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Escaping to an Air-Conditioned Future: The Monsanto House of the Future and the Fantasy of Mobility and Climate Control in Postwar America

In 1957, Monsanto Chemical Company, in cooperation with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Disneyland, Inc, opened for exhibit an all-plastic house meant to show park visitors how a suburban home might look and function in the future. While the decision to place a technologically advanced “House of the Future” in Tomorrowland may be an obvious one, it is worthwhile it to take the time to understand the significance of the house’s location. In Catherine L. Newell’s article “The Strange Case of Dr. von Braun and Mr. Disney: Frontierland, Tomorrowland, and America’s Final Frontier,” she argues that, rather than simply quelling Cold War anxieties about increased mechanization and the threat of nuclear and chemical warfare, Disneyland’s Tomorrowland excited the same colonial desire expressed in the concept of Manifest Destiny and Disneyland’s Frontierland—located directly west of Tomorrowland (Newell 417). Indeed, much like Manifest Destiny, Tomorrowland held, as Walt Disney claimed at the beginning of every episode of Disneyland, the “promise of things to come.” Newell formulates this redirection of colonial desire as a change in object: rather than the American West, the colonizing efforts of the American people should focus on outer space. Quoting Roger D. Launius and Howard E. McCurdy, she points to the structural similarity of the American desire to conquer space and the early American desire to conquer the West. According to Launius and McCurdy:
[The utopian idealism of space boosterism] has been closely associated with the process of founding new communities beyond the corrupting influence of old societies. From the religious settlements of New England to the utopian communities of the American West, utopianism has implied migration. Extended to space, the utopian ideal likely requires the creation of new communities well removed from Earth in the same way that the New World was separated from the Old World (qtd. in Newell 423).
While this utopian-colonial desire might account for choosing space as the new frontier, removed from the corrupting influence of Earthling societies, it does not address how this desire might have manifested itself in thinking of America’s domestic future. If there was no more Western frontier to conquer and space, though a hopeful dream, was at the moment inaccessible, what location was there left to colonize? The answer, I want to suggest, is that rather than colonizing existing spaces, the Earth-bound space-age colonial fantasy of Tomorrowland appeared as a technological project whose main goal was the production of “air-conditioned” spaces protected from external environmental threat. The American postwar fantasy for hyper-controlled interiors protected from external threats, epitomized by the transportation aesthetics and climate control system in the Monsanto House of the Future was an attempt to attain the colonial fantasy of a new utopic space independent and disconnected from surrounding environmental influences and the “corrupting” influence external forces.
After World War II, the plastics division of the Monsanto Chemical Company needed to justify its existence. During the war, Monsanto expanded its plastics production both to meet wartime demands as well as prove that plastic itself could have definite war applications (Phillips 93-94). Their development of war-grade plastic was a success; according to Stephen Phillips, “[p]lastics protected the Allies against moisture, grease, dirt, salt water corrosion, bullets, noxious gas, and atomic fusion,” (Phillips 96). We might also note, as Phillips does, that DuPont invented polytetrafluoroethylene, also known as Teflon, when trying to find a means to shield soldiers from fluorine gas (Phillips 265n21). The protective capabilities of plastic, especially from military and environmental threat, had been established. Indeed, in switching to a peacetime production model, Monsanto advertised many of the these protective and sanitary qualities of plastic that were beneficial in the war; rather than the Axis powers, homeowners would use plastic to “fight the known enemies of dirt, grease, and grime,” (Phillips 98). While Monsanto’s promotion of the domestic use of plastics for sanitary purposes was a success, a Monsanto-commissioned report written by the architecture committee at MIT found that plastics were not being used architecturally (Phillips 103-04). Indeed, by the 1950s, plastic had still failed to live up to the structural requirements of the architectural and manufacturing industries (Phillips 101). To combat this, Monsanto, with the help of MIT architects, designed their all-plastic “House of the Future” to be displayed in Disneyland Tomorrowland park as an attempt to reinvigorate the public’s interest in plastic and prove its viability as a building material.
The architectural fantasy of plastics as the ultimate versatile building material, in many ways, surpassed its practical uses. However, its is useful to explore the architectural fantasy of plastics to discover some of the connotations the Monsanto House of the Future itself held, as well as the role this plastic fantasy played in the aesthetic decisions that went into the construction of house. The MIT architects based their design for the house on what they saw the inherent qualities of plastic rather than other “aesthetic, programmatic, or functional requirements,” (Phillips 109). That is, whatever the architects believed plastics could accomplish more economically than conventional building materials would be exploited. But what were these inherent qualities? When discussing how inherent features of plastic might change housing, architect and Architectural Forum editorial chairman Douglas Haskell claimed that: 
Tomorrow’s structure may be typically all ‘skin.’ Its skin may be formed to become its shell and its interior columns of cellular structure […] A single continuous envelope of a thin sandwich material may yield structure and enclosure; resistance to destructive forces from outside; solidity or porosity; control of light and view; insulation for heat and sound, color and finish—all characteristics we now impose separately […] Future buildings may be as thin as eggshells (qtd. in Phillips 105-06). 
Plastics bolstered the fantasy of a continuous structure that produced an interior completely resistant to external elements, be they the noxious gases of chemical warfare or natural disasters. Indeed, concern for the environmental and structural conditions of protective interiors seems particularly suited to the space-age, and is reflected a discussion in the Disneyland episode “Man in Space” about how spaceships would protect humans from the hostile conditions of space. The Monsanto House of the Future intended to live up to these space-age standards: Albert Dietz, an engineer on the project, stated that “The House of the Future was designed for a jam-packed cocktail party in a howling windstorm during an earthquake,” (qtd. in Hess 72).
However, the structural, economical and versatile qualities that were thought to be “inherent” to plastic proved illusory: the mass produced curved shells used in the design of the house did not speed up assembly; the house took weeks to build (Phillips 118). Further, plastics in the late 1950s were still too expensive to be economically feasible for the average homebuyer (Phillips 115). The house did not even achieve the goal of demonstrating the structural capabilities of plastics as such; according to Phillips, “[the Monsanto House of the Future] was framed as a box with cantilevered ‘curved’ plastic floor and roof elements that needed extensive conventional reinforcement beyond compound curve ‘plasticity’ to achieve its physical form,” (Phillips 114). That is, the “plasticity” of the house was more aesthetic than integral.
However, while the house did not practically live up to its promises, its aesthetics and technological features—combined with the architectural fantasy of plastics as the ultimate versatile and protective building material—clearly tapped into the fantasy of a domestic interior protected from external threats, be they military or environmental. It did this primarily through a design modelled on transportation technology and its interior climate control system.
Indeed, two of Monsanto’s criteria for the House of the Future was “flexibility of sitting” and “suitability in the landscape,” (Phillips 111). That is, the house had to be able to ‘travel’ to and be constructed in any desired location. The MIT architects designing the house had even loftier goals for the house’s mobility; the land ought to “come and go as it pleased under the house” and the building “might in its entirety be lifted off the ground if the site so required,” (qtd. in Phillips 113). Whether or not the house lived up to this requirement is up for grabs. However, it definitely presented its mobility aesthetically, with the design of the wings of the house based on the curved structure of airplane wings (Phillips 112). This aesthetic quality was not lost on visitors to the attraction. Alan Hess, a writer for Fine Homebuilding, recalls his first visit to the house in an 1986 article: “Reactions of visitors usually went through three stages: from ‘That’s gonna take off!’ to ‘That’s a house?’ to ‘Where can I get one?’” (Hess 74). A New York Times reporter noted that “with the drapes drawn [the house gives] one a feeling of being in the cabin of a rocket ship headed for Mars,” (qtd. in Phillips 118). Articles contemporary to the house with titles such as “Four Wings Flow from a Central Axis in All-Plastic ‘House of Tomorrow’” and “Push Button, Pine-scented Plastic House with ‘Floating’ Rooms Shown at Disneyland” suggest that journalists too picked up on the aerobatic connotations of the house.
The technological features of the House of the Future furthered this sense of a protected interior under complete control by its inhabitants rather than outside forces. As seen in a promotional video for the house, it came with a host of communication devices, easy to clean plastic appliances and flooring, and, most significantly for my purposes, an extensive climate control system that allowed the inhabitant to control not only the temperature and humidity of each room in the house, but also pump in the scents of pine, the sea, flowers or leaves, all while monitoring outside weather conditions. While only mentioned in passing in the promotional video, a climate control system such as this seems essential and obvious to producing the fantasy of a protected interior, especially with the House of the Future’s design. Gail Cooper, in her study of the history of air-conditioning in America, notes that the primary difference between heating systems and air-conditioning systems was “the option or necessity of permanently sealing off the inside from the outside […] So until the development of air-conditioning, buildings were semipermeable barriers, in which we could not only look out the window to see the natural landscape but also open that window to let in the sensual delights of fresh air,” (1-2). The purpose of this sealing off of the interior was one of independence and control, to fulfill the goals of “mechanical precision, engineering control, and independence from natural weather,” (Cooper 3). In exterior photographs of the House of the Future, it does not look as if the windows are able to open. While seemingly excessive today, the scent feature of the climate control system is necessary to the fantasy of a comfortable, protective interior independent from environmental conditions. It negotiates the need for sealed windows with the desire for the “sensual delights of fresh air” that open windows afford. It also adds to the mobile quality of the house, giving the inhabitant an olfactory trip to the seaside, the park or the forest without ever having to leave the house. Contributing both to the environmental conditions necessary for “comfortable” domestic life—an appropriate temperature and humidity, circulation and ventilation of air—as well as providing simulating olfactory vacations, the climate control system in the House of the Future is a central component in sustaining the fantasy of a “new community well removed from Earth” that utopian space-age thinking predicted, as well as pointing towards a means to enact this fantasy without having to leave the planet. Indeed, through both its design aesthetics and technological features, the Monsanto House of the Future bolstered the fantasy of a mobile, space-age domestic interior that is both hyper-sanitized and air-conditioned, protected and independent from the outside environmental forces.

Addendum: The Road to the Future
The themes brought out in Monsanto’s attempt to sell plastics as a building material and the American postwar desire for mobile, protected interiors—independent from and indifferent to environmental conditions—as an extension of the American colonial project is present in Disney’s own made-for-TV documentary Magic Highway U.S.A. The documentary traces the history of roads back to the colonization of North America by European settlers. This colonization project is positioned as one of overcoming natural “obstacles.” According to the film, these “obstacles” include: “wild trees, wild birds, wild beasts, and wild aborigines.” The road is presented as an involuntary result of the colonizers living their lives, or “increased traffic” as the documentary claims. The method of “obstacle” avoidance here is simply maneuvering around them. We can contrast this with the prediction of road building practices in the future that comes later on in the film. Here, advances in technology have allowed Americans to reshape the space of their environment to allow for frictionless, weather resistant highways completely integrated with domestic housing. However, this connection of roads to domestic housing is not a threat to the domestic interior, but rather an extension of this interior outwards: the roads lead one to office buildings or shopping malls without one having to set foot outside a building or an automobile. The documentary closes with a vision of roads connecting the globe, fostering “a better understanding among the peoples of the world.” The American colonial project has become an American globalization project, constructing out of the world a mobile and thoroughly air-conditioned interior. 

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