DECEMBER 14, 2011
NOT LONG AGO, I SPENT AN AFTERNOON inside Biosphere II, a 3.14-acre vivarium designed as an experimental “self-contained” ecosystem. Biosphere II hosted two missions — the second aborted in 1994 — in which scientists lived in the dome for a period of two years and six months respectively, in the end learning more about the effects of voluntary human confinement than ecology. The ambitiously named structure (Earth being Biosphere I) was repurposed as a kind of laboratory and tourist attraction. Best known today as the inspiration for the Pauly Shore movie Biodome, the destination offers guided tours of thinly conceived ecosystems: a salty, brackish pond with a wave machine stands in for the ocean; huge vents cut into the site’s floor supply an arid desert with a warm breeze. Most impressive are the building’s soccer-field-sized “lungs”: structures outfitted with rubber diaphragms that stretch to accommodate the expansion and contraction of internal air over the course of an Arizona day. Today, Biosphere II is mostly compelling as a thought experiment — one that you can walk around in. It seems unlikely that the simulated ocean will yield particularly useful experimental data, but as an art project or a philosophical provocation, it’s pretty powerful. What does it mean to build a whole world? One inside of another? Standing in a constructed desert gazing through glass at a larger, surrounding desert, it’s easy to start thinking about insides and outsides, about the membranes that at once separate atmospheres and contain them.
Spacesuit , architect Nicholas de Monchaux’s wonderful material history, is mostly about these membranes. The book begins with that iconic photograph of Buzz Aldrin’s figure against the surface of the moon — along with a simple question: “Why is this spacesuit soft?” For an answer, de Monchaux finds it necessary to look as far back as 1783, pulling in examples from fields as far-flung as computer simulation, psychopharmacology, haute couture, and the work of Gil Scott-Heron.
De Monchaux has constructed Spacesuit (maybe slightly too cleverly) as a series of layers, each corresponding to the 21 layers that comprised the A7L space suit of the Apollo missions. The author revels in finding curious details from the material history of the world, and Spacesuit bursts with dinner-party fodder: Did you know that the U.S. government’s documentation of the Bikini Atoll nuclear tests created a worldwide film shortage? Or that the Apollo mission’s computer-backup system was crafted into a binary pattern that was then physically woven into ropes? And that only seamstresses could be called upon to do this work properly?
While some of the above content might qualify as pure trivia, Spacesuit hews mostly to a consistent theoretical concern similar to that of Bruno Latour’s urban-planning potboiler,Aramis, or the Love of Technology. In that book, a graduate student attempts to discover who “killed” Aramis, the Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) system proposed and abandoned in 1980s Paris. Though the protagonist’s detective work, in the end, proves inconclusive, Latour unveils a novel’s worth of actors, motives, and backstories — illuminating not only fears about personal transit technology, but also urban planning, electioneering, and gender and racial anxieties. Both Latour and de Monchaux treat material history — the affordance of different gauges of rubber, for example, or the turning radius of a train — as completely of a piece with anthropological or sociological concerns: What kinds of documentation did NASA require? What were a train manufacturer’s project management protocols? But where Latour’s Aramisends in a bureaucratic black hole, Spacesuit is, at its heart, a sunny California story of techno-optimism.
Spacesuit © Ed Emshwiller, Courtesy of the Emshwiller family
De Monchaux, a professor of architecture at UC Berkeley, begins his story in the 18th century with France’s state-sponsored hot air balloon flights, the discovery of the atmosphere, and the varieties of “air” found at different altitudes. As investigators began freezing, dying, and experiencing oxygen deprivation in the upper atmosphere, the idea of an “outer limit” to the sky began to take shape. What is “space” but a way to describe the area just beyond one’s natural reach? As de Monchaux deftly shows, how one defines space is largely contingent on one’s own concerns, and on one’s own institutional (as well as physical) position. For astronomers, de Monchaux tells us, space might mean 5,000,000 feet of altitude, “where the atmosphere would offer no distortion to a star’s thin stream of light.” For rocket engineers, spacecould mean the altitude of 100,000 feet, “where the atmosphere no longer restricts the expansion of gases and a rocket’s engine.” For aviators, space is where air no longer supports winged flight — some 250,000 feet above earth. To a doctor, it might begin at 15,000 feet, where humans need oxygen to survive longer than a few hours, or at 35,000 feet, where “a pressurized environment is necessary to avoid eventual unconsciousness and death.” (This typology makes a nice complement to artist Amy Balkin’s project Atmosphere: a wall-sized field guide to the layers of the earth’s air, proceeding from ocean level to exosphere and touching on the relevant ecological, regulatory, political, and ideological forces that come into play at each altitude.)
This last definition of space — an airless, depressurized environment hostile to human life — drives most of the “suiting” in Spacesuit. How did we develop technologies to, on the one hand, make space suitable for the human body, and, on the other, to make humans suitable for space? This suiting can take various forms, from developing drugs for astronauts (suiting the human body for space travel) to the Russian-doll-like engineering of the “fit” between the human body and the space suit, the space suit and the space vehicle interior, and the vehicle and so-called space.
The space suit is necessarily a hybrid technology, and its ancestors are many and varied: “Something is made of something else,” de Monchaux explains, both in terms of material, but also structure. He writes:
A space suit is made out of a flight suit, a Goodrich tire, a bra, a girdle, a raincoat, a tomato worm. An American rocket ship is made out of a nuclear weapon, and a German ballistic missile; a “space program” — a new organization with new goals — is made out of preexisting military, scholarly, and industrial institutions and techniques.
De Monchaux takes special interest in describing the development of what he calls “knowledge cultures”: ways of making, understanding, and communicating facts about objects. These include not just the internal bureaucracies of garment corporations, but also the procurement procedures of government contractors and subcontractors, the media, and the habits and lore of seamstresses. Always at play in the book is the interaction between the material facts of a prototype suit’s performance (How does it suit the pilot? Is it comfortable? What mobility does it afford?) and how that information can be assimilated and made actionable by individuals and teams embedded in complex networks.
Although de Monchaux observes a rough chronology throughout, many of the histories in Spacesuit feel like vignettes. For instance, we hear the tale of Wiley Post, a one-eyed pilot intent on proving the technological superiority of airplanes over dirigibles. Post invented the pressurized flight suit in order to withstand the high altitudes his ambition demanded; he set out to break the speed record for a round-the-world flight set by the zeppelin (a feat he eventually accomplished in seven days and eighteen hours, breaking the previous record by almost two weeks).
We also get stories about the origins of cybernetics (the science of regulatory systems) and psychopharmacology. One chapter describes Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline working to “suit” schizophrenics to their environment using Thorazine and how similar drugs were imagined to regulate astronaut sex drive. De Monchaux also digresses, at length, about Christian Dior’s New Look and the production of the “fashion system,” introducing a way of thinking about a network of material production that necessarily included designers and goods, magazines, photographers, writers, and consumers. The role of clothing in an image economy returns as a primary concern in Spacesuit — in a discussion of the Apollo mission as a television event.
The narrative heart of Spacesuit is the story of Playtex, the women’s undergarment manufacturer. The company, known at the time as the International Latex Corporation, triumphed over the more politically connected, engineering-driven Hamilton-Standard to win the Apollo lunar space-suit contract. It plays out like an after-school special: ILC’s team, a motley group of seamstresses and engineers, led by a car mechanic and a former television repairman, manages to convince NASA to let them enter their “test suit” in a closed, invitation-only competitive bid at their own expense. They spend six weeks working around the clock — at times breaking into their own offices to work 24-hour shifts — to arrive at a suit solution that starkly outperforms the two invited competitors. In open, direct competition with larger, more moneyed companies, ILC manages to produce a superior space suit by drawing on the craft-culture handiwork and expertise of seamstresses, rather than on the hard-line culture of engineering.
The ILC workshop was a hybrid endeavor: Producing new forms required new skills and habits. Space suit contract in hand, ILC now had to adapt to NASA’s engineering culture. Though ILC seamstresses were hand-making each suit to order based on the astronauts’ measurements, the rigorous specifications of the space suit took the craft to an extreme unknown even to couture: “Tolerances allowed for sewing — less than a sixty-fourth of an inch in only one direction from the seam — meant that yard after yard was sewn to an accuracy smaller than the sewing needle’s eye.” Modified treadles allowed the workers to punch a single stitch with each footfall. To curb the use of pins (just one of these misplaced in a suit’s lining could render an entire suit useless), numbered pin-sets had to be checked out at the beginning of each day and returned each evening as a complete set. Once each part of the suit was produced it also had to be described — made intelligible and traceable by NASA, whose bureaucracy was ill-equipped, to put it mildly, to comprehend or regulate an object like a garment. Because each suit and each component of each suit was designed for a specific astronaut, mountains of paperwork followed. Every alteration to the suit required NASA to register the garment as a new object, a complication worthy of a Borges story.
Yet the suits, de Monchaux says, were never actually constructed according to engineering drawings. The drawings were always descriptive, not prescriptive: produced after the fact. To fit into NASA’s engineering system, ILC had to essentially reverse-engineer construction documents of each space suit after they had already been produced. This seemingly small detail points to the vast blind spots across different cultures of making and knowing, and de Monchaux happily points out the appealing irony: The very image of NASA’s technical triumph, the most iconic image of the space race, is in fact a “throwback” — more craftwork than Kraftwerk.
If administrative cultures and professional traditions were one kind of constraining force on the form of the space suit, the global forces of popular culture and Cold War politics were another. One of Spacesuit‘s running themes is the production of images as tools for persuasion. The space suit’s outermost physical layer is just as in-between as any other part of the suit, mediating between a public’s expectation of what the future ought to look like, and the technical requirements of the human body.
This amount of detail given to image is fitting for a subject that was, as much as anything, a protracted media campaign. De Monchaux writes, “From the perspective of Kennedy’s knowledge of the media’s power in the Cold War, the entire effort to go to the moon should be rightly understood as an elaborate apparatus for the production of a single television image.” (Here is a good place to note that Spacesuit is itself dense with beautifully reproduced images, photographs, technical drawings, and media ephemera.) This attention to public perception in the design of flight-and travel predates the space race: The first pressure suit built in the U.S. was used in Air Hawks, a science-fiction feature film, just weeks after it was manufactured. The transatlantic pilot Wiley Post, in a self-performing cameo, wore the suit in the film. Space suits, like flight suits before them, are constantly modified to conform to expectations of what a garment-of-the-future might look like, hastily painted with metallic silver paint prior to public viewing.
Then there is the considerable stagecraft involved in the development of NASA control rooms, the CBS soundstage, and the special effects involved in the television production of the Apollo moon landing as a media event. Walter Cronkite’s set, embedded with a dozen screens, was designed by Douglas Trumbull, the visual effects supervisor for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. A model was built on a treadmill in the CBS studios in order to produce simulations of the moon’s surface; these simulations were then composited with four other images to create an image of the Eagle landing in its approach trajectory. And these images were in turn interwoven with footage from multiple TV studios, Houston’s mission control, and the Apollo itself. The end result: a completely choreographed 31-hour media event viewed by 528 million people (15 percent of the world’s population at the time). It is an astounding portrait of cooperation (or collusion) between government and media. One that now appears almost touchingly naïve in its transparent weaving of government and media goals.
De Monchaux can’t resist telescoping out to more traditional architectural topics: world’s fairs, Bucky domes, control room architectures, the visual display of data at the Houston control structures, and the intriguing but ultimately spurious notion forwarded by Hubert Humphrey that “the techniques that are going to put a man on the Moon are going to be exactly the techniques that we are going to need to clean up our cities.” You get the sense from these wayward rays of illumination that, for the space race and its effect on architecture, media, and the design of cities, an enormous amount of research has yet to be done.
But what is an architecture professor doing writing about clothing, or outer space, at all? For de Monchaux, the layer is more than a structuring metaphor for his book: it’s his preferred way of understanding architecture, as a mediation between a thing and its environment. The book flexes inwards and outwards, presenting the world as a series of layers with no center, and no final periphery — just a series of mediations. The history of the space suit helps us think in new ways about the problem of “suiting” and adaptation. It shows us how other disciplines have arrived at solutions to these problems. Just as NASA overcame its own institutional biases by accepting a design solution from an underwear manufacturer, de Monchaux argues, architecture must mind its blind spots as well.
By taking the space suit as a topic, then, de Monchaux stakes a claim for architecture as a wider pursuit — one that does not presuppose buildings. In the same period as the Apollo space suit’s production, architecture was undergoing changes of its own. Technical professions like engineering came to develop more and more of what might be thought of as the real machines for living: standardized components, HVAC systems, tempered glass — the real architecture. This is the problem that Reyner Banham, who championed everything from the automobile to clipboards and the relationship between potato chips and dip as objects worthy of serious consideration, treated in his 1960 essay “Stocktaking.” “Architecture, as a service to human societies,” Banham wrote,
can only be defined as the provision of fit environments for human activities. The word “fit” may be defined in the most generous terms imaginable, but it still does not necessarily imply the erection of buildings. Environments may be made fit for human beings by any number of means.
Banham’s essay addressed the problem of innovation from without: How could architecture absorb external influences without losing its cherished identity as a professional, classical discipline? The answer, which Banham suggests and de Monchaux would clearly endorse, is to construe architecture more broadly — as building for the future in all kinds of ways. Banham quotes Charles Eames’s 1959 Discourse at the RIBA on the future role of computing in architecture:
Yet, in this circumstance I have described, and in these tools that I have described, I see and feel something which is a real continuity in the architectural tradition … The real planning, the real architecture, and building of the future, is going to be built with something similar to these tools, and part of these circumstances. My plea is that it fall under the head of that great name, architecture, which embraces it.
Rather than seeing architecture maintain itself through tradition, it must sustain itself by absorption: bring the outside in.