|Nicholas de Monchaux|
Consider the Spacesuit, Part 1
In his forthcoming book, Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo, Nicholas de Monchaux probes the Cold War mindset through the lens of bodily enclosure, delving into the conflicts between aspiration and necessity behind the production one of the most innovative garments of all time. Vaulting in scale from the fabric layers required to produce a flexible and impermeable suit to the systems-driven military industrial mindset of the sixties, de Monchaux, a former visiting fellow at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, fleshes out a case for an expanded field of architectural possibility within the hazy and often inconsistent boundaries between man and machine. In part 1 of our conversation with de Monchaux, we discuss Stanley Kubrick, Jane Jacobs, parametric design and the fallacies of Panglossian thinking. Look for part 2 in February.
Leah Whitman-Salkin: In thinking about the privatization of space exploration and the rapidly emerging economy of space tourism, how does the privatization of space exploration interact or mirror the city as a public/private sphere?
NdM: An essential document here is Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. Not because it’s science fiction but because of its relationship to science fact. What people often don’t quite understand is that one of the most important reasons why Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke were able to make the film in around 1968 was not cultural, but financial and institutional. By 1968 NASA had already paid for all of the Apollo hardware – two years earlier, in 1966, almost a nickel out of every tax dollar went to the Apollo program – but that couldn’t be sustained. Apollo had a singular goal: to bring back the TV image of an American on the moon. But after that there was no more investment, and no real plan for continued efforts. So all of these space engineers were all of a sudden out of a job. Many of them, it turns out, went into urban government, but a whole phalanx actually went to work for Stanley Kubrick, because he was hiring. For example, an engineer named Fred Ordway, who had been Wernher von Braun’s assistant at NASA, became Kubrick’s assistant on the film, and supervised the rest of the ex-NASA personnel. So we can actually take a lot of the projections from 2001 as real; they’re not purely science fictional. The hotel on the space station, for example, a Hilton, came from the way in which all these companies were already enmeshed in the space program. It really was a military industrial commercial academic complex, not just a military industrial complex.
The actual story of space architecture is actually about a different kind of adaptation and hybridization. But the story we tell ourselves about it is not. It tends to be singular and spectacular, whether a NASA scheme or Archigram’s or anyone else’s. And that singular, spectacular story has been, most often, they type of space architecture brought down to earth. Another great example is Howard Finger, who designed the interplanetary nuclear spacecraft proposal on which 2001’s Discovery was based. Like many others, in 1968 he left NASA and he went to work for the Department of Housing and Urban Development where he was the director of research and he initiated one of the major 20th century programs on prefabricated housing, Operation Breakthrough. It was an enormous scheme in which dozens of massive aerospace contractors were commissioned to design houses. They built twelve prototype communities and had all these plans for expansion, for an urban and architectural space program on earth.
In this context, we should remember that Hubert Humphrey made a speech in 1968 in which he announced that “the same techniques that brought us to the moon are going to solve the problems of American cities.” The rhetoric was not, as it would be taken now, a matter of comparison. Rather, he was referring directly to this vast set of cybernetically inflected architectural exploits, which went on for about half a decade and in which they were literally trying to use the same techniques which they used to get into space to solve the problems of American cities, not only of management, but of construction, of problem conception, of the organizations to make stuff that would be much more recognizable to you or I as architects: taking the utopian ideal of the space program and mapping it over any real utopia in conception.
Justin Fowler: Just to talk further about fiction, Herman Kahn’s biographer described the work being done at the RAND Corporation in the ‘50s and ‘60s as an “intuitive science” of nuclear war, where speculative hunches became quasi-fictional propositions to be tested through simulation and the “hard” image was underwritten by “soft” fashioning production that involved techniques of trial and error. Do you think perhaps that aside from parametric design there is another foil to your argument in the “green,” where the “soft” green image is underwriting the “hard” performance of sustainability and ecological optimization?
NdM: I would say simulation is one of the key connections. Because we’d never landed on the moon before, we had to develop pretty much every modern technique of simulation in order to do so – in order to practice something that you could inherently not do before you did it, and something on which so many resources of national prestige were depending. By the time we were landing on the moon, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin each separately had done about 3,500 hours of in massive, sophisticated simulators. These simulations developed the technology on which much of current virtual space depends.
Simulation as a tool in design, one that helps master the realities of ecologies, landscapes, and cities, is one of the major intellectual legacies of the space race. In the 1960s at places like USC and UCLA you had the literal hardware of Apollo used to simulate cities. In Washington, you also had the computers from NASA being literally trundled down Constitution Avenue when they were no longer necessary for Apollo, going into the basement of the Marcel Breuer building at HUD to do urban simulation. You can also draw a direct line between this set of transfers and contemporary GIS software, which is used a lot to simulate ecologies, also fluid dynamic software like Ecotect and its ilk.
But of course the issue of simulations is that they only take into account whatever you put into them. The most notable example in Apollo is of a switch in the Lunar Lander deemed not to have to do with the process of landing on the moon at all, and so a dummy version of it was included in the simulator, but not connected to anything. That switch happened to be thrown in reality when Apollo 11’s Lunar Module was descending to the moon, and it caused an unexpected chain of consequences in the sixty-four bit computer that ran the lunar landing, crashing it repeatedly and almost forcing an abort of the mission
More tragically, simulation, and the oversimplification that tends to result has led to a series of catastrophes in the modern space program – the Challenger disaster, the Columbia disaster, and indeed in many other large-scale technological projects: cascading, unpredictable failures. The feeling of omnipotence that simulation inherently grants turns out to be quite different in their role in planning these enormously complex ventures.
Jeffrey Inaba: Retrospectively, thinking about theories of the city in the late-‘60s, what do you see as the interesting ideas that technology related to NASA and the Apollo mission could have been in terms of informing that discourse, not necessarily how it informed that discourse? On one hand you have the failure of planning programs in school, with the modernist notion of city planning seen as being no longer possible or viable; there’s also the rise of the idea of the city as an ecosystem, that metaphorically it operates as an ecology or a biological system; and then you have systems thinking, influenced by NASA. So there’s an interesting intersection of approaches to thinking about the city, two emergent and one declining; and of course there’s Jane Jacobs. What do you see as the interesting, fruitful, but potentially missed opportunities of that moment?
NdM: Outside Apollo, but contemporaneous to it, you had the very important influence of what were then very new ideas in biology, related to the notion of what Jacobs’ benefactor at the Rockefeller Foundation, Warren Weaver, was the first to term “organized complexity.” In Jacobs’ writing you have the resulting notion that cities, like most biological systems, represent a sort of organized complexity, which isn’t necessarily susceptible to systems based analysis or systems thinking. But this leaves us in a difficult place as designers. I love Jane Jacobs dearly, but by nature she was an activist, an opposer: and if you brutally simplify the argument of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, it was just “don’t screw it up,” and thus as a result it provides little or no guidance for those who need to introduce qualities of robustness and interconnectedness into places where those qualities don’t exist. Today, it’s accepted belief that we shouldn’t tear down Grand Central Station, but when I need to make a new high speed rail station in downtown Oakland, where there is a deadly absence of the robustness and interconnectedness that Jacobs so elegantly describes, a text like Death and Life really doesn’t tell me what to do. And one of the things that was most attractive about the systems model was that it did tell you what to do – it projected within its simulations; there were very clear actions you could take. Of course those weren’t necessarily successful, and in the case of something like a pneumatic sewer system installed as part of Operation Breakthough, often hilariously so.
I think this is what some of the elementary discourse in parametric design may be unconsciously reaching towards: we don’t have a good model for how one creates an adaptive, catalytic set of actions architecturally in the city that allow us to conceive of a new way of being – and maybe get there. I think that’s still a kind of underlying hope, tenet, of the profession: in a very space age kind of way, we can make the world a better place through making things in it. But the models that we’ve used historically tend to only work within the confines of the technological systems in which they were made. Instead of helping us in the world, they help us create our own separate world, which causes disruption and confusion when we try to bend reality to fit the model.
In our current moment, anyone who has ever physically fabricated something using parametric software knows that it all works wonderfully inside the machine, but never out of it. In retrospect you may suppress all the fabrication problems in your presentation, but they are always there. To me, however, this is not something to be suppressed, but something to be celebrated, and investigated in its own right. The most interesting moment is precisely this misfit that inevitably happens between a technological systems designed process and the actual world in which things are made. That misfit is the point at which the Apollo spacesuit happened. And it’s the point at which as designers and as thinkers about design we should be most attuned in the present day. If your system isn’t matching reality it is not just because you’re missing a vital variable. We must recognize that there is something in the nature of a technologically organized systems model that might guarantee a misfit with reality but, and in reality, there might be some interesting models for how you might accommodate that difference.
JI: Can you restate the hard-soft thesis as it applies not only to the suit but also the shortcomings of larger systems thinking? It seems like the comparison of the hard suit and the Playtex soft suit is an idea of an image of “hard” (durability, protection, armament, etc.), whereas the Playtex suit, because it’s soft and allows for a greater flexibility of movement, is potentially more effective in being a hybrid between human physiology and new technologies. It seems like what you’re saying in the article and in the book is that a faith in the rigor of scientific hard systems was a way of thinking that potentially had shortcomings compared to ones that thought about scientific systems or ones that were analogous to ecosystems—a hybrid of determinable, objective facts and unpredictable activity.
NdM: A fascination with technology, with coding, and parametric operations is often cloaked or garbed in preconceptions about how codes and forms operate in nature: we “evolve” solutions; we create “morphogenetic systems.” Against this tendency, we can read the space race as more accurate proto-parametric systems design. For the creation of ICBM in the 1950s, a range of characters like the Air Force’s Bernhard Schriver, or Simon Ramo and Dean Wooldridge of what became TRW, invented the first modern process in which objects were created by systems versus by a designer. So instead of blueprints you had a series of systems relationships operating on each other in a way that would be familiar to anyone coding a parametric design in Grasshopper today, and that worked particularly well for making an ICBM because you did have a quantifiable systems relationship between all the parts. However, when it came to putting a man on top of that ICBM there was the immediate assumption made that the same technology, the same sort of linear systems management would work for mankind, most literally in the CYBORG (the word was coined as a proposal for the Apollo program) and then in the more traditional design and the design of spacesuits. In all of this there was a notion of making a spacesuit like a spacecraft, a hard, masculine object. Roland Barthes talks about the masculine nature of the jet-man – “closer to the robot than the hero” – and this is the resulting design notion: the masculine, diagrammable solution.
“Fashion” is a word that architects generally disparage, because we don’t like to think of our works as fashionable, we like to think of them as timeless. But fashion also means to make something out of something else, something for which it wasn’t originally intended. Going back to the current context of parametric design and the really utopian notion of how genes operate, Stephen J. Gould called it a “Panglossian paradigm” – everything has evolved to be perfect. This turns out not to be the case at all. Most things in evolution turn out to be much more fashioned – our eardrums are fashioned out of the reptilian jawbone, so we can’t eat anything bigger than our head, but we can hear, which is great, but it’s not an optimal solution, it’s just using whatever is to hand to make whatever is necessary to deal with current circumstances. It’s really important to remember how when real bodies go into space, something different is happening, which has to do with some very different notions of optimization and robustness and resilience.