Material World Monday: Fantastic Plastics

If you were asked to name building materials, I doubt many people would list ‘plastic’ as one of them. But at one point in time, engineers and designers thought it would completely revolutionize the way that we build. 

Molecular structure of Polyethylene terephthalate (a commonly used plastic)

‘Plastic’ is a catch-all term that we use to describe a class of synthetic polymers(large molecules comprised of small repeating units) with high molecular masses and usually derived from petroleum. At a molecular level, they can vary widely-some are fully synthetic (industrially manufactured) while others can be at least partially naturally-derived. Although naturally derived “plastics” such as rubber were used prior to the 20th century, it was during the Age of Industrialization that money and attention was paid towards the engineering of new materials. The very first fully-synthetic plastic was called ‘bakelite’ and its creator Leo Baekeland coined the term ‘plastics’ in 1907. Although the polymer chemistry as a field was built by many of the 20th century’s most gifted chemists, Hermann Staudinger won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1953 for paving the way by proving the existence of macromolecules and is hailed as ‘the father of polymer chemistry’.

In the current market, the most common plastic is polyethylene, which is the main constituent of plastic bags and containers; however, plastics vary in their strengths and subsequent uses. What they all share in common is the ability to irreversibly change form without breaking. Combined that with the low cost, mechanical strength, and ease of mass production and resistance to water damage and it almost seems like a no brainer to try and build buildings out of plastic-which is exactly what two MIT architecture professors did, at at Disneyland no less.

Marvin Goody and Richard Hamilton at Disneyland (1957).

Enter the ‘Monsanto House of the Future’, an attraction that stood in Tomorrowland in the Disneyland Park (Anaheim, CA) from 1957-1967. The Monsanto House was first developed at MIT under sponsorship from the plastics division of the Monsanto Chemical Company from 1953-1956. Marvin Goody and Richard Hamilton, two architecture faculty members at MIT (MIT), designed the Monsanto house. The team’s main objective was to build a house entirely from plastic. Furthermore, the house would also address the post-war housing crisis by providing affordable and modern housing to replace the poorly designed track homes that were being built at the time. Upon learning of their project, Walt Disney was enamoured of the concept of a synthetic model house and allowed the team to place the house in Tomorrowland, the sector of Disneyland devoted to technological innovations and visions of the future and took control of marketing the new attraction.

Courtesy of the Disney Corporation

The Monsanto House joined several other attractions in the park that highlighted Walt’s optimism for the future in what would now be considered ‘retro-science fiction style’. In an advertising video for the house, Disney posed themselves at the front of a new housing “revolution” (Video) and indeed the design of the Monsanto house departed from tradition in several important ways. The Monsanto House is perched on a square base with four cantilevered wings to form a cruciform structure. At the center of the house is the kitchen and dining room. The exterior of the house is constructed of white plastic molded into a rounded rectangular pod, reminiscent of a television set. Each of the wings features large plate glass windows and steel frames.  In addition to being constructed entirely of synthetic materials, the house was part of a multi-corporation collaboration to showcase new appliances as well. In an advertising video produced by the Disney corporation, the house is used as a means to showcase how technology can enter the home and make things “durable AND beautiful” in various ways.  The tiling and all surfaces are marketed as being conveniently easy to clean: functional without compromising beauty. There are other futuristic appliances such as an irradiation chamber for food storage, controlled air vents to infuse the house with a scent of your choice and all appliances can be controlled at the push of a button. The Disney advertising video portrays a hypothetical family going about their daily lives, the mother in the kitchen and at her boudoir, the children studying in their rooms and the family as a whole unit relaxing by the TV. These vignettes of domesticity are also evident in the print advertisements found in LIFE magazine as well. The Monsanto “House of the Future” stood in Disneyland from 1957 until it was painstakingly dismantled by chainsaws in 1967 after failing to be broken by blowtorches and a wrecking ball. The Monsanto House demonstrated the aspirations of both the MIT architects and the Disney Corporation for what the future could promise with new technology in the domestic sphere.

Photo courtesy of LIFE Magazine

It was designed to be a ‘flexible’ design both figuratively and literally (MIT Museum).  Instead of using materials that had been used in other architectural structures, Goody and Marvin created the first-ever molded plastic house and explored the boundaries of what this new material was capable of doing. Furthermore, the house was also marketed as a strict departure from traditional homes and as a harbinger of the new era of technology. According to historian Shiesel, the Disney Corporation projected a “view of the future that [was] inviting”, which potentially accounts for Disney’s huge success with the American public in all of their products.The Monsanto House uses technology to easily control all aspects of the house, such as light, temperature and sound. The house is a highly technological machine but this notion is also suggested in the very form of the Monsanto House. In an article from LIFE magazine, the Monsanto house is said to “sprout wings”, perhaps a reference to an airplane or the more romantic spaceship. Its modular shape also calls to mind a television set. These forms of technology were images that most viewers would recognize from their normal media exposure. In this way, the form of the house was just accessible enough to be familiar, but also just inaccessible enough to be easily romanticized in the Disney advertising. The Monsanto House is also somewhat generic; it provides a utopian vision for the American family. The Disney advertisements try to appeal to consumers of all ages and genders. Most notably however, the House is designed to maintain this level of generality to inspire consumers to imagine the possibilities of where this house could be and how it could be used.

Though the Monsanto House is marketed as a universal housing solution, there is a consciousness of a very specific client: the American family. The Monsanto house was heavily marketed to the heteronormative nuclear family as a customer unit, as opposed to young students or the elderly. Although two MIT professors designed the structure, the Monsanto House was presented as a themed attraction in an amusement park. It was visited by millions of families who went through the Disney park as an object of consumption and novelty. The Disney Corporation was giving viewers the ‘promise of continued technological progress”. The Monsanto House is an interesting academic exercise in the same way that International Style houses were, but it champions technology as a novelty rather than as a practical living solution.

Eames Chairs, photographed by Emil Monty Freddie

Plastic also caught the attention of Charles and Ray Eames, two of the most influential designers in the ‘Mid-century Modern’ movement. While they worked more notably with molded wood (which I will discuss in greater detail in a later post), they also did manufacture many different plastic chairs in a plethora of colors. All of the furniture designed by the Eames was showcased in their Southern California home-studio and the plastic chairs were used extensively in the studio. These chairs were designed to be easily mass produced, another response to the post-war economic and housing boom.

In retrospect it is really easy to dismiss the Monsanto House or Eames chairs as anything but unoriginal at best and completely chintzy, dated and banal at worst. But we have to remember that at that particular moment in history, the public mood was recklessly optimistic (and capitalistic). This was the era when the United States was really establishing itself as a global economic and political power; it was also an amazing time for scientific progress.  Even though we never fulfilled the Midcentury Modern aspirations for plastic in the way that was imagined, plastic has still infiltrated almost every aspect of the American home: from our cookware to clothes and even our smartphones.

And who knows? The future of the material may look completely different than it does now-it is plastic afterall.

(Cover image courtesy of the Disney Corporation)


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