At Utopie Plastic, Futuristic Plastic Homes Make an Appearance at a 19th-Century Metal Factory

At Utopie Plastic, Futuristic Plastic Homes Make an Appearance at a 19th-Century Metal Factory

By Kate Reggev
Somewhere in-between the mid-19th century, the 1960s, and the future, lies Utopie Plastic, or Plastic Utopia: an outdoor art exhibit at a new exhibition space in Marseille that's historic, retro, and futuristic all at the same time.

Located in a landmarked former metal factory from the 1800s, Friche de l’Escalette first opened in the summer of 2016 as a private outdoor art space to display sculpture, architecture, and design with a unique setting. After its inaugural exhibition featuring Jean Prouvé’s Habitat Tropical du Cameroun, Friche de l’Escalette has returned this summer with Utopie Plastic, or Plastic Utopia, which features a series of rare plastic model homes from the 1960s and 1970s nestled throughout the historic industrial complex. 

The exhibit includes three model homes: the Hexacube (1972) by Georges Candilis (1913-1995) and Anja Blomstedt (b. 1937), the Bulle six coques (1968) by French designer Jean-Benjamin Maneval (1923-1986), and Futuro House (1968) by Finnish architect Matti Suuronen (1933-2013). Together, they express the new tectonic abilities of post-war construction materials like plastic, and also showcase the era’s exuberant idealism through the expression of space-inspired, gravity-defying forms and shapes. 

Despite the use of plastic as the main construction material, each of the three houses is distinct in form and design exploration, as well as its setting within the industrial park.

The Hexacube, for example, was initially designed as a series of demountable vacation "space cells" that could be combined to create an endless variation of mobiles spaces. The white modules are punctuated by splashes of bright orange and red, perhaps reflective of Candilis’ time working under architect Le Corbusier, a huge proponent of white with specific, carefully executed moments of color. 

At Friche de l’Escalette, the model home is located on a raised platform in the middle of a sand pit and surrounded by palm trees, as if those visiting were on the beach vacation that Candilis and Blomstedt had envisioned. 

Across the sand pit is the Bulle Six Coques, or Six Bubble Shells, a home that resembles an oversized plastic flower with six petals bursting at the (plastic) seams. Maneval’s intention was to create an uber-functional, easily assembled house for a nomadic lifestyle. With no foundations, the house could be installed just about anywhere. 

Also designed in the late-1960s was the legendary Futuro House, of which approximately 60 copies were made with the hopes of it being mass produced and available for purchase. The UFO-like elliptical house on a metal frame was clearly inspired by space travel at the time, and is entered through a drop-down hatch that leads to an interior comprised of a bedroom, bathroom, fireplace, and living room.

The exhibition continues on in the interiors of the homes, which are accessible and act as showcases for significant pieces of period furniture—also in plastic—by renowned furniture designers from the space age. 

The pieces include aerospace inflatable seats in orange and blue plastic by Quasar Khanhm, the prototype of the Boomerang desk with an integrated seat (1969) by Maurice Calka, the Baby molar chair (1971) by Wendell Castle, and the ergonomic Tomato divan (1971) by Eero Aarinio. 

The exhibition plays with scale, showcasing both large, inhabitable structures as well as smaller, human-scaled pieces of furniture, allowing visitors to better understand the connection and influence that architecture, design, and furniture have on each other. Even though the 1973 oil crisis drove up the price of plastic so high that it was no longer possible to produce these modular homes in a price-effective manner, their other-worldliness continues to inspire and intrigue today.

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