I’ve always been a huge fan of science fiction. Movies, books, ideologies – I love it all. But the one thing I always had the hardest time stomaching was space-age, futurist architecture. Some of you folk more educated in such things might know it as a subset of midcentury modern or “Googie.” Even if you don’t know the terminology, you’d know what it was if you saw it: buildings and homes that look like they’re straight out of science fiction with sloped roofs, starbursts, rockets and space shapes. The “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign is a great example of this style.
It was difficult reconciling my love for all things sci-fi with my hate for futurist design. I couldn’t imagine how it would be comfortable to lounge in a half-egg chair in a house with curved walls and concrete floors surrounded by windows on every side. So you can imagine how disturbed I was when, one day, I stumbled upon an article about John Lautner, a famous modern architect, and fell in love with one of the futurist homes he designed.
I’ve since decided that after my kids are grown and have flown the coop, I’m going to retire in a home that looks like a UFO, and I will dress like Barbarella all day, every day.
But, I digress. Because I’ve suddenly decided that I love these space-age homes, I want to share my love with the world. So I present to you a primer of the coolest and most incredible space-age homes for people who aren’t sure if this style is for them. (I’m going to limit the list to homes in the United States because those wacky Europeans are crazy for modernist design.)
The Sculptured House
The Sculptured House, or the house from the Woody Allen movie “Sleeper,” is a 7,500-square-foot, three-level, elliptical house built on Genesee Mountain, about 15 miles outside of Denver, CO. The house was designed by architect Charles Deaton in 1963, and he said he wanted the “shape of it to sing an unencumbered song.” It’s unique in that it was designed as a sculpture first and the floor plan came much later (which is how it earned its nickname).
Unfortunately, due to the builder running out of money before building was complete, the house remained largely unfinished and unoccupied for almost 30 years before it was purchased in 1999 by entrepreneur John Huggins. He spent millions of dollars restoring the house, including building a 5,000-square-foot addition that was designed by Deaton prior to his death in 1996, and he hired Deaton’s daughter to design the interior.
In 2006, The Sculptured House was purchased by entrepreneur Michael Dunahay, and by 2010 he was behind on his mortgage. The home went into foreclosure and was bought by an investor in 2011 with plans to update and resell.
The Sculptured House has five bedrooms, a four-car garage, five acres of land and a circular-tube elevator (watch “Sleeper” to learn its incredible nickname). It’s also on the National Register of Historic Places for its architectural merit.
The Steel House
Architect Robert Bruno spent more than 30 years working on his home affectionately known as Steel House (or The Metal Mansion). The Steel House hangs on the edge of a canyon in Ransom Canyon, TX, just outside of Lubbock. Bruno was a professor of architecture at Texas Tech when he began construction on the home in 1974. The unique thing about this house is that Bruno completed all the construction – no architects, no builders, no one but himself working on his home over the years. As he worked, the idea that this would be a single-story home disappeared. He added on, removed, carved away and adjusted the walls, floors and ceilings of the house throughout time. The design and construction was fluid, and some people have said the home was not so much built as it was grown.
The Steel House is made with 1/4-inch steel plate and was molded and pieced together with a welder, torch and hand tools. Everything in the house was designed to optimize light and create a pure visual experience. Bruno is quoted as saying, “I’m interested in giving [the interior] a somewhat organic quality – somewhere between animal and machine.” As a result, he used building scrap and found materials like metal, wood and glass to give the interior its unique look.
After 35 years of construction, Bruno moved into the home. He’s been quoted as saying it wasn’t because he was finished building, but because the lease was up on his old place and he had to move. Sadly, he passed away soon after moving in, and he wasn’t able to finish the dream he had for his home – but what remains is a pure masterpiece.
Chemosphere’s unique shape and design has made it one of the most widely-recognized space-age homes in the United States. Built in 1960, this “flying saucer home” has been featured in a variety of movies (like “Body Double” by Brian De Palma), video games (“Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas”) and TV shows (most notably as Troy McClure’s house on “The Simpsons”).
This 2,200-square-foot house stands high above the treetops in the Hollywood Hills just off of Mulholland Drive in California. Designed in 1960 by famed architect John Lautner, Chemosphere is an octagonal-shaped home that is supported by a 29-foot high, 5-foot wide concrete pole and concrete pedestal almost 20 feet in diameter. This unconventional design has allowed the house to survive California’s famous earthquakes and heavy rains.
The house was designed for an engineer named Leonard Malin and his family. He was given the lot by his father-in-law for a future home site, but many architects said the land was unsuitable for building. That’s when Malin approached Lautner for help. Lautner had the savvy idea that instead of building into the land or trying to excavate and reshape the land, he was going to build up and over it. In order to help subsidize the cost to build this house, Malin then worked with two companies as a sponsorship – the Southern California Gas Company and Chem Seal Corporation. Chem Seal provided the coatings and resins that were used to put the house together and inspired the name Chemosphere.
Malin and his family lived in the home until 1972. After the next owner passed away, the home stayed vacant for more than 20 years because its unusual design made it difficult to sell. Throughout the years, it was occasionally rented out and used for parties, but ultimately it was left in a state of disrepair.
In 1999, Benedikt Taschen, a german book publisher, bought the home and had it restored. During the restoration, the Taschens added details to help reduce the high cost of maintenance and increase the home’s efficiency – like adding frameless glass windows and slate instead of tile.
Ultimately, the Chemosphere should be recognized for Lautner’s amazing vision and problem-solving architectural skills. Architectural historian Alan Hess sums it up perfectly – “[Chemosphere] displays the optimism of its time: that technology can be used to solve any problem.”
The Volcano House lies nestled deep in the top of a volcanic cinder cone in the desert of Newberry Springs, CA. It was designed in 1968 by architect Harold Bissner Jr. for engineer Vard Wallace. (Interesting side note: Wallace patented the first skateboard!) Wallace was inspired by the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, a nuclear plant in northwestern San Diego, and when he approached Bissner about the project, Bissner couldn’t have been more excited for the challenge.
Bissner created a beehive-like framework that was then lathered with a solution of elastomeric sealer embedded with perlite, which formed a highly-insulated waterproof shell. The entire structure is anchored in the center by a thick, concrete fireplace.
The Volcano House has two bedrooms and two bathrooms and an open, loft-like feel. The openness is enhanced by the view – the ground-level walls are made of tempered glass to offer a 360-degree view of the mountains and the desert. There’s also a one-bedroom guest house, a private lake on 60 acres of land, a three-car carport and an incredible observation deck at the top of the dome. But really, Curbed LA described it best as a “secret hideout where you can watch your dastardly plans unfold on flat screens and cackle at your minions.”
Wallace later sold the house to TV personality Huell Howser, who is most widely recognized as host of the show “California’s Gold” – a travel show based in Los Angeles for California PBS stations. Howser put the home up for sale in 2009 but eventually wound up donating it to Chapman University in Orange, CA, in 2012.
The Hope Residence
There are many things people associate with Bob Hope – comedy, acting, philanthropy and entertaining the troops with the USO. However, few people know that he was quite passionate about architecture. In fact, his Palm Springs home is as famous for its unique design as it is for its owner.
Bob and his wife Dolores worked with John Lautner (who you may remember as architect of the Chemosphere) to design a home that kept with the sleek modernism feel that Lautner was known for while also allowing for the architectural preferences of the Hope family.
The Hope Residence began work in 1973, but due to a fire during construction, the home wasn’t completed until 1979. It’s approximately 23,000 square feet of concrete, steel and glass encapsulated by a curving copper roof. It was designed to resemble a volcano, but it’s also been compared to a spaceship or a giant mushroom. It features six bedrooms, 10 bathrooms, a putting green and two swimming pools (one is made to resemble Hope’s famous profile!)
It sits at the top of Southridge, a small, exclusive gated community in Palm Springs, CA, overlooking the entire Coachella Valley, and is the largest private residence designed by Lautner. Unfortunately, it’s said that Lautner was infuriated by the hands-on approach and “interference” of the design (his words) by the Hopes. Dolores hired a designer to make changes to the home’s interior, and Lautner felt it to be “inappropriately furnished” for the design. Eventually, he wound up distancing himself from the property. The house is for sale for $35 million! With today’s rates, that’s only about $187,000 a month!
These five homes are just my favorite of the space-age, modernist style I’ve recently fallen in love with. Fortunately, retro-futurism and space-age architecture is seeing a resurgence in popularity, and many of these homes are being restored to their old glory. I encourage you to go out and learn more about these designs and the revolutionary architects who helped define this style. Even if you hate modernism like I once did, you might find something you like!