Back to the future

In the 60s, Finnish architect Matti Suuronen designed the Futuro houses, which were originally intended to be used as mobile skiing cabins. Some might think these prefab houses were just an ambitious architectural experiment, but for Barney Vincelette who has lived for decades in his own Futuro, Suuronen’s creation is the embodiment of real art.

I first was exposed to the teachings of Immanuel Kant in an introductory course in philosophy in college. The intrinsic dignity that requires us to live by the categorical imperative was presented as a priori. Many years later in graduate school I would discover how the Heisenberg principle as it applied to calculating probability density, along with electromagnetic theory tells us that actions of electrons between atoms could not be predicted exactly if we could know every physical thing we could know about the position and motion of every electron and we could calculate every force on every electron. This meant to me that the chemical actions of electrons in the brains of sentient creatures are not perfectly pre-destined, but only act according to probability; the degree to which the chemical actions that make up the process of consciousness in our brains is not determined is our free will, and that free will gives us the dignity that Kant insisted makes people ends unto themselves.

In the arts there are two standards of culture. There is commercial pop culture which is designed to harvest the maximum possible profit from the most promising target audience, an audience that was there solely as a means to that maximum profit and everything that might be done for that profit excluded any consideration of the dignity of any individual. To this end, tobacco and junk food companies form alliances with television shows as American Idol and professional football. For this standard, Kant’s hypothetical imperative is the guiding principle.

Then there are the real arts: concert music which includes classical music, such literature as the works of Moliere, Shakespeare, Goethe, Dickens, and Victor Hugo. When we begin to invest the effort in discovering what these treasures have to offer we instinctively realize that these works were created by people who implicitly presumed Kant’s categorical imperative whether they knew it or not. The humanity of the audiences for whom these works were created demanded that they be the finest their creators could produce.

As I became more aware of this difference between art and commercial entertainment while passing through my adolescence, I was drawn closer to concert music, especially of the classical and the romantic eras. But one work stood outside of music itself as something that for me went beyond art, it seemed like something from a far more advanced planet. When I first heard it on one of the last of the radio stations that made its living by playing classical music I knew immediately that it had been composed by Mahler, but it was even more powerful than the Resurrection Symphony I had recently heard in a concert hall in Sacramento. It was the Mahler Eighth, also known as the symphony of a thousand. There was art, there was the kind of concert music that it takes a lifetime of brutal training to be able to create it, then there was the Mahler Eighth. I would never have dared to hope such a thing could have ever been created. It was a miracle.

I was still in the Air Force and I had just returned from an overseas tour of duty in Southeast Asia when my cousin sent me The Whole Earth Catalogue as a Christmas present. I never did care for the architectural Muzak that was contemporary residential architecture in America: the fake window shutters, condominiums that sloppily threw together every architectural gimmick in some disarticulated agglomeration that served no purpose but to masturbate the optic nerve. Houses were designed to underscore one’s social rank by looking cheap if they were budget priced but still so expensive that it took at least twenty years to pay for them, or houses for the rich that were designed to consume excessive floor space and display functionless ornamentation that was calculated to intimidate all who see it with how wealthy and powerful the owner must be to be able to afford it; it was designed to elicit envy from all but the financially elite. I could not imagine finding the motivation to go to work and labor to own a house that I could never really want. But what was worse, in order to sell, architects who designed residential dwellings had to confine themselves to Kant’s hypothetical imperative in order to survive the competitive economic marketplace.

But just as there was the Mahler Eighth that was something beyond music, in architecture there was a miracle that I encountered in The Whole Earth Catalogue. It was a picture of the Futuro house. Whatever genius who had conceived it could not have given any consideration to the hypothetical imperative in creating it. Market research and any target audiences that by its size would make it possible to harvest the maximum possible profit were obviously irrelevant to the Maestro, Matti Suuronen, its creator, as they were to Mahler when he wrote his symphonies. It was the beginning of what I knew would one day change my life forever.

In 1977, after I had been out of the Air Force a few years after the war in Vietnam ended and most of the officers were laid off, I had never been able to last more than a few weeks in any apartment without getting evicted because I could not get along with the noisy neighbors and their loud stereos. I had been corresponding with Mr. Fruchter, the president of Casa II Corporation in Philadelphia about buying a Futuro house. His dealer, Joe Hudson, had been the dealer and eventually the factory that made them shut down because too many people who put down deposits to buy them changed their minds and backed out. The Futuro was too radical and unacceptable to the so-called conservative tastes of the public who demanded that houses resembled the houses they remembered from their childhood. In several cases, wives threatened to divorce their husbands if they did not cancel their orders of Futuro houses because, as they put it, “I don’t want to be associated with a man who would dare to have such a weird house. You have to quit being so selfish and consider what it would do to my reputation in the community.” Some Futuro houses had to have windows replaced because of drive-by shootings. Too many low class cultural police who were offended by any art work that was too advanced could not tolerate the likes of Futuro houses.

In June of 1977 I purchased a used Futuro that was completely furnished for $16,000. I paid for most of it with my severance pay from the Air Force and I paid and worked off the rest of what I owed to Joe Hudson over the years that followed because no bank would finance such an unusual house. My Futuro had been put up outside of any city or town limits because there were ordinances that outlawed any style of architecture that was considered disruptive the architectural style of the community. Still, I had neighbors who lived several hundred feet away, and some of them were hostile. “We don’t want weird people like you in our neighborhood,” they warned. After some of them tried to run me over with a pickup truck while I was riding my bicycle I resolved to be as, whatever they might find as weird as possible. I painted my Futuro house with glow-in-the dark paint and put up ultraviolet lamps to charge up the paint so that the house would glow a beautiful green color it night. I wore a fuchsia colored gorilla suit on my bicycle. I suppose I could have gotten myself murdered by doing these things, but the Futuro house was not just a home, it was my way of life and I was willing to put my life on the line to defend it.

In 1984 a camera crew from a television show called Real People came all the way from California to do a film on my house and the publicity protected me from further bullying by the more low life neighbors.

Over the years that followed, I worked part time as an air taxi pilot, a parachute rigger, a flight instructor, and an aircraft mechanic. I also took night courses, eventually earning two master’s degrees in physics and a PhD in mathematical physics and applied mathematics. During this time I had wanted to marry and have a child, but the vast majority of women wanted nothing to do with anyone who would live in a Futuro house. What was worse, too many women were so fanatical in their love for commercial pop/rock music that they were highly offended when I did not revere their favorite pop songs that were on the radio. I was in my 40’s when I finally married and so was my wife so it was too late to be able to conceive a child.

Today I work as an adjunct mathematics professor at Delaware State University where I earned my PhD in 2009.

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