Martian Ordinary

Project

What is Martian Ordinary? The conditions on Mars are very much different from the ones on Earth. Theimages of what Martian architecture could look like are often shaped by the images of architecture alreadyexisting in our mind. We are trying to speculate of the unknown, but constructing it with already known elements.

The increasing precision in the observation and measurement of the cosmos fed a thirst for clairvoyancethat spurred a speculative approach to the unknown, not only scientific, but also fantastic.

Curiosity never stopped, and later, science fiction was born. Sci-fi visions are often characterized by thesimplification of the local environmental parameters to the ones of Earth, establishing a anthropocentricframework, where a certain narrative can be deployed without being perceived too abstract by an averagereader/beholder. This could be regarded as a proto-terraforming.

Terraforming goes beyond the configuration of the physical environment, picturing anthro-po-morphicalien creatures, giving the planets human traces or simplifying gravity to our very own. It is therefore not asurprise that within this context, ‘extraordinary’ is defined by the same parameters as the ones whichdetermine these conditions on Earth.

What humans don’t know; humans invent. And to invent, we can only use the images that are already in ourminds. The speculation is often constructed from elements like what we have seen on Earth.

The ordinary, the banal, the everyday life – is defined from the context we live in. This is the canvas ofreality that we take for granted. We very much live in an era where ordinary has become extraordinary. We haveseen a shift in interest the last decades from starchitecture to a humbler approach.

The ordinary – a moment, previously kept in a distance, suddenly becomes interesting. The recuperationof the ordinary consists in giving dignity even to the most mediocre form, to create a starting point from which tounderstand the context.

But if these eventualities were to be deployed on Mars, the “unalterable” human physiology, evolvedthroughout thousands of years within certain atmospheric, gravitational and pressure conditions, wouldencounter severe challenges. If this ordinary topic is already relevant in today’s architectural discourse,think about exporting it to Mars where simple and mundane protocols will have to change.

Take, for example, the concept of interior – you cannot simply open a door and walk out on the surface onMars. Imagine all of these issues in an environment with only 1/3 of gravity, where your muscles will have tostrive to keep the strength they had on Earth to not wither.

All of these things we take for granted, have to change, and they are all sprung from the specificconditions of Mars, which will in its turn render a certain architecture, that houses the ordinary life for the futureMartians. This is what I’ve explored in my diploma project.

Interview

What prompted the project?

The interest of this topic emerged over the last few years, having the idea of combining my passion for science-fiction and visualisation with architecture for my master thesis. This in combination with the increased media-coverage in both news and popular culture about the future colonisation of Mars, made me decide to investigate how that could be done through the eyes of an architect. I was also lacking a deeper understanding and exploration of what role the architect could have in colonising Mars, and to introduce the discussion of long-term thinking and broadening the perspective. Also, the visions of architecture on Mars, often felt either too speculative or too conventional.

Having this in mind, I wanted to see if I could place my project somewhere in between science fiction and the engineer’s viewpoint, science-fact you could say. I wanted to have a realistic approach, connecting all my decisions to facts and science, but still keep an open mind, questioning current conventions of extra-terrestrial architecture. Authors are many times using their time to thoroughly investigate and research a topic, before writing about it, and I wanted to do the same with my project. Being an investigator, looking for clues and hints in science and society today to create an accurate narrative to build upon, in order to envision what Martian architecture could look like.

Mars has a very specific environment and context, which we have gathered a lot of knowledge about from satellites and probes sent there. In order for me to take part of the information and research done about Mars, I went on two field trips. The first one being to the Wadi Rum desert in Jordan, which is one of the most Mars-like environments on Earth, where I went on a workshop with AA Visiting School, exploring how to look on the very specificness of the site to come up with architectural solutions. The other field trip was to Johnson Space Center NASA in Houston, where I could talk to experts in the field of Mars and space habitats.

All this information was a great foundation to continue developing a design method for the project. Looking at the fundamental differences from Earth, such as: Mars gravity being only 1/3 of Earth’s, atmospheric pressure almost none existent, lack of atmosphere – meaning no breathable air and no radiation protection, sunlight being weaker, and so forth, I understood that the very fundamentals of life would also differ, rendering a very different architecture.

The method I used to explore this was to investigate the protocol of the “ordinary” life. By looking at the very small tasks and routines or daily life, and then zooming out to get a better understanding of the underlying processes that steer the schematics of life.

What questions does the project raise and which does it answer?

Are the existing images and narratives of architecture on Mars too speculative, or are they created too much from an anthropocentric viewpoint? I don’t necessarily see my project as the right and only answer of what architecture on Mars could look like, but it is rather one possible way of many. I tried to develop my project only based upon what we actually know about the planet and not trying to speculate on uncertainties.

How and to what extent can extreme environments as Antarctica act as prototypes for what it means to construct and inhabit Mars?

There is no place on Earth that fully resembles the environment on Mars, although there are some candidates of locations that are more or less “Mars-like”. They are all located in deserts – extremely dry environments – Antarctica being one of those environments. As deserts are very unhospitable environments for humans, they are also often located far away from society. The combination of an extreme environment and isolation in terms of having access to infrastructure, makes it a very good testing ground for how we could live in space or on another planet. The extremeness of the situation gives us an opportunity to study human behaviour in such closed off environments, but also test and develop circular systems of water and energy, as you can’t afford to waste any resources.

Studying this on Earth could help us design better spaces for future Mars habitats, even though we can’t fully simulate a Martian environment. The International Space Station can of course also be seen as another good example of an extreme environment, that is a great study of how to cope with those very different conditions.

To what extent does architecture as a machine for living as envisioned by le Corbusier become a reality?

We will have to heavily rely on technology if we want to be able to survive in an extra-terrestrial environment, as we are not made for such extreme conditions.

Technology and machinery will be a big part of what makes up architecture on Mars, whether it is seamlessly integrated or exposed, you will live in a machine that provides all the basic needs in order to survive. The infrastructure of the architecture could be compared to the human body – a machinery consuming the surrounding regolith – producing oxygen, water, and other vital components for human survival, distributing it all over the habitat.

Relying heavily on technology has its downsides, and I also think it is important to think about how to decrease the dependency of it. A decentralised infrastructural system could prevent serious accidents and failures occurring in a Martian settlement.

What role does architecture acquire in such an inhospitable environment?

On Mars, architecture will be equal to survival. It is the framework that will protect us from the harsh and dangerous Martian surface conditions, and it will make up the reality for those living there. Acting as a defence layer will be crucial, but then it also have to provide a harmonious, safe and somewhat comfortable environment – if people are not to go crazy. Taking in account the human factor of putting things at risk, I think is as important as the engineering of the habitat in order to provide a safe and functional architecture.

In my project I have been thinking about the configuration of spaces, materials, shapes and light, and I think that all of those tools can be used to acquire a healthy environment. Maximizing daylight and at the same time sheltering from the strong radiation is done with using a layer of water within the roof structure, as water acts as a very good radiation protection but still lets light in. I also worked with the overall shape of the habitat – placing the functions along a linear design – forcing the inhabitants to exercise as a part of the design to prevent muscle loss from the low gravity. The low gravity also affects how you move your body, you are becoming lighter – and this is something that architecture should respond to. A staircase is one good example of an architectural element that needs to be designed differently than on Earth. As you weigh less on Mars, a step of a staircase can be higher as you need less energy to move your leg upwards, meaning the proportions of the steps will change. Also, tactility, temperature and even smell, are important factors to consider in the design, and how it actually is affecting people.

How do we need to rethink the very notion and definition of architecture on Mars?

As we are in a very early stage of the process of colonising Mars, we tend to focus more on just be able to get there without any casualties and survive for a short amount of time. If we want to settle down and further colonise the planet, I think it is crucial to understand the planet’s resources and properties fully, in order to create a Martian vernacular architecture. One example of how to use a resource in my project is how I use the intensive excess heat generated from the machinery producing oxygen, water and methane – using electrolysis and a Sabatier reactor. Placing the machines on one end of the habitat, under a layer of regolith, the heat warms up the stone, and is then evenly distributed around the circular habitat, creating a minor heat gradient. This in combination of pools of water being heated, would be able to create clouds within the habitat, when the warm humid air is colliding with the colder roof structure.

What role does your idea of the ordinary play within the redefinition of this?

Using the ordinary as a design method to approach the project, helped me to rethink the basic functions of architecture on Mars. One example of this is how you enter the habitat I have designed. Normally you would enter through an airlock, where you go through one door, waits while it is depressurizing, and then another door opens and you can enter, very much like a flood gate, but with air. There are several cons with this, such as it is relying on mechanics to work, the doors have to be extremely heavy to withstand the pressure difference, meaning if something would fail, it is hard to close manually. Also, in means of flexibility, you have to wait, and it is not possible to be a larger group of people going through at the same time.

By looking at this very simple task, going through a door, that will be a huge part of the ordinary life on Mars, I started to question if that is the only way of doing it. I started to research about it and found out that there would be a way of using water as a medium to even out the pressure difference between the exterior and the interior. Working like a water lock in a toilet, you would enter from the exterior through a water tunnel. This would also clean off the Martian dust, and that is very crucial as the dust can penetrate mechanics, and damage human lungs, and is also considered toxic. If the water on the exterior would be exposed, it would vaporize because of the very low pressure, so it’s important the entrance is placed in shadow, where the temperature would freeze only a thin layer on the surface of the water, so that the water stays. As the pressure inside the habitat is much higher than outside, the air inside would push the water level, so that the surface of the water inside is lower than on the outside. All of this calls for a specific architecture.

From the inhabited environment can we start talking about clothing as the first architectural envelope?

On Mars, exterior means instant death. It’s a sharp threshold between the preciousness and fragility of a Martian settlement, and the conditions threatening to end life. Life on Mars will be defined by constant interior, as even if you are taking a walk on the surface, you will have to wear a space suit, that becomes an extension of the interior. The clothing layer could be seen as one of many layers of interior, and therefore also a part of the architecture.

If Koolhaas in the second section of “Delirious New York”, when focusing on the skyscraper, explains that the building’s interior is detached from its exterior, and that the exterior is obliged to the city, the exterior of a Martian settlement will be obliged to protect its interior settlement. An autonomous interior, driven by its own principles and with desires for representation beyond the confines of its exterior. The importance of the interior also calls for acknowledging the suit as a very important part of designing for Mars.

How do the diverse images used to render the project explore the possibility of life on Mars?

To unfold a project fully, a variety of visualisation techniques is required. Different methods are good for showing different things. In order to explore a narrative fully, I think it is important to use the repertoire of illustrations, renders, diagrams and sketches to being able to show life on Mars. Illustrations/renders are good to depict an atmosphere, a situation. Diagrams are good for explaining schematics and behaviours, and drawings to understand the overall idea of a project and relationships of spaces. Architectural drawings are maybe more suited for architects to read, but the power of images and illustrations is that they appeal to non-architects as they are easier to understand, as drawings are almost like a language of symbols that you are taught to read.

How do these explore a diverse relationship between humans and the surrounding environment?

By using a variation of images to suggest different situations occurring in the habitat, you can start to imagine the interaction between human beings and the artificially created environment. Using people in images is for me equally important as the architecture, as architecture for me is about human beings in the end.

What is for you the power of the image as speculative tool?

An image is able to pass on a lot of information, and in that sense it’s a very powerful tool, as it can easily seduce the viewer. You can communicate an atmosphere, a spatial situation or the function of a space, all within the same medium. The image can also catch the empathic side of the viewer, so that they can project themselves into the suggested world or situation. Being able to show or suggest something that yet not exist, makes it a great tool for speculation, which can provoke new ideas.

What is for you the architect's most important tool?

Communication. Without being able to communicate your project or idea, it doesn’t matter how good it is. A comparison would be a high-quality speaker (the project). It might have really good specifications and is able to deliver amazing sound (the final product), but it’s never going to be better than its weakest link. A low-quality cable (bad communication) would make the sound inferior and the speaker wouldn’t reach its maximum potential.

About

Simon Balotis recently got his master’s degree in architecture from The Royal Danish Academy of Architecture (KADK), within the studio of Urbanism & Societal Change. Simon has previously studied architecture at Umeå School of Architecture, Sweden. He is currently a Stockholm-based architect, looking to explore the realm in between architecture, visualisation and communication. For more information, please visit www.studiobalotis.se

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