For a brief moment around 1970 everything was going to be inflatable. In the future, imagined some of the most progressive architects and designers of the time, homes would no longer be weighty and static. They would be portable plastic membranes that you could take to your nearest wilderness, with the help of a handy air pump, and blow up into a comfortable bubble.
It never happened, partly because these concepts assumed limitless supplies of cheap energy to heat and cool the wandering shelters, an illusion that the oil crisis of 1973 abruptly ended. The bubble popped, you might say. Architectural fashion moved on to postmodernism, a style that made no claim to change the world or people’s lives, but only to entertain and comfort them. Sometimes, as with the Austrian architect Hans Hollein, who moved from inflatables to postmodern boutiques, the shift was embodied in a single person.
It’s a repeating story. Designers dream of homes that are as unlike existing homes as possible – mobile, not fixed, light, not heavy, transparent, not opaque, open, not enclosed, curved, not straight – taking their inspiration from technology that moves faster than house building, such as cars, aeroplanes and spaceships. Then reality bites. The home of the future, when it arrives, turns out to be quite like the home of the past. The most significant changes – the kitchen becomes part of the living space, for example – are less glamorous than predicted. Designers then find themselves decorating the world rather than shaping it.
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