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New Architecture Found in Space!

Following on from the previous post, there’s probably not much chance of oil rigs ever being considered an expression of a new type of architectural beauty. Nevertheless, the idea is still out there, waiting for the right example to express it as the way for the future. The extremely scientific building known as the Large Hadron Collider has had a bit of press but didn’t really capture our imaginations until we all thought the universe would implode. Or unravel or … something. Architecturally as well, it’s a bit of a non-event, no doubt because it’s underground.

Since last week when the last piece was “put in place”, the International Space Station is being touted as the first architecture in space. Space Architecture is THE NEXT BIG THING! Most of this press has been generated by the ISS’s California-based architect David Nixon. Since nothing much has been going on down on Earth recently, most of this press has found its way into the architectural blogosphere over the past few days.

I’m all for the International Space Station being called Architecture but only if it’s for the right reasons. Expensive buildings are already over-represented in the history of Architecture regardless of whether their costs resulted from scale, labour, materials, process or technology. All the same, we know that simply throwing money at a building doesn’t guarantee the result will be Architecture. The only buildings worth writing about are those that make us question our assumptions about what Architecture can be.

According to the usual clichés of 20th century architectural worth, the ISS doesn’t appear to be “growing out of the ground”. We must therefore either dismiss it immediately or otherwise try to conceive of an architectural worth that doesn’t depend upon articulating the possession of property. We must either discard the term “site-specific” as a term of praise, or include dimensions other than the physically picturesque in our definition of “site”.

Visually, the ISS has the object-“landscape” opposition much favoured by Modernists even though it is not “a collection of abstract planes floating in space”. It is not trying to be witty or self-referential. It’s shape does not obliquely allude to some nearby landscape feature, a rocketship or anything. It has no enigmatic signifiers. It is not expressively vernacular, local or community-focussed unless we seriously expand out thinking of what those words mean. It does not “respond” to its environment in any conventional sense.

Indoors, the linear planning creates spaces that don’t “flow into each other”. There is no “sense of space”. No effort has been made to “bring the outside inside”. The International Space Station challenges all these usual preoccupations of architects. Some might say its one big window “takes advantage” of the view. But rather than “blurring the boundary between inside and outside” as if that were a good thing, this window only makes it more clear that Nature is merely what’s on the other side of the wall. In this case, that Nature is constantly and forcefully trying to get inside and kill the inhabitants. Nevertheless, I like to imagine this building has a few plants inside it even if they only do useful things like purify the air and provide nutrients – a bit like on Earth, really.

The bottom line is that the only function of this building is to sustain human life in the midst of a particularly extreme environment. Despite its cost, it’s probably doing this as inexpensively as it can and with as little resources as possible with current technologies. Renewable energy features largely – going for solar was a good call! And recycling really does seem to make a difference to the quality of life of its inhabitants! I’m sure they appreciate the radiation shielding and insulation qualities of their wall/ceiling/floor elements and that, crucially, they see in them a beauty of performance that’s far more important than the artfulness of their arrangement.

I’m not normally in favour of expensive one-off buildings being called Architecture – especially when the techniques and technologies they employ aren’t downwardly transferable to other types of buildings. However, the thinking behind the ISS is downwardly transferable and should be. Immediately. Sooner or later, all of our environments are going to become more extreme and we too will gladly forsake useless beauties.