some 50 years on, Futuros are more sought-after than ever. Certainly, once they have cast their spell, it seems you are forever in their power. Take what happened to Craig Barnes. He fell under the influence of a Futuro House when he was a small boy, and never recovered.
“I was three years old, on holiday with my family in South Africa,” he recalls (he’s now 37). “I remember being fascinated by this incredible, spaceship-like construction that was standing in a garden in a residential street in Port Alfred.
“We went back many times over the years, and I would always make a point of going to see the Futuro House. I suppose it’s like any itch. You can’t help but scratch it. The building just intrigued me.”
Final frontier: Craig Barnes plans to restore his “spaceship” to its former glory (JAY WILLIAMS)
So much so that 30 years later, he bought it. Not only that, but he had it taken to pieces, packed on a lorry, then on to a ship, and transported back to his home in Herefordshire.
“I won’t tell you how much I paid. All I can say is that I stood on top of Table Mountain with my fiancée, Jane, and did some quick mental arithmetic,” he explains. “And it became clear that the cost of buying it was going to be pretty modest compared with the cost of shipping it back to the UK and putting it back together again.
“I had to put off my return flight for another week to sort out the dismantling and transport. It was an insane, stressful, but at the same time a wonderful week of my life.”
The net result is that the Futuro House is now sitting in his studio at Allensmore, near Hay-on-Wye. That’s the good news. The not-so-good news is that it’s currently in 16 pieces, awaiting reassembly.
Nevertheless, his story has sent ripples of interest across the strange, somewhat other-worldly community of Futuro fans.
Big challenge: Craig Barnes’s Futuro house in its new home (JAY WILLIAMS)
Forget the computerised, retina-recognising, thumbprint-identifying, iPhone-operated heating of the 21st-century home. What appeals to lovers of the Futuro House is not what it can do, but what it represents: the romance, the mystery of extraterrestrial travel.
Mind you, for those people who don’t belong to the small but devoted group of followers, the more relevant question is: what is a Futuro House?
It was dreamt up between 1964 and 1968 by a Finnish architect called Matti Suuronen, who had been asked to come up with a design for a ski lodge. Instead of going for the traditional chalet look, Suuronen devised a very Swinging Sixties pad: an elliptical fibreglass house measuring 12ft high by 32ft wide on a metal frame. To the casual observer, it looked exactly like the kind of flying saucer you expected to be piloted by Martians.
For a while, the Futuro was touted as a possible solution to the world’s housing problems. A home that could be quickly assembled and could happily balance on the side of a mountain.
Then, at the start of the Seventies, the price of oil tripled thanks to the Arab oil embargo. This, in turn, raised the price of oil-based fibreglass and reinforced polyester, of which the Futuro was made.
“All of a sudden, a $14,000 unit had become a $40,000 unit,” recalls Simon Robson. A Yorkshireman now living in Texas, Robson is probably the world’s leading authority on all things Futuro ().
This is the man who has compiled a dossier of every known surviving Futuro. There are nine in New Zealand, seven in Australia, five in Finland, five in Germany and two in Antarctica. There’s even one on top of a strip club in Tampa Bay, Florida, used as the VIP room.
Sixties style: Futuros conjure up a world of “bubble” living (REX)
So far, Robson has identified 62 existing structures in 57 locations from Estonia to Taiwan. Whenever a rediscovered Futuro breaks cover, it never escapes his notice. There was the time in December 2004 when Futuro-owner Milford Wayne transported his space-age residence from San Diego to the top of the San Jacinto Mountains in California. Or the occasion in 2007 when a Futuro was moved from Christchurch to Harewood in New Zealand by removal firm King House (Futuro dimensions are so awkward that the firm tends to be the hero of any relocation).
As well as keeping tabs on Futuros worldwide, Robson’s other ambition is, of course, to own one.
“I’d buy it even if was a $20,000 [£11,750] shell, and I’d restore it,” he declares. “I guess that’s the difference between Europeans and Americans. To us, a 500 or 1,000-year-old building is not unusual. In the States, though, something that’s 100 years old tends to be disregarded and then demolished.”
Not that Craig Barnes is going to let that happen to his Futuro, now that he has it safely back in Britain.
“There’s very little architecture in the world that’s akin to a Futuro,” he adds. “For me, its appeal lies not just in the fact that it’s a unique piece of pop art, but in the way it’s rooted in the world of mathematics. It’s a perfect ellipse, and so many of the shapes inside the house mirror that.
“One thing I would like to know is what happened to the front door. By the time I bought the house it had been removed. I’d love to reunite it with the rest of the structure.”
Mind you, even without a front door, the Futuro is fairly cosy. After all, its original role was to provide somewhere warm for Finnish skiers; its heating system can go from -20F to 60F (-29C to 16C) in half an hour.
Somewhat less user-friendly is the fact that, because the house is curved, there are no right angles. This means that a conventional, rectangular Welsh dresser acts more as an obstacle than a piece of furniture. And because of the rounded walls the hanging of framed pictures doesn’t work, either.
On top of which, of course, its shape means that sleeping and socialising are mostly done in the round, rather than in compartmentalised, private rooms. The exception is the bathroom.
Not that this puts off the determined. In 2007, a Futuro was sold for €140,000 at a Christie’s auction in Paris.
“It’s probably good I’m not just a little bit richer,” reflects Robson ruefully. “Otherwise, I would have spent every last penny on a Futuro.”
Too late, though, for Barnes – he already has. “I’ve thrown my life-savings into this project,” he sighs. “But I don’t regret it. I’m hoping to restore my Futuro House to its original condition, for people to visit and enjoy.
“Maybe they could stay here during the Hay Festival, which is just up the road. Maybe there’s someone out there who would like to go into the project with me.”
So there it is, a message from Earth to outer space: is there anybody out there who can help preserve a 50-year-old house – for the sake of the future? Let’s face it, by saving the life of just one more Futuro, the world will be a quirkier place.