In “The Rise and Fall of the RV in America,” the concluding chapter to Winnebago Nation: The RV in American Culture, James Twitchell looks at the future of the RV, its need to change and its continuing promise to offer a new way of living:
“Our cars are smart, our clothing is smart, our food is smart, our temperature controls are smart, but our RVs are stupid.”—James Twitchell
FUTURE FORM: NO MORE BUS BOXINESS
The RV is also going to have to change its form. No more box. It needs a new outline. The gypsy wagon went from horse-drawn to engine-driven, then from looking like a parlor on wheels to looking like a ranch house on wheels. Let’s face it: Most RVs today look dreary, which may be why they get those flashy paint jobs. To get a better form, the RV needs a new consumer. The current consumers are too old and dull. Moving from empty nests, they want a mimic of what they are leaving behind (washer/dryer, ice maker, drop-down televisions, comfy chairs…). Sociologists call this “compensatory domesticity.”
And that may explain why the contemporary RV looks the way it does: It’s trying to get it both ways, home away from home. It’s simply too homey. That’s why the awning that can be extended to welcome neighbors, why the green indoor/outdoor carpeting often spread near the doorway, why the ersatz fireplaces, potted plants, massive couches, twinkle lights, and, most perplexingly, the huge television set that comes sliding out of the cargo bay so it can be watched from lawn chairs. What’s happening is that the old-time home has been dehydrated and then reconstituted so that it is essentially a split-level ranch house compressed and then expanded thanks to the slide-outs and yard art.
But as the demographics change, the mobile-nest prototype may change as well. The Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) asserts that the fastest-growing group of RV owners is now made up of young families between eighteen and thirty-four years old. If the RV really is moving out of what’s called Phase 3 (retirement) consumers and into Phase 2 (active individuals), then the lines of thing itself should change. No longer will “getting away from it all” mean “taking it all with you.” Something else may happen, something more experimental. And the outlines for this change may well come from the places where RV life is just taking hold—Australia and China as well as the American Southwest.
There’s precedent for this flux. Architects have long dreamed of unbolting their buildings from the earth. In the early twentieth century, Le Corbusier and the Italian futurists went gaga over steam trains, ocean liners, biplanes, and anything that moved. Why should housing always be fastened to the ground? After all, humans for centuries have lived in yurts, hogans, teepees, pods, and desert tents. The French Utopie group experimented with pneumatic architecture that could be blown up and deflated. Archigram, in London, responded with the Walking City, which literally got up on its legs and wandered about. Both of these groups took movement as a necessary part of interesting housing.
Now a new generation of designers is experimenting with variations on the gypsy architecture. All kinds of unfolding mini-homes with fewer than 1,000 square feet are on the market. Nils Moormann’s Walden, Sustain Design’s Bunkie, and Tumbleweed’s Tiny Houses are all moveable compressions. You buy the kit and then assemble it, but then you’ll need a crane to move it about. Other innovations are parasitic dwellings, such as the Loftcube, which you assemble on a rooftop, stay in for a while, and then take apart (or hire a helicopter). And there’s a little aluminum-clad box called a Micro Compact Home, which opens up like Origami. To assemble, you plug it into an electrical outlet and up it goes. A selling point is that Micros fit together like Legos. You can attach ten of them and have a little apartment house like the famous Habitat of the 1967 World’s Fair.
But why do the wheels have to come off? Maybe it’s time that we pay more attention to one of the real visionaries in small-space architecture, Wally Byam, who back in the 1930s also realized the importance of wheels. The designer of the Airstream trailer, Byam was also a successful lawyer and publisher of do-it-yourself magazines. Ironically, because his reputation never transcended his signature product, he has never really been appreciated. His vision was for far more than the single sculpted trailer. He imagined putting these trailers together to make a self-contained habitat, a moveable city. He never got to that stage, but his idea of these things moving separately in a caravan by day and then hooking up at night was a step in the right direction. The Airstream trailer, like its cousin the RV, got stuck in the rut of the independent self-contained mimic of home. And that rut was not of Byam’s making; it is a function of who was buying them.
There’s a lot of interest today in creating new houses that are easily moved. A new generation of “green” architects has been influenced by Buckminster Fuller and his Dymaxion House. Bucky’s house was a pop-up geodesic dome supported by wires from a central mast. When you wanted to expand it, you just popped open one of the sides. Bucky even tried to fit one on a Volkswagen bus so it could dock with others. No success. But he was obsessed with what he called “ephemeralization”—the importance of making do on the fly. The key was not to make the individual unit self-contained but to make it connectable with others—in other words, just the opposite of how the RV industry developed. RV manufacturers only wanted to sell the individual things, not worry about how to connect them. Bucky even coined the term drop city to describe how a community could be opened and closed with the least amount of waste. People drop by, they connect, they stay, they fold up and leave.
If this sounds a bit like the RV park, Quartzsite, Burning Man, and even the Slabs; perhaps it should. These flash cities are not that far from Bucky’s drop city. The problems are with the current RVs, however. Our cars are smart, our clothing is smart, our food is smart, our temperature controls are smart, but our RVs are stupid. They are too self-contained. As with what happened with the station wagon, this new generation of buyers may smarten them up. They may not want all that “compensatory domesticity.” Instead, they may want some kind of experimental community, some sort of social network, some kind of mobile neighborhood.