Cities and Spacesuits: An Interview with Nicholas de Monchaux
Nicholas de Monchaux is an architect, urbanist, writer and Assistant Professor of Architecture and Urban Design at UC Berkeley. His recent book, Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo, unearths the truly fascinating story behind the design of the Apollo spacesuit, which has surprising relevance to architectural and planning discourse, particularly in the Bay Area. TraceSF co-editor Brad Leibin sat down with Nicholas to discuss Spacesuit and his Local Code / Real Estates project, which uses parametric tools to identify and re-imagine over 1,500 underutilized, city-owned urban parcels of land in low-lying and low-income areas of San Francisco.
Brad Leibin: How did you become interested in the story of the Apollo spacesuit? How is it relevant to your interest in architecture and urbanism?
Nicholas de Monchaux: Spacesuit has at least two origin stories. One is more emotional and autobiographical, and one is more intellectual. First, I’ve always had an interest in how we place ourselves in the universe and how we can understand seemingly magical or mysterious phenomena that are the result of larger complex systems and forces in order to literally, in the case of astronomy, locate ourselves in systems of almost infinite scale; as a result, I started college as an astronomy major. My interest in architecture and in architecture in the city, to which I quickly deflected, really came from the same interest : how we locate ourselves in larger systems and how that changes how we think about our own home.
So that is the emotional, autobiographical story. The more literal story is that as a graduate student I had done some research and writing about technology and design in the American desert. I had the notion that one could find out a lot about domestic space by looking at its most extreme conditions, and the Apollo spacesuit offered the most salient example of how humans adapt themselves to an extreme environment. The Apollo spacesuit was this highly intimate piece of architecture, shaped to the body, which was meant to sustain it a quarter million miles from the surface of the Earth in a highly toxic, caustic environment on the moon.
Then in 2003, I was invited to lecture on the theme of complexity and design at the Santa Fe Institute as part of a very intimidating roster. I thought the lessons of designing the Apollo spacesuit—this complex object made by the same company that made Playtex bra and girdles, in the face of many failed prototypes—might have some relevance to designers’ contemporary relationship with technology and I thought it might make for a good presentation. But, as I got into the history more I discovered that there were not only thematic links between designing for the human body in space and designing for mankind on Earth in cities, there were historical links as well. Many of the same figures who conceived of systems engineering in the context of the nuclear arms race and then the space race were, by the late 1960s and early 1970s, deeply involved in questions of architecture and urban planning. So it turned out there was a direct historical connection between our discipline and the Apollo program. This became the basis for the book.
BL: As you say there was this interesting transfer of engineers working for NASA and the military-industrial complex during the Apollo program to high ranks within the American planning profession in the 1960’s and 1970’s, with unfortunate consequences for American cities. At the same time, there was also a real embrace of space-age technologies and cybernetics within countercultural architecture circles. In other words, these two very different groups (the military-industrial engineers and countercultural designers) were interested in achieving their vision of the contemporary city through similar means. The Bay Area in the 1960’s seems an especially interesting place to me vis-a-vis this story, because there was the then-emerging technology hub in Silicon Valley with its ties to a famously vibrant counterculture. Was the Bay Area affected in different ways than other cities by the transfer of space-age technologies and systems engineering to design and planning?
NdM: Berkeley is deeply implicated in this history of systems engineering and urban design. The office we are sitting in at Berkeley was occupied before me by a fellow named Richard Meier—not Richard Meier the architect, but Richard Meier the urban planner. A very influential book called A Communications Theory of Urban Growth was written by Meier in 1961. In the early seventies a former dean of this college, Richard Bender also wrote an important book called Crack in the Rear View Mirror, about the prospects for systems engineering in prefabricated building. So we’re literally sitting in the space of this story.
In Spacesuit I tell the story of the fundamental conflict between the systems-engineering approach on the one hand, and the logic of the body and the logic of cities, on the other. The Apollo spacesuit—this object made by women who had previously sewn bras and girdles—represented a buffer not only between the human body and outer space but also between the complex organizational logic of the body and the organizational logic of systems-engineering. So when we set up that conflict, it becomes interesting to note that, when I survey the kind of architectural influence of the space race, I can see—especially in the 1960s—two very distinct threads. One thread is the architects in Europe, London in particular, such as Archigram, who were seizing upon the image of the spacesuit as a kind of soft, expansive, pneumatic architecture in projects such as the Cushicle. The Cushicle embodied the idea of man joined with technology and it adopted the visual iconography of the space race, as did much of Archigram’s work, from the scale figures to the structural systems and formal language. In the U.S., certainly in mainstream architecture publications anyways, you see none of this kind of space race iconography; what you see instead is an embrace of systems engineering and the systems approach to design. In the U.S. architects were less interested in the “ends” of the space race, or the literal architecture of space, so to speak, and more interested in the “means” of designing the architecture of space. You see this in the work of figures like Ezra Ehrenkrantz and others, in which there is a systems approach to building that would take some of the larger industrial and organizational lessons of space-age organization and apply them to the building process.
However, California and the Bay Area can’t be classified as falling neatly into one or the other of these threads. Out here, you find the kind of architectural counterculture that also existed in London and other parts of Europe at the time. In California in the late ’70s, early ’80s, you can find the work of people like Neil Denari in L.A., who embraced the physical architecture of the space race, such as monocoque structures, as a countercultural mode. Here at Berkeley you have, most notably, Ant Farm, whose Inflatables embraced pneumatics in much the same way as was then occurring in London. There was a tremendous amount of mutual inspiration between the architectural countercultures of California and London, which were both embracing the visual and spatial iconography of the space race. One notable, if less obvious, Ant Farm project that was a direct commentary on the space race was Media Burn, a staged event in which you have a “President” announcing a mission followed by two spacesuited figures going into this spacecraft-like Cadillac and driving it through a burning wall of televisions. The event was organized and designed to be broadcast on television, making a commentary on TV media in the 20th Century. Well, Media Burn was actually a deep and acute awareness of the tactics of the space race, a massive organizational effort that produced a single television image of an American on the moon and leverage that icon as a kind of weapon or influencer in the Cold War.
BL: It’s interesting that Bay Area architectural counterculture, with its strong ties to its European counterpart, was interested in the visual iconography of the space race, but within the mainstream planning profession in the Bay Area in the 1960’s there was an adoption of the means of the space race, and systems engineering strategies were used to realize a number of major urban infrastructural projects at the time. One striking example, as you know, is BART, at the time the largest civil construction project ever attempted. Its directors broke the massive project down into very specific roles for a vast network of private engineering and construction firms, much like way the complexity of the space race was managed. What kind of effect did BART, and the systems engineering approach in general, have on the Bay Area urban environment?
NdM: BART was the military-industrial complex. It was not only the model of large-scale systems planning in a military-industrial realm; it literally involved the same people. The people who built the trains had never built trains before—they had built missiles—and the people who designed the ticket machines had never designed ticket machines before—they had designed computers for mission control. It was a literal, not just conceptual, transference.
Part of the reason why there was this transference is that there was an idea that all the problems of the city must be like the problems of the space program. But it was also driven by opportunism; the late 1960s and the early 1970s was a moment when investment in cities was replacing investment in military hardware and aerospace. So there was an attempt by all these military industrial companies to get in on the ground floor. Though the investment in cities never actually happened, out of this phantasm you got a large-scale, systems-engineering investment in the city. And the result, as in the case of BART and other instances, were problems—many of which still affect us today—that precisely mirror the kind of problems that resulted from a systems design approach during the space program.
During the planning of BART, you have this complex problem of how to achieve the largest civil construction project ever attempted, and you have a unique organizational enterprise charged with carrying it out. BART is a city; it’s its own jurisdiction, but it’s a city with no citizens and thus no accountability to any constituency besides itself. In BART, you see what tends to happen in the systems engineering process where the system optimizes itself to itself, creating its own internal logic. For example, the trains are precisely run by computers to have perfect head-way, but very little thinking was done about how the system actually interfaces with the complexity of the city. Out of this, you get the terrible urban design of all the BART stations, you get tracks which divide neighborhoods, you get the lack of service to poor populations, and you get the opting-out by wealthy populations with political power, such as in Marin, from the BART system. In Berkeley there is a particularly tragic result because the communities that could least afford the negative effects of the system design had no resources to shape the decision making.
BL: In fact, the lead architect and landscape architect on the BART project actually resigned. There was a real tension between those architects and the engineers during the project’s development. The engineers prioritized the system’s optimization over its interface with communities and many of the stations’ designs were effectively decided by engineers based on how they located the tracks and associated infrastructure, before the architects had an opportunity to provide their recommendations.
NdM: Absolutely. We still see this in highway engineering, which tends to prioritize optimizing the infinitesimal deceleration of a car going around a tighter curve over pulling down a building. Systems will tend to become closed, and they will tend towards self-perpetuation. We still think of this as, “uh, well, in the past, nobody understood anything and we understand it all now.” But you can still find, in every city in America, highway-engineering-led decisions that have enormously negative impacts on urban fabric. And, we still don’t have a good way to bring the populations who are most affected by these decisions into the decision making process. If you go to a conference of highway and traffic engineers you’ll see a hundred presentations on how to optimize flow and no presentations on the effects of infrastructure on communities. But we need to understand that infrastructure is fundamentally a social enterprise that needs to be responsible to people first.
One of the watersheds that is fundamental to understanding the existence of systems such as these was the moment during the Cold War when, in order to design and manufacture ICBM’s, which were more complex than any device previously created by mankind, military-industrial engineering transitioned from designing objects to designing systems. This led to the arms race, which led to the vast institutionalization of a segment of our society that continually created and improved military-industrial systems. President Eisenhower was the one who inspired and created this system as a way to cope with the realities of the Cold War, but he was also one of the first, in his farewell address, to acknowledge the enormous threats it posed to our social and cultural fabric.
BL: As you know, the final Space Shuttle mission occurred earlier this year. In the future, the space race will likely look very different than it did in the 60’s. Rather than a race between enemy nations that is powered, in the U.S., by a massive military-industrial complex, we will have private firms like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic competing with each other. Will there continue to be relationships between design discourse and the space race? What are the implications of the new space race?
NdM: Let me start by saying I’m far more optimistic about the future of the space race in an ecology of competition between firms like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic than I am about the organizational and engineering culture that developed as NASA’s organization solidified and institutionalized in the 1970’s and 1980’s. I actually just wrote a piece for Log that discusses the refinement of the Space Shuttle’s graphic language in the context of this culture. Dwight Eisenhower had dictated, when NASA started, that all corporate logos and military logos would be banned from its rockets and everything would be painted white, labeled only with ‘U.S.A.’ Though the typography on the Gemini rockets and Saturn rockets (used by the Apollo program) was still a military block typeface that we’d recognize from the front of battleships, by the time of the Space Shuttle’s introduction, all typography was upgraded to Helvetica—one-thousand point Helvetica, but Helvetica nonetheless—which, of course, is a very systematic, modernist font that carries a certain message. Even the name of the first Space Shuttle, “Enterprise,” was a response to petitions by Star Trek fans. An image was being created to appeal to the utopian vision of routinized access to space. That vision, of course, was never realized.
Nevertheless, NASA developed a culture that treated the launch of this massively complicated device as routine, with tragic consequences as seen in both the Challenger and Columbia disasters. The 2003 Columbia disaster left that smoking gun Power Point presentation, which underplayed the risk of foam impact on the leading edge of Columbia’s wing based on a software simulation that had been done. NASA’s management chose to abstain from further investigating the foam, even though the simulation did not consider a number of physical factors that were critical to understanding that the damage caused by foam’s impact could, in fact, be catastrophic.
There is a similar problem in today’s architectural culture, where there is too often this idea that simulation is certainty and precision is accuracy. In a lot of parametric design approaches I see a real family resemblance, not just because everything is white and aerodynamic but because there’s a belief that what you get out of Ecotect or out of a parametric study of urban flows reflects reality. Because it is precise, it is believed to be accurate. But neither of those things is true. It is potentially dangerous if we manage to convince ourselves that the precision of simulation and the precision of systems and the relationships between systems equal any kind of real knowledge about the world as it actually operates.
BL: But I also know that, as an urban designer, you use parametric software to develop solutions that respond to complex variables in the city. I’m thinking of the sites you designed in Local Code / Real Estates. Given the limits of parametricism, which you’re aware of, what do you see as its potentials for design, particularly in terms of the challenges that face our cities?
NdM: Well, I’m anything but a hater of technology. I have frustration with some of the discourse around parametricism in the last five years, although I think it’s changing for the better. But certainly, my frustration is not due to a belief that technology cannot solve problems. Technology can be an enormously effective tool but it has its own logic, and that logic is not necessarily the same logic of the problems we seek to solve using that technology. So there will always be a way in which the logic of the system needs to be redirected and appropriated to the logic of the city.
Local Code / Real Estates is a deliberate attempt to do that. Christopher Alexander—to bring this back to Berkeley—is reported to have said at the last CIAM meeting that computers would never be useful in architecture because they can only replace the work of 1,000 clerks and there are no problems in architecture susceptible to the work of 1,000 clerks. I don’t think that’s true. But I think we have to be very careful and strategic in determining where and how we want those thousands of clerks to work. I think there are lots of problems in architecture that are susceptible to the logic of calculation that a digital platform offers. We need to recognize that 1,000 clerks left to themselves will tend to want to solve problems that are very straightforward and precise, creating a world that is highly susceptible to their own measurement and calculation. But straightforwardness and precision is not the real world; the real world is full of uncertainty and contingency. As we face the larger problem—which my work is really directed towards—of fostering both resilience, or resistance to negative change, and robustness, the ability to dynamically adapt in positive ways to conditions, the particular abilities of digital methods have real value, allowing us to envision dispersed and granular solutions versus singular and top-down solutions. In the case of Local Code the issue was stormwater management, heat island effects, and the creation of green space in park-poor neighborhoods. The ability of digital methods to capture and manipulate large quantities of information was instrumental in this realm. In cases like this it makes sense to have 1,000 clerks on a silicon chip doing your work for you.
BL: Let’s talk a little more about Local Code/Real Estates. This project identified publicly-owned and abandoned lots in San Francisco and proposed converting them to green spaces. Can you explain why the conversion of these lots to parks is important from a social, ecological, and health perspective?
NdM: The way that I usually explain Local Code is to talk about an important project that artist Gordon Matta-Clark did in the 1970’s. Over the course of three years, sifting through microfiche, he identified fifteen underutilized, geometrically-impossible sites in New York City that formed a body of work, Fake Estates, assembled after his death. He didn’t really conclude the work. Nowadays, in New York or San Francisco, we can quickly find thousands of sites like that using GIS. The question Local Code tried to address is what to do with them. The interesting thing, when you look at the pattern of underutilized space in cities, is that it is always being utilized for something, but usually not in the best way it could be.
In San Francisco, these spaces tend to congregate, unsurprisingly, in neighborhoods with ecological, social, and public health issues, such as issues of poor drainage, lack of green space, and the like. Local Code proposes to utilize this leftover space in a way that addresses serious, quantifiable, and fundable needs for improved stormwater retention and drainage strategies in low-lying areas, as well as heat island mediation. The project actually uses a combination of GIS and parametric software to customize a solution to the thermodynamic issues of each site with the hope that, in some of the sites, the solution could be further supplemented by a social infrastructure as well. By framing design interventions as a component of quantifiable and fundable projects, we aim to create a social and ecological infrastructure in neighborhoods that deserve it and don’t have good access to it now.
BL: Have you looked at sites in other cities? How are the sites in San Francisco be similar or different?
NdM: San Francisco is a particularly interesting case. There’s a glaring justification for creating porous surfaces in these sites here because they tend to congregate, as do infrastructure-poor neighborhoods, at the bottoms of hills, around highways and in parts of the city that don’t have green space. So they’re particularly well suited for stormwater management.
San Francisco has a serious stormwater issue because the peak flow during our few months of rain is massive. Right now the San Francisco PUC is undergoing an enormous $1.5 billion renovation of the combined stormwater system to prevent the combination of stormwater and sewage overflow during those peak events. I make the case in Local Code that we could better mediate that peak-flow event through porous surfaces and surface stormwater retention in these neighborhoods. It’s a better alternative to putting the money into pipes in the ground.
Other cities in California have the same issue. We’re working with a group called Amigos de los Rios in L.A. to look at stormwater retention and community infrastructure in the unused land underneath billboards along highways and the L.A. River. We’re also being funded by Autodesk to start looking at sites in New York this spring, where there are also stormwater issues but other, more foregrounded, issues as well, such as the heat island effect in the summer in which the city’s hard surfaces acquire and maintain a huge thermal load. Atlanta has the same problem; in fact, it has its own weather systems because it’s ten degrees warmer than area surrounding around it. Looking at cities as thermodynamically active systems and studying how a series of acupunctural interventions can change the dynamics of these systems to create greater resilience and robustness in ecological, social, and public health arenas is the project’s fundamental goal.
BL: There’s been a lot of interest in revitalizing previously neglected urban areas in the past five to ten years in North America. Several landscape urbanist projects, most notably the High Line in New York, have been quite successful in this regard. However these projects tend to be concentrated in transitioning neighborhoods of wealth. Local Code is different in that the sites you are looking at are concentrated in low income neighborhoods. I’m drawn to the idea that Local Code offers a financially viable model for investment in such neighborhoods in the current “Great Recession,” post-welfare state economy. Can you elaborate on this?
NdM: We have an aging infrastructure, and we will need to invest in it over the next decade whether we like it or not, in the same way that a homeowner whose water heater breaks will have to remedy that situation because they just can’t live without hot water. No politician wants to face a populace whose infrastructure is letting them down. But Local Code suggests that this investment is probably going to be the only money we’re spending over the next decade, so we should figure out how to spend it in ways that are going to, A, provide social infrastructure and social and ecological sustainability and, B, do it in a way that creates a dispersed and resilient infrastructure that doesn’t leave us susceptible to the point failures of a single system. So, instead just of fixing the old water heater, we should be installing point heaters around the building or finding ways of adding sun porches that people can sit and gather in, as well!
Thank you, Nicholas, for this conversation! To learn more about Nicholas’s work and teaching, visit nicholas.demonchaux.com. Also check out fashioningapollo.com for more information and excerpts from Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo.