[Image: An example of gravitational lens effects, via Wikipedia.]
Over at WIRED, Daniel Oberhaus, author of the recent book Extraterrestrial Languages, takes a look at some proposals from NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concept (NIAC) program. “Among this year’s NIAC grants,” Oberhaus writes, “are proposals to turn a lunar crater into a giant radio dish, to develop an antimatter deceleration system, and to map the inside of an asteroid. But the most eye-popping concept of the bunch was advanced by Slava Turyshev, a physicist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who wants to photograph an exoplanet by using the sun as a giant camera lens.”
There is much more specific information in Oberhaus’s piece—about gravitational lensing, etc. etc.—but the following detail is killer. “Unlike a camera lens,” we read, “the sun doesn’t have a single focal point, but a focal line that starts around 50 billion miles away and extends infinitely into space. The image of an exoplanet can be imagined as a tube less than a mile in diameter centered on this focal line and located 60 billion miles away in the vast emptiness of interstellar space. The telescope must align itself perfectly within this tube so that you could draw an imaginary line from the center of the telescope through the center of the sun to a region on the exoplanet.”
Cameras in space, waiting to be discovered—or where astronomy and cinematography become the same pursuit.
Seen this way, the solar system is more like a maze of optical effects, a topology of entangled image-tubes and horizon lines, of gravitational mirages streamed from one side of the galaxy to the next, torqued, lensed, and ribboned into geometric shapes we then struggle to unknot with the right billion-dollar instrumentation.
Along those lines, recall this excellent post on Xenogothic following last year’s unprecedented “photo” taken of a black hole. According to Xenogothic, this curious anti-photo depicting the absence of light reveals “the true, formless nature of photography and our photographies-to-come… The further out into the imperceptible universe we reach, the quicker we must get used to seeing images which are ostensibly not-for-us.” Imaging black holes is art history by other means.
In fact, all of this reminds me of one of my favorite museums in the world, the National Museum of Cinema in Turin, Italy, which begins its history of cinema with a display of circular mirrors, anamorphic paintings, perspectival diagrams, and other optical tricks that, in the proper historical context, seem indistinguishable from magic. The birth of “cinema,” we might say, occurred when someone distorted light with mirrors; its origins are rooted in illusion and reflection, not projection and electricity.
In any case, imagine magicians of the near-future, performing for audiences aboard relativistic spacecraft, making stars disappear by manipulating image-tubes in the voids between planets. Gravitational lensing will pass from a niche science into popular spectacle.
And then, of course—the inevitable next step in a Christopher Priest novel—these magical effects of stellar camouflage, Xenogothic’s “photographies-to-come,” will become weaponized, militarized, transformed into tools for catastrophically redirecting light through space and extinguishing distant worlds.
From an optical effect in the prehistory of cinema to relativistic gravitational lensing in the abstracts of NASA to future galactic conquerors casually folding closed their image-tubes and making entire planets disappear.
[Nearly a decade ago, I wrote a series of blog posts as part of a Fellowship at the Canadian Centre for Architecture. Those posts appear to be falling into an internet memory hole, so I thought I’d reproduce lightly edited versions of some of them here, simply for posterity.]
Specialized landscapes animated by very particular forms of cultural use, sacred groves “held a significant place in ancient Greek life over ten centuries,” Bowe writes. Indeed, “They formed significant landmarks in the landscape, both urban and rural.”
Geographers described them. Poets evoked them. Philosophers discussed them. In them, natural woodland was conserved and new wood planted, primarily for religious, but also for recreational, purposes. Architectural and sculptural elements were disposed. Prominent natural features were highlighted. Some individual trees, being considered sacred, were also conserved. In these various activities, the beginnings of the Western tradition of designed landscapes can be found.
Bowe’s ensuing history of sacred groves describes these “ritual zones” of the forest in terms of “the physical aspects of sacred groves, their location and size, the different kinds of trees of which they were composed, the architectural and sculptural elements that were installed in them and the adaptation for use of some of the natural features located in them.”
This has the effect, he notes, of filling a noticeable hole in historical scholarship: “No detailed description of a sacred grove survives from ancient Greek literature. However, a compilation of the many passing and diverse references in the literature, dating from the eighth century BC”—by which Bowe means Homer—“to the second century AD”—by which he means Pausanias—“may provide us with a composite picture.”
Somewhat obviously, sacred groves don’t leave much to see in the archaeological record—”archaeological evidence is sparse,” Bowe writes with understatement—as their vegetation dies, rots, spreads, or is deliberately torn up and replaced over time (all of the above, in fact, often erase Greek sacred groves from the terrestrial record).
Landscape historians are thus left searching for other sources of information about the ancient world’s enigmatic sacred land-use patterns. Interestingly, these sources include poems and even coinage—archaeology by way of numismatics. Bowe writes that “the evidence of contemporary coins” implies what these groves might have looked like, these coins’ obverse images depicting “boundary walls and entrances,” gates and artificially arranged stone features, as certain groves were shown in miniature on the backs of these moneyed pieces.
The very idea that money might serve as a useful object of study in an art historical survey of lost landscapes is inspiringly unexpected. A visual history of landscape told entirely through coins!
In any case, Bowe assembles a list of tree species most often associated with these sacred sites, including cypress, poplar, olive, oak, cedar, willow, plane, ash, apple, pine, and even palm trees. These groves were quite varied locations, botanically speaking, and they consisted of both wild and cultivated varieties of the trees at hand.
It simply wasn’t the case that a sacred grove had to be one particular type of tree, or that it had to be wild; the sacred qualities came from how the grove was treated, used, interpreted, and even deliberately rebuilt. In the latter case, adding small architectural features, including fences and gates, or even statuettes to the grove were ways of making sacred what in other circumstances might have been a mere garden.
While Bowe’s literary-numismatic archaeology of sacred groves is already fascinating, I found myself wondering what sorts of uniquely specific groves or small forests of our own time might be seen, even if only millennia from now, as “sacred” in some way or another. The “sacred grove,” seen in this light, would really be a kind of specialized forestry service, and thus something interpretatively present in a variety of surprising sites.
After all, it is distinctly possible that a landscape now retroactively seen as sacred might not have been anything of the sort; perhaps it was simply being grown for timber; perhaps it was the subject of a property dispute; perhaps it was over-run with insects for a decade or two and thus left untouched. It should always be assumed, in other words, that ancient sites we jump to call “sacred” might actually have been utterly mundane.
Accordingly, I’ve put together a short, entirely subjective, and by no means anywhere near exhaustive list of a few speculative landscape design proposals and real-life forestry sites that strike me as particularly worthy of consideration in the context of the ancient Greek sacred grove. If, in some future catalog of lost landscapes, one of the following sites was to be listed alongside the sacred groves of a forgotten civilization, how might that transform our understanding of their intended spatial role?
Consider this list nothing more than a brief conversation-starter.
The Shapely Grove
[Image: From “Atree?” by the Bureau of Architecture, Research, and Design (BOARD)].
Rotterdam-based design firm Bureau of Architecture, Research, and Design (BOARD) recently proposed a grove of twisted and looping arboreal forms called “Atree?”
[Image: From “Atree?” by the Bureau of Architecture, Research, and Design (BOARD)].
“Imagine a project that does not need to be constructed,” they write, “because—being a tree—it grows by itself.”
Such a project only needs to be planted. Therefore the transportation of the materials for such a project is very energy efficient, because as a matter of fact, no major transportation of materials is actually necessary. The only materials to be transported are the seeds for planting. And the only energy spent is to prevent hastiness and impetuousness as such a project needs a lot of time and patience to grow.
Using clip-on bioplastic molds that “can easily be transported by bike to the site and fixed simply to the trees,” along with “a fast growing willow that reaches a height of more than two meters in only one year,” BOARD’s roller coaster of a grove would put even Axel Erlandson’s so-called tree circus to shame.
[Image: From “Atree?” by the Bureau of Architecture, Research, and Design (BOARD)].
Are these formal manipulations of a traditional thicket nothing more than stylistic play—mere ornamental tweaking—or do they reveal something more fundamental about how we can relate to the growth and tending of global forests?
Further, could a grove of deliberately misshapen trees—that is, trees that have been formally remade—be archaeologically mistaken for a place of religious significance? If so, what beliefs might we assume were being celebrated in these carnivalesque examples of what Bowe would call “ritual zones”—and who might we think had constructed them? Perhaps a strange race of druidic geometers once turned their forests into prayers and diagrams.
The Moon Trees of Apollo
One of the strangest entries on this list is also very real: the so-called Moon Trees are a distributed forest of redwood, sycamore, loblolly pine, sweetgum, and douglas fir saplings grown from seeds that were taken to the moon and back as part of the Apollo space program.
Apollo 14 launched in the late afternoon of January 31, 1971 on what was to be our third trip to the lunar surface. Five days later Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell walked on the Moon while Stuart Roosa, a former U.S. Forest Service smoke jumper, orbited above in the command module. Packed in small containers in Roosa’s personal kit were hundreds of tree seeds, part of a joint NASA/USFS project. Upon return to Earth, the seeds were germinated by the Forest Service. Known as the “Moon Trees,” the resulting seedlings were planted throughout the United States (often as part of the nation’s bicentennial in 1976) and the world. They stand as a tribute to astronaut Roosa and the Apollo program.
Fantastically, grafts and seeds from the original Moon Trees have since been planted elsewhere, producing second-generation Moon Trees that grow freely in private backyards, public parks, and open forests around the planet.
Compare Moon Trees to the space seed program run by the Chinese government, “a mission that will expose 2000 seeds to cosmic radiation and microgravity.” These cosmically exposed seeds have since been planted here on earth, in the hope of producing a slightly ominous-sounding batch of “super-crops.”
But what about a super-forest—cosmically exposed Moon Trees grown on a continental scale, in a vast sacred grove shaped by radiation from deep space?
The Duplicative Forest
[Image: The Duplicative Forest—17,000 acres of identical trees—courtesy of Atlas Obscura].
I have written elsewhere about a place in Oregon called the duplicative forest, but it seems worth mentioning again in the present context. The “duplicative forest” is a 17,000-acre farm whose poplar trees are “all the same height and thickness,” we read courtesy of Atlas Obscura, as well as “evenly spaced in all directions. The effect is compounded when blasting by at 75 mph. If you look for too long the strobe effect may induce seizures.”
The discovery of an optically mesmerizing forest landscape, one with potential neurological effects on its visitors, and one that was very clearly planted according to an artificial geometric plan, will perhaps not instantly seem like a tree farm several hundred years from now; until its actual quotidian purpose is deduced, the duplicative-forest-as-sacred-grove would be a wonderfully odd thing to ponder.
In England, the car company Jaguar has planted a forest of walnut trees, partially to offset its harvesting needs for the fine wood used in its cars’ interiors. As Jaguar themselves describe the specialty landscape:
The Jaguar Walnut Wood is located at Lount in the heart of Leicestershire, less than 50km from Jaguar’s UK HQ. It was first planted on former farmland in 2001, but there are now more than 13,000 walnut trees and 70,000 other trees in a scenic 80-hectare woodland. Within it is a 27-hectare experimental zone researching the growth of different varieties of walnut tree for use as a hardwood timber and as a source of nuts.
The mathematical logic of an “offset” landscape—something planted or maintained in one location in order to make up for the loss or insufficient quantity of something elsewhere, forming an economic chain of surrogacy and doubling—is already quite fascinating, but a forest specially cultivated by an automotive firm adds an interesting touch.
While wood from these groves does not actually make it into Jaguar cars, the “experimental zone” inside the forest might seem rather regal—or perhaps simply surreal—to anyone stumbling upon records of it in a thousand years’ time.
And who knows: perhaps we might even someday discover that a small grove of walnut trees growing on a hill in upstate New York, on a distant tributary of the Hudson, was actually planted for no other reason than to panel the interior walls of a specific skyscraper in 1950s Manhattan, a grove now derelict and teeming with weeds, its original purpose gone, the rooms it was once meant to panel now themselves long dismantled; or an entire forest somewhere north of Athens, Greece, originally planted to serve as wood stock for a Mediterranean fleet, its trunks and branches grown only for hulling warships, now lies abandoned, bearing no historical trace of that earlier purpose.
How do we account for these missing histories of specialty groves in our sense of landscape mythology?
Her Majesty’s Shipbuilding Forest
The New Forest in England was, in fact, once extensively used and harvested for the purpose of Royal shipbuilding. From the period 1685 to 1875, “timber requirements of the Navy dominate[d] the Forest,” we read in a short history of the landscape. There are even now remnant groves left over from those ship-planting days:
Admiral Nelson, ever mindful of the needs of shipbuilding, visited in 1802 and declared the “finest timber in the kingdom” had sunk to a deplorable state! So, 30 million acorns were planted across 11,000 acres. But before the oaks were half grown, they were redundant, replaced by iron and steel in the shipbuilders’ yards. Thanks to Nelson, however, the forest now contains the country’s largest area of mature oak.
In other words, scattered across an area of nearly 11,000 acres are trees that never became ships—escaping that fate in which whole forests would go to war at sea, their wood sailing into battle in the form of imperial fleets.
We might ask, then: Could a sacred grove be something in which future ships are deliberately cultivated? For me, the most interesting aspect of that question would be the idea that, hovering negatively like a ghost around a forest’s growing branches, are the devices, ships, buildings, and machines that those forests are meant to become—like wooden Transformers, whole groves will unlock their roots from shattered bedrock, clip together in filigrees of undergrowth, and assemble into some vast and fearsome battleship, which then floats out with a monstrous roar into the wine-dark sea.
For Growing A Hidden Architecture, Christian Kerrigan proposed an awe-inspiring series of contraptions—collars, tourniquets, hinges, corsets, and belts—that could be attached to still-growing trees, bending and shaping their growth into a functioning, sea-ready ship.
“By controlling the manipulation of refined armatures, calibrating devices and designed corsets,” Kerrigan writes, “the system is capable of controlling the growth of a ship inside the forest. The ship will grow over a period of 200 years and will exist as a hidden architecture inside the trees. The ship growing in the forest is the ship from the ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner,’ a tale of man’s relationship to mortality.”
In a particularly awesome detail, “the artificial system harvests resin from the trees to measure time passing”:
Slowly growing to completion, the end of the system within the forest is signalled by the Amber Clock, the resin cycles in the trees keeping time. The armatures alter the geometries of the copse with technologies, which are spliced into the hull of the ship.
Kerrigan’s vision of a ship self-assembling through carefully restricted tree growth—and the architectural implications of such a technique—is both astonishing and powerful.
Called Growth Assembly, their project included the added splash of gene-splicing: the trio proposed a grove of genetically modified trees that could sprout machine-parts instead of fruit.
Pohflepp writes: “Coded into the DNA of a plant, product parts grow within the supporting system of the plant’s structure. When fully developed, they are stripped like a walnut from its shell or corn from its husk, ready for assembly.”
This genetic revolution in plant-based manufacturing—wherein the gears used in your car’s engine might actually be the hard fruit of modified trees—would have a corresponding effect on the world’s economic landscape:
Shops have evolved into factory farms as licensed products are grown where sold. Large items take time to grow and are more expensive while small ones are more affordable. The postal service delivers lightweight seed-packets for domestic manufacturers.
Like some Industrial Age “Jack and the Beanstalk,” you simply plant a few seeds and watch as vast, living factories soon grow.
So, with these projects in mind, and having read Bowe’s essay, what other unexpected forest landscapes might we suggest as viable candidates for inclusion in a broadened definition of the sacred grove—a new kind of sacred sci-fi, with mutated trees and fruitful juxtapositions? What is the design future of the sacred grove?
Between cross-country moves, book projects, wild changes in the online media landscape over the past few years, and needless self-competition through social media, my laptop has accumulated hundreds and hundreds, arguably thousands, of bookmarks for things I wanted to write about and never did. Going back through them all feels like staring into a gravesite at the end of a life I didn’t realize was mortal.
In any case, another link I wanted to write about many eons ago explained that legendary producer and ambient musician Brian Eno had been hired to design new acoustics for London’s Chelsea and Westminster hospital, part of an overall rethinking of their patient-wellness plan. Healing through sound. “The aim,” the Evening Standard explained, “is to replicate techniques in use in the hospital’s paediatric burns unit, where ‘distraction therapy’ such as projecting moving images on to walls can avoid the need to administer drugs such as morphine.”
This is already interesting—if perhaps also a bit alarming, in that staring at images projected onto blank walls can apparently have the same effect as taking morphine. Or perhaps that’s beautiful, a chemical testament to the mind-altering potential of art amplified by modern electrical technology.
Either way, Eno was brought on board to “refine” the hospital’s acoustics, much as one would do for the interior of a luxury vehicle, and even to “provide soothing music” for the building’s patients, i.e. to write a soundtrack for architecture.
We are already in an era where the interiors of luxury cars are designed with the help of high-end acoustic consultants, where luxury apartments are built using products such as “acoustic plaster,” and where critical governmental facilities are constructed with acoustic security in mind—a silence impenetrable to eavesdroppers—but I remain convinced that middle-budget home developers all over the world are sleeping on an opportunity for distinguishing themselves. That is, why not bring Brian Eno in to design soothing acoustics for an entire village or residential tower?
Imagine a whole new neighborhood in Los Angeles designed in partnership with Dolby Laboratories or Bang & Olufsen, down to the use of acoustic-deflection walls and carefully chosen, sound-absorbing plants, or an apartment complex near London’s Royal Academy of Music with interiors acoustically shaped by Charcoalblue. SilentHomes constructed near freeways in New York City—or, for that matter, in the middle of nowhere, for sonically sensitive clients. Demonstration suburbs for unusual acoustic phenomena—like Joel Sanders et al.’s “Mix House” scaled up to suit modern real-estate marketers.
At the very least, consider it a design challenge. It’s 2020. KB Home has teamed up with Dolby Labs to construct a new housing complex covering three city blocks near a freeway in Los Angeles. What does it look—and, more to the point, what does it sound—like?
The previous post here mentioned 19th-century cloud chambers, and I was accordingly struck by a quick line in Vanhoenacker’s book. At one point, he describes the construction of airplane bodies inside sprawling factory buildings, whose contained volumes of air are so enormous they can generate their own weather. They are internal skies.
“Some airplane factories are so large,” he writes, “that clouds once formed inside them, a foreshadowing of the sky to come for each newborn jet.”
Of course, other megastructures are also known to produce internal precipitation. NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building at Cape Canaveral “is the second largest building (by volume) in the world, and it even has its own weather inside—NASA employees report that rain clouds form below the ceiling on very humid days.”
As architecture writers like David Gissen and Sean Lally have shown, architecture—in and of itself—has always been a kind of applied atmospheric design, with buildings defined as much by temperature, barometry, and humidity as they are by walls and ceilings.
But I love the idea of aircraft assembly and repair occurring amidst inadvertent simulations of the sky to come, as dew points are crossed, condensation begins, and internal weather fronts blurrily amass above the wings of dormant airplanes, as if conjured there in a dream.
From the fashionable worlds of Christian Dior and Playtex to the military-industrial complex working overtime on efforts to create a protective suit for U.S. exploration of the moon, and from early computerized analyses of urban management to an “android” history of the French court, all by way of long chapters on the experimental high-flyers and military theorists who collaborated to push human beings further and further above the weather—and eventually off the planet itself—de Monchaux’s book shows the often shocking juxtapositions that give such rich texture and detail to the invention of the spacesuit: pressurized clothing for human survival in space.
Bridging the line between clothing and architecture, the spacesuit is a portable environment: a continuation of habitable space, safe for human beings, capable of radical detachment from the Earth. That a “soft” and pliable suit designed by Playtex—manufacturer of women’s underwear—would beat the “hard,” armor-like suit design of military contractors is the surprising core story of de Monchaux’s research.
In the following Q&A, BLDGBLOG speaks with de Monchaux about his book; about his newly announced architectural design track at UC-Berkeley, called Studio One; about the risks and rewards of parametric design on an urban scale; and about his ongoing experiments with architectural representation, including analyses of food production and delivery and a technical interrogation of the complex digital tools we use to map empty spaces in our cities. We video-chatted on Skype.
BLDGBLOG: I’m curious about the origins of the book: did you start off researching the history of systems engineering, only to stumble upon this emblematic object—the Apollo spacesuit—or were you hoping to write a design history of the spacesuit, only to discover that it was connected to these hugely diverse topics, such as postwar urban management and complexity theory?
Nicholas de Monchaux: The project itself really has two origin stories. One is when I first began to research spacesuits, as a graduate student: I expected there to be a single historical narrative. I expected that someone had already written extensively about the Apollo spacesuit, because it’s such an iconic object of the 20th century. But there was very little writing to be found.
Then, in 2003, I was invited to give a lecture at the Santa Fe Institute, which was a slightly intimidating thing to do—I was on the same bill as James Crick, Stewart Brand, and all these other heavyweights! I was looking for a way to discuss the essential lessons of complexity and emergence—which, even in 2003, were pretty unfamiliar words in the context of design—and I hit upon this research on the spacesuit as the one thing I’d done that could encapsulate the potential lessons of those ideas, both for scientists and for designers.
The book really was a melding of these two things. One is very much a situation where the chapters alternate between a focus on the object itself and its astonishing history—being made by Playtex, who was an underdog in the whole suit-design process, and that suit’s hand-crafted nature, etc.—and the other is an equally layered but very outward-looking narrative, from the vacuum of outer space to early ideas of computing, simulation, the body, cybernetic theories of urbanism, etc. etc.
Just as the structure of the spacesuit allowed many different approaches to be hybridized, from girdle-making to military-industrial engineering, so too did the structure of the book allow these complex internal and external narratives to be bound together into a single volume.
BLDGBLOG: At its most basic, your book tells the story of how humans have costumed themselves for extreme exploration. From the Mongolfiers’ balloon to Wiley Post and the high-altitude jump suit, you reveal some fascinating design precedents for the Apollo spacesuit—suggesting that it’s almost more of a technical outgrowth from the history of baroque costume design. Could you speak a little bit more about this background?
de Monchaux: One of the things I find most fascinating about the idea of the spacesuit is that space is actually a very complex and subtle idea. On the one hand, there is space as an environment outside of the earthly realm, which is inherently hostile to human occupation—and it was actually John Milton who first coined the term space in that context.
On the other hand, you have the space of the architect—and the space of outer space is actually the opposite of the space of the architect, because it is a space that humans cannot actually encounter without dying, and so must enter exclusively through a dependence on technological mediation.
Whether it’s the early French balloonists bringing capsules of breathable air with them or it’s the Mongolfier brothers trying to burn sheep dung to keep their vital airs alive in the early days of ballooning, up to the present day, space is actually defined as an environment to which we cannot be suited—that is to say, fit. Just like a business suit suits you to have a business meeting with a banker, a spacesuit suits you to enter this environment that is otherwise inhospitable to human occupation.
From that—the idea of suiting—you also get to the idea of fashion. Of course, this notion of the suited astronaut is an iconic and heroic figure, but there is actually some irony in that.
For instance, the word cyborg originated in the Apollo program, in a proposal by a psycho-pharmacologist and a cybernetic mathematician who conceived of this notion that the body itself could be, in their words, reengineered for space. They regarded the prospect of taking an earthly atmosphere with you into space, inside a capsule or a spacesuit, as very cumbersome and not befitting what they called the evolutionary progress of our triumphal entry into the inhospitable realm of outer space. The idea of the cyborg, then, is the apotheosis of certain utopian and dystopian ideas about the body and its transformation by technology, and it has its origins very much in the Apollo program.
But then the actual spacesuit—this 21-layered messy assemblage made by a bra company, using hand-stitched couture techniques—is kind of an anti-hero. It’s much more embarrassing, of course—it’s made by people who make women’s underwear—but, then, it’s also much more urbane. It’s a complex, multilayered assemblage that actually recapitulates the messy logic of our own bodies, rather than present us with the singular ideal of a cyborg or the hard, one-piece, military-industrial suits against which the Playtex suit was always competing.
The spacesuit, in the end, is an object that crystallizes a lot of ideas about who we are and what the nature of the human body may be—but, then, crucially, it’s also an object in which many centuries of ideas about the relationship of our bodies to technology are reflected.
BLDGBLOG: The spacesuit’s history implies a sort of David Bowie-like situation where astronauts are really cosmic cross-dressers—genderless and post-terrestrial, with no obligation to stay on Earth. But there are at least three different ways, I’d say, of preparing humans for inhospitable circumstances, whether that’s the moon, Antarctica, or Mars: one, you can turn humans into cyborgs, as you just explained; two, you can build them a spacesuit, which makes our ability to visit other planets a kind of unexpected outgrowth of the fashion industry; or, three, you can actually alter the atmosphere of the target destination itself, terraforming it, making it more Earth-like. It’s neither fashion nor architecture, but more like planetary-scale weather engineering.
de Monchaux: Well, I’d say that those are actually still two approaches. The cyborg approach and the climate-modification approach are not only one idea, conceptually, but they are also one and the same historically. The same individuals and organizations who were presuming to engineer the internal climate of the body and create the figure of the cyborg were the same institutions who, in the same context of the 1960s, were proposing major efforts in climate-modification.
Embedded in both of those ideas is the notion that we can reduce a complex, emergent system—whether it’s the body or the planet or something closer to the scale of the city—to a series of cybernetically inflected inputs, outputs, and controls. As Edward Teller remarked in the context of his own climate-engineering proposals, “to give the earth a thermostat.”
BLDGBLOG: I’m curious about other uses of spacesuit technology. For instance, biosafety suits allow humans to clean up after virological outbreaks or to enter Level 4 bioresearch labs without become infected—it’s clothing as quarantine, we might say. But there is also a different kind of space exploration, which is terrestrial exploration into the earth itself, through caving. The complex rebreathing apparatuses and wetsuits used in cave diving, in particular, are perhaps earthbound cousins of the Apollo spacesuit that you describe so well in the book.
de Monchaux: Absolutely. It’s the same notion. In the devices, mechanisms, and portable environments that we make for ourselves, and that we bring with us into these extreme situations, we see both the inconvenient truths and the convenient untruths of the relationships between technology and the body.
In the 1960s, which was a very anxious time in terms of the safety of the body, you have the image of the space traveler—but it was also an era of films like Fantastic Voyage where the human body itself was deemed to be this fantastic environment that we could enter using technologically mediated tools. And, in films like The Andromeda Strain, there’s that fabulous scene where the wall becomes the suit of the medical worker in quarantine. The architecture literally becomes a piece of clothing that you can wear.
In a sense, though, the diving suit is a fundamentally different technical project from a spacesuit. For instance, a diving suit has to protect against external compressive forces, whereas, in the spacesuit, it’s the internal expansion of a breathable atmosphere that the suit needs to hold in.
Other than that simple difference, though, the technologies end up being quite similar. For instance, the hard suits proposed by Litton Industries for use on the moon were never used, because, though they were conceptually very clear, they were logistically more cumbersome than the soft, mutable suits by Playtex. However, they ended up being adapted into a series of deep-sea diving suits—in fact, becoming the first jointed diving suits engineered in the 1960s.
Further, the same industrial division of Playtex that produced the Apollo spacesuit produces many of the suits used today by the EPA for major threat-level spills and contamination events, because the fundamental lessons about how to suit the body for these hostile environments are very similar.
As we’re discovering, we don’t have to go a quarter-million miles to the surface of the moon to discover environments that are inhospitable to the human body.
BLDGBLOG: On a more speculative level, your research implies, in a sense, that architects could simply design portable environments, in the form of elaborate, pressurized clothing and so on, instead of stationary structures called buildings. Put another way, is it no longer an avant-garde question to ask if clothing is the future of architecture?
de Monchaux: There are at least two levels at which that is very much true. An interesting history has yet to be written about the architectural influence of the Space Race. We’re used to understanding groups like Archigram and Coop Himmelb(l)au as being very influenced by inflatable environments and space habitats in the 1960s—and they truly were, and that’s a fascinating history. Even in the Soviet context, you see a kind of heroic architecture that springs directly out of the Space Race, such as the use of gigantic trusses and frames.
But if you look at American architectural magazines from the same era, you don’t see any of that at all. What you actually see is a kind of utopian vision of the systems-management that was at the core of NASA’s own technical approach, as if it could offer its own revolutionary hopes for architecture. In other words, there was something about the European perspective that seized on the actual, physical architectures of the American and Soviet space programs. For the American architectural psyche, the complex systems of the space race implied that any complex situation—cities, in particular—could be subject to principles of management.
This is interesting, especially as we see a return to the intimate as a zone for design in today’s architectural scene. We have many of the same anxieties and hopes now as were the case in the 1960s, when things like Michael Webb’s “Cushicle” first made their appearance. You only have to look at the work of someone like Hussein Chalayan, in fashion design, to see a vision of clothing itself embedded with sensors and actuators and HVAC and infrastructure, that recalls the complexity and function of a building more than anything like traditional clothing. And I would contrast this with the current architectural fascination for extending parametric systems to every scale.
As for the architecture of fabric more broadly, I think, as was the case in the Apollo program, fabric has a discourse of softness, protection, and layering that is very appropriate to our current architectural moment, despite the hard logic of systems that underlies much of what passes for fashion in architecture these days.
It’s also important to note that, in a world that is moving so fast, and in such uneasy and unsettling directions with issues such as climate change, peak oil, and the resilience of cities, that something like a clothing-based solution is probably more credible than parametrically designing whole future cities from scratch. Of course, as was pointed out by Walter Benjamin, fashion and the city have an intimate and particular relationship that I think is of clear relevance to this discussion.
I love the word fashion, by the way, because, on the one hand, it speaks to a kind of utter fabulousness that none of us, as designers, could live without; but, at the same time, fashion means to make something out of something else, often with a connotation that this is something it wasn’t originally intended for.
BLDGBLOG: The application of cybernetic and systems-based approaches to the management and administration of cities is also explored by another recent book—The Fires by Joe Flood. Flood’s book specifically looks at the limitations of cybernetic management as applied to firefighting in New York City. The failures of this era of city management seem increasingly of interest today, in fact, when places like New York now have “Chief Digital Officers” and so-called Smart Cities are all the rage. Your book seems, really, to be a prehistory for all this.
de Monchaux: When I presented the original lecture that turned into the Spacesuit book, I made a link between the spacesuit and the urban and environmental scale, mostly through what I would call a system of analogy; the body and the city have been talked about as models for each other at least since Vitruvius. Yet as I delved into the history of NASA, I discovered that what I had thought of initially as an analogy was, in fact, a dense web of historical and material connections.
In the book, I write about a figure named Harold Finger, who was, first, the director of research into nuclear propulsion for something called NACA, a predecessor of NASA. Finger did things like put the only nuclear reactor ever in an airplane—in a B-36 Peacemaker nuclear bomber. The windows to the cockpit needed to be 9-inch thick plexiglass to protect the pilots from radiation. You couldn’t make this stuff up! By 1962, the same figure—Finger—is designing long-range, nuclear-propelled, interplanetary spacecraft. He actually designed the spacecraft that Kubrick lifted and used as a model for the “Discovery” in 2001, with the nuclear reactor at one end, a long spur, and then a habitation module at the other end. And then he becomes NASA’s administrative director.
In 1968, though, he makes a shift to become the director of research for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. And this was not some unusual, crazy thing, where the director of research from NASA moves to HUD. This was very much the tenor of the time.
When Hubert Humphrey made his famous speech—where he said that the same techniques that got us to the moon would also solve the problems of American cities—he wasn’t operating by analogy. He was actually talking very explicitly about a direct transfer of techniques and ideas. You had this historical moment where there was a perceived crisis in the American city; you had the heroic victory of Apollo; and, of course, you then had the radical defunding of the space program. After all, the space program was only ever designed to produce a single TV image of an American man on the moon. In 1968, once they’d succeeded in doing that, you had all of the original engineers losing their jobs.
For instance, at Berkeley, where I teach, and also at MIT, there was a summer school in 1968 explicitly organized to train engineers who had been let go from NASA for new jobs in urban administration—for NASA engineers to become city managers. You can’t underestimate the extent to which this attempt to transfer the techniques of systems management from the national space program to cities was very self-conscious.
Also in 1968, for example, Jay Forrester wrote a book called Urban Dynamics, a very comprehensive cybernetic analysis of urban problems. Forrester was the guy who invented magnetic core memory—RAM—as well as early systems of computer networking for something called the semi-automatic ground environment, or SAGE, a nuclear defense system for the Air Force. And General Bernard Schriever, commander of the Air Force’s Western Development Division from 1954, developed systems engineering with Simon Ramo and Dean Wooldrige of what would become TRW; Neil Sheehan just wrote a marvelous biography of this moment in Schriever’s career. By 1968, Schriever was running a firm called Urban Systems Associates, or U.S.A. Simon Ramo also published his own book on applying systems engineering to urban problems in the same year, called Cure for Chaos.
Yet much like the attempts of the military-industrial complex to design, in the context of the space race, for the human body, most attempts to cybernetically optimize urban systems were spectacular failures, from which very few lessons seem to have been learned.
For instance, in our current architectural moment, our popular discourses of parametric urbanism and digital urban design seem to have been cut from the very same cloth. I was at the Parametric Urbanism conference at USC eighteen months ago and, just for my own amusement, I juxtaposed a series of quotations that came out of USC in a previous era, from a book written by a guy named Glen Swanson, who gave a symposium on the “Cybernetic Approach to Urban Analysis” in 1964.
If you lay, side by side, quotations from USC’s discourse on parametric urbanism now and USC’s discourse on cybernetic urbanism thirty years ago, for better or for worse, you can read them as a complete narrative. It’s impossible to distinguish which is which. Both are born out of a fundamental faith in technology and a fundamental notion that, if you feed enough variables into a problem-solving system—now we call it parametric, then we would have called it cybernetic—that an appropriate and robust solution will emerge. I’m not, myself, so sure that’s the case; in fact, I’m pretty certain that it’s not.
BLDGBLOG: I’m curious, then, how you’ll incorporate this criticism into your own Studio One program at Berkeley, which will include the use of parametric design tools as well as your own custom modeling software. How will you differentiate Studio One from the overtly technocratic approach that you just described, and what, in the end, is the ultimate goal for the studio?
de Monchaux: I wrote the Spacesuit book very much in the spirit of my own heroes and teachers—people like Alan Colquhoun, Liz Diller, and a whole generation of architects who were also theorists. They intended to figure out the meaning of the moment in which they found themselves, but then also to design for it. That means, of course, that I can’t just sit back and talk about these issues of technology and the city; I actually have to imagine what a constructive practice might be. That’s what I’ve focused on most in the past two to three years, and what has led to Studio One.
But the Studio One project really builds on the work that I’ve published as “Local Code.” I think one interesting point of intersection between them—and, I think, a shared interest with you—is the work of Gordon Matta-Clark. “Local Code” was very much a take on Matta-Clark’s “Fake Estates,” which was not actually conceived as a documentary project. Matta-Clark was interested, in the 1970s, in the kind of fissures and overlaps between the official and systematized vision of property assumed by the cadastral map and the actual nature of property on the ground.
One of the things I think is important about technology in the current moment is that it allows us ever more completely to visualize and very precisely map the fissures between a technologically mediated understanding of the world and the world as it actually is—and then to exploit those fissures as designers.
A bit like my stumbling on the links between the space race and the urban history of the late 1960s, when I went into the “Local Code” project, I thought that “Fake Estates” was just a great analogy. Now, though, you can find 5,000 sites in New York instead of 15, and you can even figure out, parametrically, what to do with them and how to turn them into an ecological resource. But then, when I went into the history, it turns out that, by 1975-77, Matta-Clark was deeply excited about the prospects of computing and digital mapping, and he had conceived a whole project using left-over urban space—in his case, I kid you not, for a whole series of what he called “pneumatic network enclosures” that would have provided resources to underprivileged neighborhoods.
So we can look to his practice not just as a kind of analogical inspiration but, more literally, as an interesting alternative model for architecture: that architecture can be informed by technology and, at the same time, avoid what I view as the dead-end of an algorithmically inflected formalism from which many of the, to my mind, less convincing examples of contemporary practice have emerged.
I’m actually speaking to you right now from the Autodesk office in downtown San Francisco. I don’t know if you can see the Ferry Building over my shoulder [N.b. picks up laptop and angles camera outside the window toward the Ferry Building], but they’ve invited us to do a residency here and to complete the parametric design of the 5,000 leftover spaces in New York that we’ve identified. We’ll have that project going on all spring here, hoping to publish it this summer.
BLDGBLOG: I would love to see the non-urban equivalent of this project. In other words, it would be fascinating to see what scraps of land, in extremely rural areas, also fall into these sorts of federal, municipal, and even just gerrymandered blindspots. Spatial fissures, as you call them, can be just as complex outside the context of, say, downtown San Francisco or Manhattan.
de Monchaux: Of course! The modernist notion that the world needs to be perfect is something that is so fundamental to how architects think about design, yet so potentially problematic in its actual application. Matta-Clark said very directly that “the availability of leftover and unplanned space is one of the primary critiques of progress through modernization.”
BLDGBLOG: One other aspect of your work that I want to touch on briefly is an essay of yours called “Meatropolis,” on food and the city—in particular, on meat and Manhattan. I’d love to hear more about your research into how urban form can be seen as a graph of shifting consumption practices.
de Monchaux: Many people have looked at the history of the city and meat, of course, but that paper was my attempt to see how and whether there was any further truth behind the formal resonance. In the case of my essay, I showed the butcher diagram of a cow and a map of all the neighborhoods of Manhattan—and they do look fairly similar—but the essay tries to examine whether there’s anything more to that superficial similarity.
And, in my mind, there actually is. In both cases, you have complex tissue reduced to a simplified diagram for the sake of its consumption. But we confuse the butchering diagram with the cow, and the neighborhood diagram with the city, at our peril. That’s a highly consumptive and highly simplistic lens—the lens of neighborhoods, the lens of cuts of meat.
Robert Moses once said that, in order to make the city work, you have to cut through it with a meat axe—but it turns out the city has a whole complex set of tissues and connections that are, in Jane Jacobs’s words, inherently irreducible to diagrams. They are, in her words, as slippery as an eel—to use another food metaphor.
I think that, between those two, you have a really interesting space. One of the other historical connections that turned up in my own work is between the early writing of Jane Jacobs, in the case of Death and Life of Great American Cities, and the early research done in the 1950s and 60s on complexity and emergence under the aegis of the Rockefeller Foundation. The Rockefeller Foundation not only funded Jacobs’s work to the tune of about $5,000 in 1962, which was a lot of money back then, but also gave her office space with the then-president of the Rockefeller Foundation, Warren Weaver. Weaver was a seminal founding figure of complexity science, and was, in fact, the first to coin the phrase “the science of organized complexity”—this notion that our attempts at measurement both freeze and oversimplify something fundamental to natural systems at every scale, from our own body to the city, upward to the ecology of the planet as a whole.
Interestingly, just to bring it full-circle, when I gave my spacesuit lecture at the Santa Fe Institute in 2003, the notion that the city itself should essentially be seen as a complex system was something that people took for granted, but it didn’t have a lot to do with the work that was going on there in complex systems and emergence.
Since that time, however, in the last couple of years, I’ve been engaged with the work of two scientists at the Institute—Geoffrey West and Luis Bettencourt—who have gone a long way in showing that, not only should cities be viewed through the analogical lens of complex natural systems, but, in fact, some of the mathematics—in particular, to do with scaling laws, the consumption of resources, and the production of innovation by cities—proves itself far more susceptible to analyses that have come out of biology than, say, conventional economics.
And at the same time, current work in more conventional biology—for example, with the internal biome and ecology of our bodies, where bacterial cells outnumber our own cells by 10 to 1—uses economic and statistical techniques developed to understand cities.
So, without falling too far into sensationalism, we’re getting really interesting indications that intuitions by anyone flying in an airplane at night—that cities look like amoebae or giant life forms—might be a lot closer to the truth than we’ve ever had a chance to understand before, both in the sense that they have their own kind of biology and that organisms are turning out to have their own kind of urbane, material economy.
BLDGBLOG: Even the design tools and software packages that we use often have surprising and unexpected connections across disciplines, from urban mapping to missile guidance and from cancer research to special effects. Software archaeology becomes really interesting, in this context—looking at the shared codes and subroutines of otherwise very different software programs. For instance, Auto-Tune, which is now used on basically every pop record, was actually designed as a seismic-analysis tool for Exxon, to find underground oil deposits. My point is that many, seemingly unrelated disciplines can actually have a lively and engaged conversation together simply on the level of shared research tools.
de Monchaux: Yes. For instance, it’s become fashionable—probably rightly so—to talk about the formal and analogical links between the technological systems and media by which we design today and the midcentury systems of the military-industrial complex. But I didn’t fully realize, for instance, how much of the CAD system that I’m sitting in front of right now here at Autodesk, or the GIS technologies that I make use of in the office, come out of very direct historical and material connections.
For instance, not only is the GIS software that I used to make “Local Code” like the software that was developed to target defensive nuclear missiles; it, in many ways, is that system. It shares code with it; it shares conceptual and algorithmic approaches with it, including the projection of cartographic information onto screens in an interactive way.
As designers, we stand much more shoulder-to-shoulder with the missile-men and systems engineers of midcentury than we might even feel comfortable with, in terms of the tools that we’re increasingly using to shape the physical world.
An awareness of the true nature of those tools is essential, I think, for us to unlock their actual, potentially liberating possibilities; knowing their origins, you can be much more strategic in your relationship to that history, and use these tools not as they were intended to be used—or even directly as they weren’t intended to be used—but from more oblique perspectives, more uncanny angles of incidence. It’s in this territory, I think, that much more essential and interesting architectural research needs to be done.
[Image: The “Trevisco pit,” Cornwall, from which the kaolinite used in space shuttle tiles comes from; photo by Hugh Symonds].
Photographer Hugh Symonds recently got in touch with a series of images called Terra Amamus, or “dirt we like,” in his translation, exploring mining operations in Cornwall.
“The granite moors of Cornwall,” Symonds explains, “were formed around 300 million years ago. Geological and climatic evolution have created a soft, white, earthy mineral called kaolinite. The name is thought to be derived from China, Kao-Ling (High-Hill) in Jingdezhen, where pottery has been made for more than 1700 years. Study of the Chinese model in the late 18th century led to the discovery and establishment of a flourishing industry in Cornwall.”
You could perhaps think of the resulting mines and quarries as a landscape falling somewhere between an act of industrial replication and 18th-century geological espionage.
As Symonds points out, kaolinite is actually “omni-present throughout our daily lives; in paper, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, paints, kitchens, bathrooms, light bulbs, food additives, cars, roads and buildings. In an extraterrestrial, ‘Icarian’ twist, it is even present in the tiles made for the Space Shuttle.”
Indeed, the photograph that opens this post shows us the so-called Trevisco pit. Its kaolinite is not only “particularly pure,” Symonds notes; it is also “the oldest excavation in the Cornish complex.”
Even better, it is the “quarry from which the clay used for the Space Shuttle tiles came from.” This pit, then, is a negative space—a pockmark, a dent—in the Earth’s surface out of which emerged—at least in part—a system of objects and trajectories known as NASA.
Of course, the idea that we could trace the geological origins of an object as complex as the Space Shuttle brings to mind Mammoth‘s earlier stab at what could be called a provisional geology of the iPhone. As Mammoth wrote, “Until we see that the iPhone is as thoroughly entangled into a network of landscapes as any more obviously geological infrastructure (the highway, both imposing carefully limited slopes across every topography it encounters and grinding/crushing/re-laying igneous material onto those slopes) or industrial product (the car, fueled by condensed and liquefied geology), we will consistently misunderstand it.” These and other products—even Space Shuttles—are terrestrial objects. That is, they emerge from infrastructurally networked points of geological extraction.
In John McPhee’s unfortunately titled book Encounters with the Archdruid, there is a memorable scene about precisely this idea: a provisional geology out of which our industrial system of objects has arisen.
“Most people don’t think about pigments in paint,” one of McPhee’s interview subjects opines. “Most white-paint pigment now is titanium. Red is hematite. Black is often magnetite. There’s chrome yellow, molybdenum orange. Metallic paints are a little more permanent. The pigments come from rocks in the ground. Dave’s electrical system is copper, probably from Bingham Canyon. He couldn’t turn on a light or make ice without it.” And then the real forensic geology begins:
The nails that hold the place together come from the Mesabi Range. His downspouts are covered with zinc that was probably taken out of the ground in Canada. The tungsten in his light bulbs may have been mined in Bishop, California. The chrome on his refrigerator door probably came from Rhodesia or Turkey. His television set almost certainly contains cobalt from the Congo. He uses aluminum from Jamaica, maybe Surinam; silver from Mexico or Peru; tin—it’s still in tin cans—from Bolivia, Malaya, Nigeria. People seldom stop to think that all these things—planes in the air, cars on the road, Sierra Club cups—once, somewhere, were rock. Our whole economy—our way of doing things. Oh, gad! I haven’t even mentioned minerals like manganese and sulphur. You won’t make steel without them. You can’t make paper without sulphur…
We have rearranged the planet to form TVs and tin cans, producing objects from refined geology.
What’s fascinating here, however, is something I touched upon in my earlier reference to geological espionage. In other words, we take for granted the idea that we can know what minerals go into these everyday products—and, more specifically, that we can thus locate those minerals’ earthly origins and, sooner or later, enter into commerce with them, producing our own counter-products, our own rival gizmos and competitive replacements.
I was thus astonished to read that, in fact, specifically in the case of silicon, this is not actually the case.
In geologist Michael Welland‘s excellent book Sand, often cited here, Welland explains that “electronics-grade silicon has to be at least 99.99999 percent pure—referred to in the trade as the ‘seven nines’—and often it’s more nines than that. In general, we are talking of one lonely atom of something that is not silicon among billions of silicon companions.”
Here, a detective story begins—it’s top secret geology!
A small number of companies around the world dominate the [microprocessor chip] technology and the [silicon] market, and while their literature and websites go into considerable and helpful detail on their products, the location and nature of the raw materials seem to be of “strategic value,” and thus an industrial secret. I sought the help of the U.S. Geological Survey, which produces comprehensive annual reports on silica and silicon (as well as all other industrial minerals), noting that statistics pertaining to semiconductor-grade silicon were often excluded or “withheld to avoid disclosing company proprietary data.”
Welland thus embarks upon an admittedly short but nonetheless fascinating investigation, hoping to de-cloud the proprietary geography of these mineral transnationals and find where this ultra-pure silicon really comes from. To make a long story short, he quickly narrows the search down to quartzite (which “can be well over 99 percent pure silica”) mined specifically from a few river valleys in the Appalachians.
As it happens, though, we needn’t go much further than the BBC to read about a town called Spruce Pine, “a modest, charmingly low-key town in the Blue Ridge mountains of North Carolina, [that] is at the heart of a global billion-dollar industry… The jewellery shops, highlighting local emeralds, sapphires and amethysts, hint at the riches. The mountains, however, contain something far more precious than gemstones: they are a source of high-purity quartz.” And Spruce Pine is but one of many locations from which globally strategic flows of electronics-grade silicon are first mined and purified.
In any case, the geological origin of even Space Shuttle tiles is always fascinating to think about; but when you start adding things like industrial espionage, proprietary corporate landscapes, unmarked quarries in remote mountain valleys, classified mineral reserves, supercomputers, a roving photographer in the right place at the right time, an inquisitive geologist, and so on, you rapidly escalate from a sort of Economist-Lite blog post to the skeleton of an international thriller that would be a dream to read (and write—editors get in touch!).
And, of course, if you like the images seen here, check out the rest of Symond’s Terra Amamus series.
A seemingly website-less company called Made in Space “wants to launch 3-D printers into orbit and use them to make parts for spacecraft and space stations, which would be assembled in zero gravity.” They would do this using “thin layers of ‘feedstock,’ which can be metal, plastic or a variety of other materials.” Even better, when parts break down, they’d simply be recycled back into future printed components: “Rather than shuttling a replacement part from Earth to a space station, 3-D printers aboard the station could simply crank out whatever’s needed. And the broken part could be recycled into feedstock.”
Of course, this is not entirely different from earlier visions of using radically exported 3-D printers to construct bases in situ on the moon’s dusty surface (using “lunar concrete“)—albeit, here, there is even less gravity to work with and a much more urgent need to plan for the availability of future construction material.
As it happens, a few years ago I was speaking with a concept artist who had worked on some of the earliest (and eventually unused) design proposals for Avatar; these included, he explained, plans for elaborate 3-D printers that would be used by the military in order to establish a rapid forward-operating base architecture on that alien world.
In a way, though, this is simply the microgravitational realization of BLDGBLOG’s earlier proposal for permanently installing 3-D printers inside perpetually incomplete works of architecture so that they can self-expand and internally reorganize over time.
[Image: Mars rover and its gadgets, courtesy of NASA].
This would seem to lead to the question of why 3-D printers, even absolutely tiny ones, aren’t already being included on Mars rover missions in order to test the validity of these architectural ideas; why pack only cameras and chemical sensors and their like on these offworld robots when you could add some kind of robust printhead assemblage? If you could put enough printheads on Mars, say, scattered around like totem poles, some of them could even be rented out as design studio equipment for experimental classes at Georgia Tech or the AA. What, then, would be the implications for the future of Mars archaeology, when the impulse toward heritage management will include artificial constructions on other worlds?
Having said all this, of course, architect Mark Hogan pointed out on Twitter this morning that “3d printing sounds so promising but the printed objects often still look like real-world low-res 3d bitmaps”—sobering, to be sure, but the idea of lo-fi, dot-matrix-quality space stations orbiting the planet, passing over continents and tropical island chains and glinting with distant starlight at 2 in the morning as insomniacs gaze up at the sky, actually seems even more endearing. And, I’ll admit, I have something of a mystical attachment to the possibilities of 3-D printing.
Fast, cheap, and out of control—and coming soon to a sky or offworld near you—these 3-D printers, like tubes of semi-sentient toothpaste, will extrude their low-res geometries, where 8-bit objects meet outsider art, as platforms for the future of human exoplanetary civilization.