Space Age Design Revives – Mansion Global
Whether you call them Space Age or Atomic Age, the homes built in the 1950s and 1960s by architect John Lautner and others represented a new wave of modern architecture inspired by space exploration and futuristic ideas.
In the mid-20th century, astronauts were as glamorous as movie stars, while TV shows such as The Jetsons and movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey invented worlds with houses that looked like planets and spaceships. Now that space travel for the layman is becoming a reality, we can expect to see architects and designers taking inspiration from the new boom and advancements in materials and technology.
“Design evolves in the context of culture,” says Bidisha Sinha, associate director at Zaha Hadid Architects in London. “Architectural movements influence each other. Space-age design was influenced by popular culture and technology that enabled things like injected plastic furniture. Atomic age architecture was based on the understanding that protons and neutrons are the components of something bigger, just like you take building blocks and the sum becomes greater than the individual components.
These trends were considered ahead of their time and remain popular for their fluid and energetic designs that are still relevant to today’s architectural styles, Ms. Sinha says.
Technological improvements have made the futuristic architecture easier to build. Even though we don’t all live in spaceships like the Jetsons, contemporary residences use elements of those earlier homes, such as curved walls, floor-to-ceiling glass, and smart home controls that increasingly resemble science fiction.
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“Pop culture always influences architecture,” says Michele Grace Hottel, founder of Michele Grace Hottel Architects in La Mesa, California. “The renewed interest in space, technology and futurism is something that people are addressing in the space they live in, in the form of design. Things like open spaces, connection to the natural site and large expanses of glass are elements of space-age architecture that also resonate with people today.
In 1960, John Lautner’s “Chemosphere” house in Los Angeles, an octagonal residence that rests on a concrete column, was considered the epitome of modern design. Similarly, his 1968 “Elrod House” in Palm Springs features a circular UFO-like concrete canopy over the living room and curved glass walls. In both examples, Lautner incorporated natural elements of the site into his design, such as large boulders that form part of the interior of Elrod House.
“Space-age architecture was part of a post-war modernist phase of American optimism in the 1950s and 1960s,” says Jacqueline Gonzalez Touzet, who lives in a space-age house in the 1950s with her husband, Carlos Prio-Touzet, in Coral Gables, Florida. Both are architects and directors of Touzet Studio, whose work is influenced by this era. “Unlike Europe, where the emphasis was on post-war reconstruction, American architects were part of a moment of ‘power’ based on an economic boom and enthusiasm for new technologies.”
The spirit of the 1950s and 1960s, says Ms. Touzet, was looking to the future and leaving the past and wars behind. It seemed like a fantasy then, but space travel for civilians was part of the idealized future. Now that billionaires and public figures from Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson to William Shatner and Michael Strahan have shown that space travel for non-astronauts is possible, reinvigorated interest in the universe beyond Earth could inspire new interest in futuristic architecture, experts say.
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“Everything associated with space-age design, such as clean lines, holistic design, technology, modern materials and pop culture, continues to be relevant today,” Ms. Sinha says. “These factors persist and evolve. For example, 3D printing and experimentation with new materials…is similar to the experimentation with injection molding and plastic furniture in the 1960s.”
Elements of residential modernist architecture from the 1950s and 1960s hold up well and match today’s appreciation of glass walls, indoor-outdoor connection, and plenty of open space.
“We are particularly drawn to playful modernism, as are our baby boomer clients who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s,” says Touzet. “Back then, technology was seen as a way to live a better life, and that attitude is also strong today.”
Space-age design features, such as floating staircases and cantilevered overhangs to create shade, were “incredible feats of engineering and inventiveness,” Ms. Touzet says. Today’s architects are taking these cutting-edge styles and adapting them to new homes.
The new space age
The residential architecture of renowned firm Zaha Hadid Architects does not refer strictly to space-age design, Ms. Sinha says, but it shares a futuristic aesthetic with some of the tenets of 1950s modernism.
“At the One Thousand Museum condos in Miami and the 520 West 28th St. condos in New York City, we designed the exteriors and interiors with flowing, malleable lines that flow through the buildings,” Ms. Sinha explains.
Both buildings have exterior spaces and curved exteriors that resemble the shapes of early spaceship imaginations. A private residence designed by Zaha Hadid Architects in the Capital Hill district of Moscow could be part of a star wars movie.
An important element of modern architecture and Zaha Hadid’s aesthetic is biomorphic design, which uses organic forms found in nature to fashion residential structures similar to Lautner’s curved residences.
A house designed by Touzet Studio in Miami in 2019 features a floating roof reminiscent of Lautner’s work.
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“The La Escondida house has an organic composition open to vines and trees, in addition to being elevated to capture breezes and cross ventilation,” says Ms. Touzet of the Miami residence. “The house has floor-to-ceiling glass walls, like many space-age designs of the 1950s and 1960s.”
Similarly, a Coral Gables home designed by Touzet Studio in 2012 features a floating roof, clerestory windows, terrazzo floors, and operable glass walls at the back of the house.
Another custom home from Touzet Studio in Miami appears as a set of open boxes floating above the adjacent waterway.
Technology takes the space age to another level
While space-age designs of the 1950s and 1960s included floor-to-ceiling expanses of glass, the technology available today means that these walls can be easily opened to increase indoor-outdoor connectivity.
“Now we can use the remote control to operate the large glass walls, and we also have better weather protection,” says Hottel. “But some of the materials in space-age homes, such as cast-in-place concrete, can be difficult to meet today’s building codes.”
Rather than using concrete or plastic, architects today use 3D printing and some prefabricated elements for a smooth, seamless appearance, says Ms Sinha. Prefabrication can sometimes be a less expensive method of construction and generally speeds up construction time.
“Today, we have to do more with less because of the risks associated with climate change and flooding,” says Ms. Touzet. “Concrete is one of the most carbon-intensive building materials, so we use and reuse other materials in its place.”
Mixing glass or seawater into concrete can reduce both the amount of concrete used and the carbon needed to produce it, Touzet says.
“Space-age architecture can be more expensive to build and require more land for some of the large, expansive spaces,” Hottel says.
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Architectural styles come and go, but concerns about performance and health are here to stay, says Touzet.
“Connections to a site, to nature, and to indoor and outdoor living were part of the architecture of the first space age and are also important today,” says Touzet. “The difference is that people are less interested in finicky materials that don’t last. Now we want tough, durable homes that offer protection from the elements, along with a modern, futuristic style.
Space Age-style homes can be found all over the world, although they are more common in areas of Southern California, Arizona, and Florida that embrace futuristic design.
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“Some locations lend themselves to space-age architecture, such as desert terrain that feels like you’re on the surface of the moon or on another planet,” Hottel says.
When the late comedian Bob Hope first saw Lautner’s design for his Palm Springs home in 1969, he reportedly said, “Well, at least when they get down from Mars they’ll know where to go.”
Homes that appear to float above water or land with remote-controlled glass walls embody the fun, futuristic feeling of Space Age-style homes.
“The space-age design idea was to be innovative and embody the spirit of conquering new things,” says Ms Sinha. “Although the technology has been demystified in many ways since then, that spirit still holds true.”
This article first appeared in the Spring 2022 issue of Mansion Global Experience Luxury.