Falling for a Futuro

A tenacious California architect takes on the restoration of his out-of-this-world dream home

Wayne Donaldson and futuroHauling a vintage 10,000-pound saucer-shaped Futuro house 150 miles from the shores of San Diego to a remote rocky crag in the San Jacinto Mountains required months of planning, hassling with state and local officials, 'pilot cars' leading the caravan and protecting the rear, and Highway Patrol escorts shooing other motorists away.

The 26-foot-wide Futuro, mounted on a flatbed, took up the entire eastbound lanes of the Interstate. When the route headed up a narrow mountain road, men with chainsaws had to lop off tree limbs. The side clearance dipped to two inches.

Then the crane that was supposed to lift the Futuro into place failed to arrive. The Futuro's owner, architect Wayne Donaldson, got on the phone and was none too polite. "Wayne doesn't take 'no' for an answer," says Larry Wood, who drove the flatbed.

Finally, Donaldson, Wood, and a few friends, including his contractor, Jim King, who organized the move and laid the foundation, had to grab the legs of the Futuro as it hovered over its new home atop a rocky peak, to swing it into its proper place. "The move was the most difficult thing I ever did in my life," says Donaldson, an architect, who has done many difficult things during his 63 years, including flying in an inflatable hang glider of his own invention.

futuro on the road

But the nerve-wracking Futuro move, which took place over five hours in December 2004, wasn't nearly as difficult as Donaldson's latest challenge—to convince the world that his Futuro house is not a flying saucer. He might start with his friend Larry Wood, owner of San Diego Boat Movers. "We've moved a lot of strange things," Wood says, "but that's the first flying saucer house we've ever moved."

It's not that Donaldson doesn't get the resemblance. "Whenever you think of a flying saucer," he acknowledges, "this is the shape." It's just that the Futuro represents so much more, he says. To Donaldson—who, as the State Historic Preservation Officer, is California's top preservation public official—the Futuro is an important part of architectural and social history. It also represents a bit of Donaldson's own history—or at least, of his dreams. What the Futuro represents, Donaldson says, is an optimistic vision of a future that never came to pass, when families would live in lightweight, inexpensive, durable, and easy-to-clean plastic houses they could move whenever the family moved.

The Futuro, two skins of fiberglass surrounding a rigid core of rigid foam polyurethane, could be hauled onto site in sections with furnishings, refrigerator, and oven, and assembled by two men and a crane in two days. "And it would fit sites like this," says Donaldson of his Futuro's present California mountain home at Pine Cove, near Idyllwild, above Palm Springs.

futuro at a bend in the road

People were dreaming in the postwar years of low-cost prefabricated housing, of mobile housing, of housing built using the latest technologies and materials. Durable plastic furniture, dishware, and hardware would make life easier for busy housewives who were suddenly getting jobs in business and industry. Fans believed the Futuro would make these dreams come true.

There were other plastic houses, it is true. Donaldson remembers marveling as a boy at the 'Monsanto House of the Future' at Disneyland. But that was a metal structure clad in plastic. "The Futuro House," Donaldson says, "is the first structural plastic house." It is also, at it happens, almost the world's only plastic house because, despite its name, the Futuro did not have a bright future. But its failure, too, is part of its historical value.

The Futuro was designed in the mid-'60s by the pipe-smoking Finnish architect Matti Suuronen as a prefabricated fiberglass-and-plastic ski cabin and manufactured starting in 1968 by Polykem, Ltd. But the Futuro was never aimed merely at ski bums.

futuro landing

After the Futuro received some praise and much press at several international shows, Polykem started assembly line production, and leased the concept to companies worldwide, including the Futuro Corp. in Philadelphia.