Future Perfect

For this residential exhibition, architects harness new technologies to address social ills.

Technology in the home can go a lot further than a quieter dishwasher or a more powerful vacuum cleaner. It can help us respond to emerging challenges, such as an aging population, growing energy demands, and looming environmental concerns—ultimately changing how our dwellings look and what they represent. That’s the driving idea behind Open House: Intelligent Living by Design, a traveling exhibition organized by Vitra Design Museum in collaboration with the Art Center College of Design, which showcases proposed intelligent houses using the smart materials of the future.

Disappointment with the existing automated homes created by academic institutions and computer companies like Microsoft inspired the project. “They’re promoting ideas that have been around since the 1950s, when new household appliances were promising more leisure time,” explains Vitra Design Museum’s Jochen Eisenbrand, one of the three curators. The team also discovered that there was a huge amount of research being done on new communications technologies and smart materials, but that it usually wasn’t being applied to architecture. “Basically we found there was this gap—on the one hand, there was so much research going on in the sciences; but on the other, there weren’t that many architects involved.”

To begin bridging that gap, they invited 90 international architecture firms to propose projects that demonstrated how new technologies could be applied to residential design, eventually choosing 16 participants. The featured projects present ideas for everything from adapting structures for local environments and better accommodating the world’s growing population to providing basic sustenance for life. For example, New York’s Su11 is showing Dunehouse, a reptilian structure designed to inhabit the Nevada desert. “The fastest-growing residential communities are in and around Las Vegas,” architect Ferda Kolatan says. “The housing stock that’s being built there could be anywhere. It’s like your typical American idea of home. It has no relation to the desert or the climate.” In response, the firm used parametric software to develop an intensely site-specific design that mimics the forms of naturally occurring sand dunes and features movable roofs that do double duty as solar panels and fuel-cell conduits.

Mexico’s Michel Rojkind took on issues associated with an aging population. “We did some research about how there’s not going to be enough medical support for all the people who are growing old,” he says, pointing out that many seniors end up in hospitals and nursing homes. “We have to think about ways that people can age well in their own homes.” His proposed solution includes therapeutic lighting throughout the house that responds to the inhabitant’s mood, and a bathroom with preventative medical features: a shower that performs body scans, systems that analyze bodily fluids, and a restful floatarium. Seoul’s Mass Studies concentrated on the world’s growing population and developed a village of towers covered in geo-textile, where inhabitants live in small private spaces to maximize shared public space, which can be reserved electronically. For a residence with a dependable clean-water source, San Francisco’s IwamotoScott and Proces2 created Jellyfish House, which purifies rainwater through a skin of titanium dioxide–coated cavities and ultraviolet light.

From August 26 to December 2 these and other pioneering ideas for residential design will be on view in a former coal-cleaning building at the Zollverein World Heritage site, in Essen, Germany. The show will travel to the Art Center College of Design, in Pasadena, in March. While it might all seem like the stuff of dreams, most of the featured technology already exists, and the projects are intended to be feasible within 25 years, according to Eisenbrand. “We didn’t want it to be completely utopian,” he says.

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