In the 1950s, a Missouri-based agricultural biotechnology corporation called Monsanto was looking for new markets and wanted to demonstrate the versatility of plastic—a high-quality engineered material with limitless potential in structural applications. When Monsanto teamed up with Massachusetts Institute of Technology architecture lecturers Marvin Goody and Richard Hamilton, the Monsanto House of the Future was born. \n\nAs imagined by the MIT team, the prefabricated, entirely plastic “man-made” house would serve as a prototype for low cost, flexible housing that could replace poorly designed tract homes. Walt Disney, meanwhile, was looking for exhibits for the Tomorrowland section of his new theme park. Everyone agreed the fit was perfect, and in 1957, the Monsanto House of the Future opened for tours at Disneyland (scroll down for more on the Monsanto House of the Future). \n\nAs demonstrated by the House of the Future, architecture of the 20th century accommodated new ways of living, new technologies, and new building types. Materials such as plastics joined traditional building blocks of modern architecture—concrete, glass, and steel—allowing for innovative, exciting forms as well as economical and quick construction. \n\nTo date, most conservation research into plastics has focused on art, design objects, and historical artifacts, with much less dedicated to the study of architectural examples. Architectural plastics also contain unique environmental, safety, and technological attributes that call for specific research. The Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) is currently building on its existing research into the history and conservation of modern architecture and of plastic objects by conducting a new study of plastics in architecture. The study will help the conservation community better understand the chemistry, technology, and uses of plastic and the ways the materials can age in buildings. ### Synthetic Plastic Enters the Market\n\nEarly plastics were based on modified animal and plant materials such as glues from animal hides, bones, and hooves, or rubber and cellulose from plants. Synthetic plastic materials, made with fossil fuels, entered the market gradually after Belgian-born American chemist Leo Hendrik Baekeland invented phenol-formaldehyde resin, better known as Bakelite, in 1907. Bakelite was the first truly synthetic resin, representing a significant improvement over early plastics: during World War II natural product was scarce, so synthetic plastics became essential to the war effort. Nylon was used for parachutes, ropes, and protective gear, while Plexiglas, other rigid plastics, and synthetic coatings emerged as indispensable components of aircraft and naval vessels. Following the war, the excess manufacturing capacity was redirected toward civilian uses. This, coupled with low manufacturing costs and an abundance of fossil fuels used to make plastic, ensured plastic’s place in the future.\n \n### Plastics: A Love Affair\n\nThe public was especially enamored with plastics during the 1950s. Newly developed formulations with bright colors and shiny finishes formed sleek mid-century modern designs, including furniture, building materials, and all kinds of consumer products. Plastics came to symbolize progress, and fascination with the material even made it into the movies. If you’ve seen *The Graduate* (1967), you might recall the party scene where Mr. McGuire (played by Walter Brooke) encourages recent college graduate Benjamin Braddock (played by Dustin Hoffman) to consider a profession in the plastics field. “There is a great future in plastics,” says Mr. McGuire. “Think about it. Will you think about it?” \n\nPlastics offered opportunities for standardization and mass production, as well as new structural and aesthetic opportunities stemming from the material’s versatility, strength, and light weight. Some architectural finishes, like laminates, simulated more expensive natural materials like wood or stone, but were more affordable. \nManufacturers promoted plastics as durable, hygienic, and easy to maintain. After much trial and error, factories began fabricating plastic and plastic-composite building materials economically, at scale, and with highly predictable and consistent results. Products like decorative laminates and fiber-reinforced plastic panels were produced in standard grades and sizes and touted as easy to install, which further reduced costs by shortening construction times. Also ubiquitous in modern buildings are composite materials like plywood-and-glue-laminated structural elements, which are composite materials combining natural wood and synthetic resins. ### Plastic Is Everywhere\n\nLook around your house, office, or city next time you are out and about. Plastic is everywhere—windows, floors, countertops, structural elements, textiles, decoration. Some building elements are obviously plastic, and the synthetic nature of the material is easy to see. Transparent and translucent PMMA, polycarbonate, and polystyrene can substitute for glass in architectural applications, such as windows, lenses on light fixtures, or shelving. Wall plates and appliance knobs nowadays tend to be plastic. Then there are materials you wouldn’t know were made with plastic. Foams, for instance, are created by incorporating air bubbles into a molten polymer mixture to create lightweight materials, like the stuffing inside your sofa cushions or insulation in your house. \n\nStriking new uses of plastic as building materials characterized 20th-century architecture and now warrant stewardship as cultural heritage. Plastic created features such as the tent roof made of Plexiglas at the Olympic Stadium in Munich built for the summer Olympics in 1972. Today that stadium is one of the city’s landmarks. In other cases, invisible plastics may form integral structural elements, like plasticized polyvinyl butyral sandwiched within structural laminated glass. Invisible plastics can add protection against hurricanes, or be used without conventional supports in a wide variety of new applications including glass stairs, floors, canopies, and curtain walls. Meanwhile seemingly prosaic uses of plastic, like Richard Neutra and Marcel Breuer’s Marlite paneling and sliding Pylon window shades for the Eames House, are more subtle architectural signatures that situate built spaces historically and stylistically and affect their feel and sound. Many of these materials could easily be valued as character-defining elements, and so warrant retention and conservation. This sets up a balancing act between maintaining authenticity and caring for materials that may be prone to fail.\n\n### What’s in a Name?\n\nConservation of modern architecture and materials is a recent and growing field of practice. The list of different types of plastic found in modern architecture is long, and understanding how to properly maintain, conserve, and repair them is a new and fertile area for research. \n\nFundamental to any conservation effort is a clear understanding of the material being conserved. But the diversity and complexity of plastic materials create challenges for describing them. Scientists, conservators, and architects lack a common nomenclature between abbreviations, nicknames, and chemical terminology. Several terms can describe one material, and those same terms can be used to misidentify something else that seems similar. For instance, a “vinyl window” describes a specific kind of plastic framed window but doesn’t tell us much about what kind of plastic it is. \n\nTo further complicate things, the building industry relies on branding to commercialize products and differentiate them from competitors. This has been especially true of decorative laminates sold as Formica, Marlite, Farlite, and Micarta. Many of these brands have been so successful that architects sometimes specify the trade name, perhaps assuming the product will not change over time. But plastic architectural products do evolve, under the guise of improvement or in response to raw material costs. The current version of a branded product may not be a true replica of the original—what was once known as Formica in the 1950s is not necessarily the same Formica of today. \n\nSuch hidden changes can complicate conservation efforts. The composition of the plastic influences its vulnerabilities to the environment. It is important to recognize the various formal and colloquial naming conventions, since these terms directly affect conservation and communication about these materials. Knowing what a material is made of is key to conserving or replacing it faithfully. \n\nThese are the types of questions the Getty Conservation Institute will investigate to better understand how to preserve plastics in architecture. We’ll keep you posted about our progress!