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Production still of Fritz Lang's Women in the Moon, 1929

Michael Böhme
Ark in Space

East German poster for the Society of German-Soviet Friendship celebrating the 41st anniversary of the October Revolution

Scouting magazine cover depicting a red Sputnik casting its shadow over a high-rise American city.
May-June 1958

Computer-generated view of the Lockheed-Martin X-33, scheduled to fly in 2001.

Frederick Freeman
Rendering of space station interior for Collier's
March 22, 1952

Skylab astronaut Jack R. Lousma taking a hot shower in the crew quarters

Shimizu Corporation
Rendering of proposed orbiting hotel
Lost in Space
by Victor M. Cassidy

"Architects and designers, as much as scientists and aerospace engineers, have helped to shape our image of space travel, real and imagined," says John Zukowsky, curator of architecture at the Art Institute of Chicago. To prove his point, he has assembled models, drawings and photographs, as well movie posters and other pop culture images, into "2001: Building for Space Travel." The exhibition remains at the Art Institute, Mar. 24-Oct. 21, 2001, and travels to its co-organizing institution, the Museum of Flight in Seattle, Dec. 15-May 15, 2002.

Humans have always wondered at the moon and the stars. Over time, science has demonstrated how insignificant and powerless we are in the immense harshness of outer space. Oddly, this has stimulated speculation instead of quieting it.

"Buildings for Space Travel" presents both the reality of space exploration and fantasies about space. Incoherent as a design and architecture presentation, this show belongs at a science museum, not the Art Institute.

Neighborhood pack rat
"Buildings for Space Travel" looks like the garage of the neighborhood pack rat. Masses of authentic and imaginary space objects and images are jumbled everywhere. We find the internal rudder for the V-2 ballistic missile next to a painting of a futuristic city, ads for Buck Rogers toys and (self-consciously preserved in a vitrine) a child's lunch box with a rocket painted on one side.

Half in shadow about 12 feet up on the wall are a set of circular images -- stills from a 1929 German film about the first woman on the moon, a Communist propaganda poster dated 1958, a photograph of a workman fabricating the oxygen tank for the Delta II rocket, a computer-generated rendering of the Lockheed-Martin X-33 space plane scheduled to fly later this year and much more.

The Art Institute promises a sound track -- a countdown, a rocket launch and an astronaut's heartbeat -- but chirping crickets were all that this visitor heard.

"Building for Space Travel" is installed in the long, dark, curving Kisho Kurosawa Gallery of Architecture. This horseshoe-shaped space is so narrow that two adults cannot stand side by side in most parts of it. Visitors constantly jostle each other and exhibits are crammed together on the walls. This visual and physical turmoil makes it impossible to focus on anything for very long.

The architecture department has struggled for several years with this ridiculous exhibition space. Here's an idea: The Art Institute should move the Children's Museum into its present Architecture gallery, rename it "Squiggly-Wiggly Village," and hold architecture shows downstairs where the children are now. Kids are built closer to the ground than adults -- and they take up less room. They'll have a ball in their new home -- and won't care that it's a lousy place to show art.

Design for weightlessness
The show's catalogue contains some solid essays on architecture and design. Rebecca Dalvesco's essay "Architecture in Motion: The Interior Design of Skylab," for example, considers what was the first vessel in space where people lived and worked in a weightless environment for extended periods of time.

Dalvesco explains that Skylab presented unprecedented design problems. How do you to equip a lab when there is no clear distinction between up and down? How do astronauts eat, bathe, shave, use a toilet and brush their teeth? How do you restrain sleeping astronauts so they do not float out of bed, bump into things and wake up constantly? How is morale maintained in such a small place?

Handles, grips, foot restraints and interior color helped the astronauts orient themselves, move around Skylab and remain stationary while at work. Dinner was never very satisfactory. Magnets were supposed to hold metal utensils down, but they never quite worked, so the astronauts substituted rubber bands. Everyone loved stargazing and earth-gazing through the porthole. "You can see the whole Bahama chain and all the shallow and all the deep water in one big picture," one astronaut exclaimed. "It's really fantastic."

Howard E. McCurdy's "Challenging the Conventions of Science Fiction: The Design of the International Space Station" shows how fantasy retarded design. Most people envision a space station as a large rotating wheel. A 1952 article by the rocket designer Wernher Von Braun was illustrated with a painting of a wheel-shaped space station, the skin cut away to reveal interior fittings like a submarine. Engineers believed that rotation would create "pseudogravity" in space to mitigate the effects of weightlessness on occupants.

About 1970, after years of trying to design round space stations, engineers concluded that the parts were too large to be launched from earth and that construction in space was difficult and dangerous. Modules for today's International Space Station are sent up one at a time and docked to the existing structure. The ISS looks like a disjointed insect, but it works.

Space yachts
The catalogue closes with Rachel Armstrong's "The Future of Space Tourism," a fantastical romp. According to Armstrong, the Japanese have taken the lead in planning for space tourism. The vice-president of Spacetopia, Japan's "First Space Travel Company," calls space tourism the "largest, fastest growing industry in the world economy, turning over several trillion dollars every year, and employing approximately 10 percent of the world's population."

The Japanese Rocket Society and Shimizu Corporation have worked on development of orbital hotels for almost a decade, she continues. According to blueprints, the first accommodations will "likely be rooms in fabricated cylindrical modules, perhaps recycled from discarded space shuttle fuel tanks that are connected together."

Also coming soon are theme parks on satellites with solar-powered space yachts to ferry tourists on intersatellite jaunts. The author adds that the "novelty of the effects of antigravity and partial weightlessness would be great social spectacles." Space tourism societies "could even sponsor various competitions, a space equivalent to the Olympic Games, in zero gravity."

Rachel Rosenthal, a performance artist, returns us to reality. Rosenthal investigates "the interconnectedness of all things, whether human, transhuman, planetary or cosmic," we learn. In a recent performance, she is a "human scapegoat who is sent into space in a strange organic capsule to embody and exorcise the 'Ur-Boor,' the global personification of our incivility, grossness and lack of manners."

Halfway through the performance, a sneeze releases a chip from Rosenthal's nose, "revealing that her space adventure has been but an illusion and that she is really in a dirty backyard in Brooklyn, full of garbage and rotting cars." We must get our earthly affairs in order before we "turn our attention to extraterrestrial ambitions," the author concludes. We couldn't agree more.

VICTOR M. CASSIDY writes on art from Chicago.