A 50-year history of the modern future

By Andy Sturdevant

You may recall, from a period in your life when you were watching a lot of movies, the ending of Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 sci-fi spectacular, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Not the very end, with the Star Child, but the part right before that, where astronaut Dave Bowman is transported to what looks like a high-end hotel suite completely done up in faintly luminescent, smudge-less white.

A monochrome environment with some rococo flourishes, the room is where Bowman’s final cosmic transformation happens, all lit from below by what seem to be fluorescent floor panels in a soft imitation of natural light, as if the room is floating over a boundless sunlit sky. Considering that the room is somewhere in the orbit of Jupiter, perhaps it is. It’s here that Dave Bowman ends his life as a human and transforms, under the mysterious influence of the aliens, into the enormous space embryo that dominates the final frame of the film.

2001 is one of my dad’s favorite movies, so I saw it quite a few times when I was a kid. For all of production designer Douglas Trumbull’s celebrated special effects—the Discovery One floating through the silence of space—that otherworldly hotel suite stuck with me. I even had a half-baked idea in college of decorating my crappy studio apartment to look just like it, until weighing the novelty of such a makeover with the practical considerations of bringing pizza, nachos, and bourbon into it on a regular basis ruled it out. Last year, a British artist named Simon Birch fulfilled my youthful dream in Los Angeles, re-creating the bedroom in a contemporary art space. Pictures of tourists taking selfies in front of the reproduced set flooded my social media feed for a few days.

Many of the design details of 2001, like those of any movie viewed from another era, seem dated now. (You may recall all the Pan Am and Howard Johnson’s branding.) But the hotel room remains a setting that could have appeared as easily in 1968 as in the actual year 2001, or in 2018. Fifty years on, an interior wiped of color and done up in stark white still reads as otherworldly, out of time, or reminiscent of a future that keeps glimmering over the horizon but never completely arrives.

I’ve thought of 2001 every time I’ve entered the Walker Art Center’s award-winning new lobby. Built over the bones of the lobby the Walker shared with the original Guthrie Theater until the latter’s demolition in 2006, the new lobby is entered through a jewel-like yellow vestibule that puts you in the middle of a light-filled white environment. The white terrazzo floors are polished to an almost mirror-like sheen, reflecting natural light onto the ceilings and walls in a way that makes them look as if they’re illuminated from within. You could imagine a time traveler from 1968 looking around and asking, “Is it 2001?” Close, you’d tell her: You’re 17 years further into the future. The lobby looks very much like a 1960s-era observer’s idea of what the future would look like.

A few other designs highlighted in the 2017 AIA Minnesota Honor Awards also have gleaming white surfaces, whether interior or exterior. The Faulkner Performing Arts Center at the University of Arkansas, for example, reimagines the lobby of a Works Progress Administration–era gymnasium with swooping, cathedral-like forms and clerestories. The architects cleared out the accumulated untidiness of a tired old athletic facility to create a beautiful, light-filled entrance for a contemporary performance hall.

The Lofts at Mayo Park in Rochester, Minnesota, strips down the crazy-quilt pattern of materials found on many new apartment buildings for a few natural wood accents embedded in a smooth white stucco exterior. Viewed from above, the building looks almost like a meticulously engineered paper miniature. White, like black, goes with anything, and the project sits peacefully next to a leafy park on the banks of the Zumbro River, its bright facade reflected in the water. The urban landscape on the other side of the river is a riot of browns and grays and reds, of industrial and commercial textures. The lack of color in the lofts offers a restfulmoment of simplicity on the edge of a busy downtown.

Color, of course, isn’t a distraction; it’s an important factor in how we experience architecture. But strip it away, and you’ve got an opportunity to emphasize composition and organization above all else. In the renovated Faulkner Performing Arts Center lobby, the architects highlighted the building’s embedded steel frame by stripping its contours down to their essence. The forms are still unquestionably those of the 1930s, when public buildings were designed to evoke a sense of civic pride and wonder. Removing everything else, that sense is what remains.

Perhaps that’s why an all-white space emphasizing form and light still scans as “futuristic,” even if the perception sometimes earns its scare quotes as closer to a retro idea of what tomorrow will look like than the future we’ll live in. The past and the present, after all, are untidy places. The future is a place that doesn’t yet exist, so we can imagine that it’s clean and orderly to the point of luminescence, free of all the design patterns and color palettes that mark an interior’s place in time.

On this point, Kubrick’s vision of the room is different from how Arthur C. Clarke describes it in the novel. In the book, the bedroom is an unremarkable hotel room, stocked by the unseen aliens with hotel furniture, airport novels, and packages of brand-name foods that would be familiar to Bowman. Presumably, all this was upholstered in the patterned fabrics you’d find in a hotel in 1968. “His hosts,” Clarke writes, “had based their idea of terrestrial living upon TV programs.”

In the film, Kubrick strips away all the patterns, colors, and brands that would have made the room into 1968’s idea of what 2001 might look like. Instead, the omniscient extraterrestrials have created an 18th-century chamber with whitewashed Neoclassical furnishings and a luminous floor. It’s kind of chilly. It certainly isn’t cozy in the way a Howard Johnson’s room stocked with Budweiser and Arthur Hailey novels would be to the stranded astronaut protagonist of the novel.

But it does seem impressively rendered, and suggestive of great ability and thoughtfulness. It seems like a place so out of time and space that Dave Bowman, with a sense of awe, crawls into bed and submits to his cosmic fate. An all-white interior, glowing from within, is more spectacular than the wonders of interplanetary space.