The O’Neill cylinder (also called an O’Neill colony) is a space settlement design proposed by American physicist Gerard K. O’Neill in his 1976 book The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space.
Without going outside you may know the whole world…
The farther you go, the less you know
Felicity D. Scott’s article “Lesser Worlds” explore the dynamic potential of imagery to electrify and inform attitudes towards the design of humanity in outer space through the lens of a 1975 diagram by Johan von Puttkamer of a “post-Vitruvian man.” In September 2016 I attended the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico to deliver a presentation on the development of a new architectural language appertaining to Space travel and exploration. Having witnessed a schism first hand between artists and scientists throughout the conference, I can appreciate the power of von Puttkamer’s marriage of Humanist aesthetics with engineering plans and technical jargon.
Von Puttkamer’s diagram borrows Da Vinci’s “cosmografia del minor mondo,” an iconic image from the Renaissance that signified the “rebirth” of Man’s Classical knowledge, which itself culminated in the will to explore, conquer and control new, unknown territories.² The Humanist explorers of old faced similar problems to those we are more familiar with from the Space Age: funding issues, limited scientific knowledge and understanding of where they were to advance into or what they might find. Standing on the verge of a new series of initiatives to move human activities deeper into space, we should not need to remind ourselves of the potential for profit and gain that is at the heart of such plans. Yet contemporary attitudes towards outer space and its design have changed. Plans and designs frequently act as a mirror for terrestrial neuroses. We stand well stand beyond the moment in history von Puttkamer predicted for there to be a “first space community.” If there is to be a space community to come, we should learn from von Puttkamer and ask the question of who, or what type of human occupies it? Von Puttkamer’s “post-Vitruvian man,” created over forty years ago, still resonates with contemporary attitudes towards human odyssey into the stars, yet in order to understand how, we first need to study the context within which von Puttkamer operated and the allowances it gave for humanity’s rearticulation.
Scott posits that von Puttkamer’s diagram “hovers ambiguously between a centered and decentered paradigm, no longer bound by linear geometries or Western metaphysics of space.” Von Puttkamer’s “human” was predicated by an alternative, if not utopian mode of technosocial development than the slow and steady triumph against physics taking place during his time. Von Puttkamer’s approach entailed both necessary technical deviations and idealistic notions of progress; a dynamic, if not frictional pairing that was also evident in the contemporaneous speculative designs for space colonies.³ Rather than imagining new, future worlds, these imagined architectures projected Earth’s culture as it was perceived at the time and carried with it traces of humanism. The Stanford Torus, for example, simply places a suburban neighborhood plan, albeit with Modernist aesthetics, in space. The O’Neill cylinder represents this affinity quite literally, with its solar mirrors radiating outwards like arms from a central body. Just as da Vinci’s human is both circled and squared, this period’s imagination sought to capture and enclose utopia.⁴
While Scott argues that the human element is still “key” in driving research at NASA, and that according to Canguilhem humans both adapt their “milieu” and are adapted by it, the psychological implications of placing an individual in alien environments where perception is fundamentally altered are not yet fully understood. Mental well-being, lack of sensory stimuli, and friction between crew-members is a serious concern for our future in outer space, and with its frontiers of space moving ever outwards, these problems exacerbate. Will humanity have to sacrifice, or as Scott puts it, “crucify” elements of itself to remain central to the progress of Space development?⁵ Current developments in space architecture are largely driven by cost efficiency and functionality, yet we should consider the value of Humanistic form. Although humans can acclimatize, psychological comforts from familiar objects help them thrive rather than just survive.⁶ As kitch as it may seem, features common to urban and suburban terrestrialism such as clock towers would continue to act as landmarks in alien environments, counteracting the lack of orientation often experienced by astronauts.⁷ Instead of a constraint, this could be seen as an opportunity. Rather than simply reusing existing features from a particular era, can we not reinterpret the fundamentals and elements of (sub)urbanity to create a new architectural language for a novel humanity? Such a project would require scientists, engineers, designers, architects and artists to work together to form a new identity for humanity, in ways perhaps not dissimilar from the brave symbolism of the “post-Vitruvian man.”
There was stark contrast between the kind of affairs Scott describes at the 1975 NASA conference and the 2016 International Astronautical Congress. While the presence of NASA, engineering corporations such as Lockheed Martin and entrepreneurial initiatives from the likes of Peter Diamandis was strongly felt,⁸ far from being dominated by scientists shrouded in Cold War style secrecy, what I found was a multi-national group of open-minded students, academics, artists and companies who all seemed to have mutual respect for each other’s ideas. More than anything, this suggests that the groups interested (and involved) in the design of outer space have become much broader than they were forty years ago. The polymathmatic nature of the Vitruvian Man requires the collaboration of scientists, artists and designers to get under its skin and ask what makes us human. While there was an unfortunate tendency at the congress for participants to lapse back into the familiarity and bounds of one’s own specialty, these arenas for mutual conversation are fundamental to the humanization of outward progress. For it is in these spaces of encounter that we can recognize our own, “lesser” limitations, and continue dreaming a greater world together.
¹ Lao Tsu, Tao Te Ching, (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), Chapter 47.
² “Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man,” Stanford University, ➝.
³ The O’Neill cylinder and Stanford Torus were two space settlement designs that emerged at the same time that the media was awash with psychedelic science fiction such as Barbarella and A Space Odyssey.
⁴ Architect-engineers like Buckminster Fuller and Archigram were also suggesting radical transformation of society by creating mega structures consciously indebted to nomadic tribal cultures, for example Archigram’s Walking City.
⁵ Lisa Nip from MIT discusses the notion of modifying the human body, suggesting that through synthetic biology, genetic engineering could make humans and plants more resilient to the harsh conditions of Space. See Tia Ghose, “Humans Should Edit Genes to Survive In Space, Scientist Says,” Live Science (7 April, 2016), ➝.
⁶ Tibor Balint, “The Roles of Design and Cybernetics for Planetary Probe Missions,” 12th International Planetary Probe Workshop presentation, Cologne, Germany (19 June 2015), ➝.
⁷ R. Li et al., “Enhancement of Spatial Orientation Capability of Astronauts on the Lunar Surface Supported by Integrated Sensor Network and Information Technology,” NLSI Lunar Science Conference (2008), ➝.
⁸ Peter Diamandis is, among other things, founder of the International Space University and the X Prize Foundation.
Tanya Eskander is an MA Royal College of Art Architecture graduate working at the intersection between architecture and set design in London. Her work and research explored and challenged the psychological effects of current Space architecture. She was invited to speak at the International Astronautical Congress 2016 where she became a member of ITACCUS (the International Technical Advisory Committee for the Cultural Uses of Space).