Famous Failures

The Champanetti Plastic House

Famous Failures takes us on a comprehensive tour of humankind’s most confident leaps in the wrong directions. The column examines history’s greatest worst, and gives Lasik to our cultural hindsight. In today’s case file, blueprints become bloopers when a race to architecture’s future forgets to factor in the most flawed foundation in the world: the family.

Everyone knew the expression about people in glass houses, but by 1965 plastics became so prevalent that the notion of a glass house seemed ridiculously old-fashioned.

1940s post-war America was rife with desperation to change the subject. Architecture was no exception. Wallace Champanetti unleashed himself on the country’s suburban expansion with bold theories Architecture Digest called “concepts to watch out for” with an unintentionally ominous undertone.

After two decades of cutting-edge designs, the contract of his life came in ’65 from Coper Plastics Incorporated. Days after their meeting, Champanetti announced his new passion project: an affordable home for a nuclear American family built entirely from thick, clear plastic. If proven effective, plastic houses would be mass-produced across the civilized world. Millions entered the national lottery to be the inaugural, experimental Coper Plastic Family.

The Halloway Family of Skokie, Illinois won.

They moved their lives into a two-bedroom with transparent walls, ceilings, and floors. Vincent Halloway got a midlife thrill from the national attention, confident in his family’s functionality despite unusual conditions. His wife, Emily, felt not confidence so much as the certainty an actor feels after hitting the same marks for a thousand performances. She was already an expert at convincing onlookers her marriage worked.

Young Conner relished this bizarre habitat, having raised himself on science fiction magazines like Amazing Anecdotes of Tomorrow. As the midday sun gleamed through the prism corners of his bedroom, action figures floating on his non-existent floor, he felt assured of the future. He thought he already lived there.

Teenage Jennifer knew to be wary of omnipresent eyes. Her protests were ignored. Her parents, obsessed with having a watchable daughter, insisted she fill every moment with admirable, audience-ready hobbies. She began piano lessons. The acoustics of the plastic walls made the notes ring false.

With every wall a window, there was no moment of peace. Vincent and Emily’s love life suffered under surveillance. The whole neighborhood watched Emily pack her bags. When Vincent found the note, he could be seen sobbing through the wall he pounded his fists against. Passersby observed his grief and, unsure of how to react, they waved.

Conner ran away from home to track down his mother with nothing but a backpack full of comics and a homemade astronaut helmet. Jennifer played the piano as her father got drunk and missed an invisible step going down the stairs. She couldn’t hear his screams over the music she played through the night, unable to sleep under inescapable moonlight. Although the neighbors all saw Vincent’s broken leg, each assumed the others would help. The paperboy finally called 911 the next morning as the sunrise gave the plastic house the pink glow of a fortune teller’s ball.

The house was abandoned as quickly as it was filled. Its emptiness on full display, it was quietly airlifted from the suburbs by the cover of night and moved to an undisclosed burial ground to silently outlive all biodegradable parties involved.

Coper Plastics and the failed experiment of the Halloway family sued Wallace Champanetti into bankruptcy. He died while drafting his own transparent coffin. His final words were, “Hamsters live like that every day. What do they know that we don’t?”

Eric Stolze writes ad copy, articles, and screenplays in Los Angeles.