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The architectural relevance of the International Space Station

International Space Sation: Architecture Beyond Earth

To develop new design tactics, we must elevate the International Space Station’s significance beyond the performance of machines

Representing seven years of careful research by David Nixon, International Space Station: Architecture Beyond Earth is clearly a labour of love. Elegantly composed, it achieves its stated aims to provide a readable, historical and jargon-free technical account of this epic project, while wonderful images bring us close to a structure that cannot – like most great engineering works on Earth – be visited.

Yet it is hard not to respond critically to this undisputedly excellent work, owing to the polite neutrality maintained throughout, especially when it comes to the role of design and human experience in the celebration of such an iconic project, ‘a supreme engineering achievement but … also a great architectural one’. [p32] Indeed, following a diligent history of the station, at about a third of the way through, the fascinating – if rather saccharine – first-hand account of being on the station offered by NASA astronaut Nicole Stott is neglected for the technical, political and economic triumph of the work. ‘Based on my time there, I can tell you that the Station is awesome, and living and working there is incredible. All expectations I had before flying were exceeded once I got there. Everything from spacewalking to routine maintenance is part of the amazing adventure in space.’ [p18]

International Space Sation: Architecture Beyond Earth

International Space Sation: Architecture Beyond Earth

Source: Nasa

It’s all so ‘awesome … incredible … amazing …’ – language which may be expected from a wide-eyed teenager on a first visit, but from a highly trained, professional astronaut, a more nuanced and insightful response might be hoped for. Of course, this is evidently an endorsed account, a corporate articulation of the ‘most ambitious habitat contrived by mankind to support its existence beyond earth’. [p39]

Nonetheless, Nixon does not fail to deliver a compelling narrative. We learn that the original vision for the station can be traced back to a short science-fiction story, The Brick Moon written by Edward Everett Hale in 1870 and conceived as a ‘space lighthouse’ that would be visible to all ships at sea. The project was approved by Ronald Reagan in 1984 as a multi-functional space with ambitions to provide a research laboratory, a transport node, a servicing facility, an assembly platform, a manufacturing plant, a storage depot, an experimental space for studying human off-world habitation and a staging base [p31] – a hard sell on convincing investors and taxpayers of its ultimate worth. In 2000, against all the odds, the ISS became the first space habitat that has been continually occupied by, on average, six people.

‘The original vision for the station can be traced back to a short science-fiction story’

The role of ‘design’ in space architecture and the actual human experience, however, is not taken up, being supposedly of lesser value than the engineering feat of making an iconic object in orbit, which scrapes lightly over a lurking wraith – the need for human spaceflight at all. When design is mentioned, it’s either as a symbol of modernity, or as a neutralising factor that mops up the oddities of human encounters within an extraordinary space. Lacking any critical engagement with the project, and untroubled by any poetic lyricism, descriptions sometimes read as brochure captions, or awe-filled museum voice-overs: ‘The International Space Station is a very stylish design … the way it sparkles in the sunlight from a distance … [as] … an enormous jewel. Up close, its intricate composition of precisely fabricated metal parts in a wide array of shapes and sizes takes the Machine Aesthetic of the Modern Movement in architecture to new heights. If we could visit it and touch it, we would be awed and transfixed. The International Space Station exhibits all the characteristics of firmitas, utilitas and venustas.’ [p39]

International Space Sation: Architecture Beyond Earth

International Space Sation: Architecture Beyond Earth

Source: Nasa

Built by aerospace engineers and strung together by political grit, the ISS is a very different kind of construction to the iconic buildings that shape our contemporary city skylines. Indeed, the ISS is ‘space architecture’ according to a semiotic technicality – simply because it is built in ‘space’. This is an opportunity for lively debate, particularly with respect to the role of architects in space colonisation, the human experience within the environments and the value of sending people into extraterrestrial realms for increasingly lengthy periods, with a longer-term aim of space settlement.

Today, the ISS fulfils only one of the functions it was intended to perform – a space laboratory. This is where the Colgate smile that is maintained throughout the account begins to wear thin, and betrays much messier and more interesting insights into what kind of structure the ISS ‘really’ is. In fact, the human experience screams loudest and Stott concedes a critical role for design that goes way beyond Nixon’s argument for triumphalist iconography: ‘I give huge thanks to the designers who convinced NASA to include windows’ [p21], a feature that was initially resisted, because of the implicit technical challenges. Without portals to observe the incredible reality of traveling at 17,500mph around the Earth, orbiting 16 times a day, glimpsing incredible views of the planetary surface and experiencing a sunrise and sunset every 45 minutes, the ISS would be a much diminished facility. Specifically, there would be no ISS planetary observation, which is the most celebrated purpose of the station, and much less of an ‘awe’ inspiring experience for its inhabitants.

‘Without windows to observe the incredible reality of traveling at 17,500mph around the Earth, the ISS would be a much diminished facility’

Nixon’s assertion that the ISS fulfils all the cardinal principles of good architecture, which were established over 2,000 years ago in the reign of the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus, is telling. Given Stott’s first-hand revelations of the difficulties of living in weightlessness, the inappropriateness of assessing third millennial architectures according to these ancient values is spotlighted.

International Space Sation: Architecture Beyond Earth

International Space Sation: Architecture Beyond Earth

Source: Nasa

International Space Sation: Architecture Beyond Earth

International Space Sation: Architecture Beyond Earth

Source: David Nixon

Stott unconsciously reveals the attitude of the space industry towards design through appropriating its aims with interiority: ‘… there is a difference in the interior design and “feel” of the US-built and Russian-built modules … the US modules are somewhat sterile, with a lot of white panels and exposed cables and equipment, while the Russian modules are what I would describe as “cosy”, with a plush tan fabric covering the major surfaces. The smell of the modules is distinctive too – neither smells bad, just different.’ [p20]

‘The US modules are somewhat sterile while the Russian modules are what I would describe as “cosy”’

So, the ISS is smelly. Even space itself is, ‘sweet … similar to that of an overheating car radiator’ [p20] and I am sure inhabitants acclimatise to such peculiarities. And as an aside, personal care is one of the most frequent questions that astronauts are asked, yet ‘toilet’, ‘bathroom’, ‘menstruation’ and ‘personal hygiene’, do not appear in the index (Here is a list of FAQs by the Canadian Space Agency http://www.asc-csa.gc.ca/eng/astronauts/faq.asp, and here, British astronaut Tim Peake answers ‘the big question’ about how astronauts pee https://uk.news.yahoo.com/space-toilets-astronaut-tim-peake-114547301.html).

Stott asserts that weightlessness is ‘liberating’ right before observing, ‘organization is key in zero-g. Hence the prolific use of Velcro and bungees’. [p18] In other words, if you let your personal items go, you might not find them again for months, not even down the back of a sofa. Not particularly ‘liberating’ – at the very least highly inconvenient when you’re used to Earth’s gravity.

International Space Sation: Architecture Beyond Earth

International Space Sation: Architecture Beyond Earth

Source: Nasa

Although it is not explicitly stated, being in orbit is an extremely challenging place to live. Beyond the obvious health-threatening onset of muscle weakness and osteoporosis, other strange bodily adaptations occur – such as the need for prehensile use of feet to grip surfaces with [p20] which results in callouses – let alone the troubling sound of metal creaking like an old ship as external temperatures swing wildly.

‘Space is not a faceless frontier, but a screen onto which we project our current modes of living’

These issues of living, life, inhabitation and design are critical to our times. Space is not a faceless frontier, but a screen onto which we project our current modes of living and ‘being in the world’. Nixon’s documentation provides a pressing opportunity to think about our modes of habitation and assumptions for how we might flourish, not just away from Earth’s surface, but also upon the Earth right here and now.

The future of the ISS is murky after 2024, where space missions to Mars will be on NASA’s agenda. There are plans afoot to make better and fuller use of it as a staging station, and with privatisation and funding issues looming, who knows what the ISS will become – perhaps a studio for reality TV.

International Space Sation: Architecture Beyond Earth

International Space Sation: Architecture Beyond Earth

Source: Nasa

Architecture Beyond Earth is an unapologetically modern view of the development of space, with industrial ambitions. Its ‘values’ gesture towards new economies, markets and opportunities in resource plundering. Moreover, space junk becomes a real thing. In other words, all those issues that we are trying to ameliorate here on Earth with unfettered global-scale industrialisation are being ignored as we occupy extreme spaces. Perhaps projects like the ISS will become iconic of the kinds of projects that we do not wish to perpetuate.

‘All those issues that we are trying to ameliorate here on Earth with unfettered global-scale industrialisation are being ignored as we occupy extreme spaces’

This book does everything that it claims it sets out to do. Yet, given the scholarly diligence that has been invested in recording the construction of our very own ‘space house’, I hope that designers, artists, architects, cultural historians and all kinds of teratogenic opinion-makers, chew on its contents and elevate its significance beyond the performance of machines and the spoils of the enterprise, and continue to read into the peculiarities that leak out of the spandrels between its highly presentable spaces. It is time to use these opportunities to consider how we can construct different kinds of habitats, with biospheres and ‘worlding’ as the primary apparatuses for living. Such life-promoting architectures may not only help us to develop design tactics and material programmes for living in extreme environments like space, but also help us to better dwell upon our boiling, drowning, polluted world, so that we may turn the paradigm for inhabiting our spaces around – where there are people, there is life. Much have we accomplished – and we should celebrate our achievements. But there is still a long way to go.

International Space Sation: Architecture Beyond Earth

International Space Sation: Architecture Beyond Earth

Source: Nasa

International Space Station: Architecture Beyond Earth

Author: David Nixon

Publisher: Circa Press

Price: £65