The Mars Underground City


What is architecture’s role in space travel currently? Some might argue that the architect’s hand is sparingly used, if not effectively absent, in the design of living quarters on vehicles like Shuttle and ISS. While the validity of this statement can be debated, it most certainly cannot remain true moving forward. As both government and private space programs begin to consider living in habitats on other celestial bodies for orders of magnitude longer than any manned mission to date, the value of architecture will present itself as critical to the short-term execution and long-term success of bases on other worlds.

Of these reachable other worlds, Mars is by far the most similar to Earth, and represents our best chance at establishing a foothold elsewhere in the solar system. While this project operates under several assumptions, the most critical is a belief that Mars must — in the very near future — become a place that humankind has seen firsthand. As manned missions to Mars evolve, the spaces that explorers inhabit will have to make commensurate strides. While early manned missions will rely on heavily engineered capsules, the potential for a permanent Martian settlement must become architecturally driven, expanding a sole focus on survival to include the concept of living.

Balancing these two considerations becomes the main challenge of creating a permanent settlement on Mars, and more specifically, defining its architecture. Herein, the ultimate role of the architect is devising a vernacular that facilitates that balance, and in so doing connects those on Mars with the planet through an intimate relationship with place. More simply, the architect is responsible for making the “there” of Mars into a “here” that can be processed and understood itself, rather than solely through its relationship to Earth.

To fully realize this responsibility, The Mars Underground City challenges the current conception of space habitats, calling into question the viability of the surface as a long-term solution, and suggesting that more promise for the development of Martian civilization lies underneath it. In addition to physical and spatial benefits, a rejection of the surface makes the inclusion of Mars-specific phenomena an actual necessity, and presents their inclusion as a unique opportunity to engage the planet in a new way.

These opportunities are shown through the creation of a plausible “future history” in which the stage is set for permanent settlements. This narrative is facilitated by a collages, charts, comics, diagrams, and technical drawings, where architecture serves as a speculative way of addressing biological, spatial and temporal orientation through the built environment. In-situ materials, their form, and the way in which those forms connect with both light and time — universal phenomena that are still unique to place — make up a vernacular kit that can be employed to catalyze living and social development away from the confines of Earth. Additionally, the reliance on an architectural system, rather than a singular design, allows for educated, heuristic decisions to be made without fear of the main idea being nullified by discoveries or incorrect estimations.


What prompted the project?

A combination of personal interest and what is going on in the field currently. I’ve always been incredibly interested in space and the space program, which led me to get my undergraduate degree in aerospace engineering, so when I started in architecture there was always a desire to combine those interests somehow and to have them inform one another. Additionally, there’s a huge renewal in public interest towards manned space travel right now thanks to Curiosity, the Mars 2020 Rover, and the strides being made by companies like Bigelow, SpaceX, Blue Origin, etc. That renewal is starting to bleed into architecture and I wanted to be a part of that.

What questions does the project answer?

The main questions I wanted to answer are what is architecture’s value to manned spacefaring? What is the reason you want an architect in the hangar, or in the mission control room, or even on the surface? And the answer to that, in my opinion, is that architecture – and by extension an architect — is capable of making connections between the quantitative and the qualitative that will be indispensable in an off-world settlement. There is a need to connect the built environment with the natural environment in a way that not only makes Mars survivable but catalyzes culture and placemaking. I think an architect’s role in that will be a critical piece of succeeding there, and this project shows a fraction of what that contribution could possibly look like.

What case studies and references did you look to for inspiration for the project?

So, so many. Since the project spanned architecture, anthropology, geology (or areology), astronomy, aerospace, science fiction storytelling and several other fields, the precedents were diverse both in their format and their content. In particular, work by Dr. Penelope Boston on the promise of caves as viable settlements was instrumental to validating the main idea. Work by Dr. Robert Zubrin on Mars Direct and data from NASA’s Landing Zone Workshop held in 2015 were critical to the grounding of a logistics plan. Work by Marilyn Dudley-Rowley, et. al. was absolutely fundamental to the brief skim I did on human behavior on missions like these, and the deep dive I did into horology, timekeeping and calendrics that forms the backbone of the entire proposal. The BLDGBLOG Book by Geoff Manaugh, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, and the interview that Manaugh did with Robinson on his website were all very influential in terms of thinking about Mars as an actual place. In addition, the writing of Lisa Messeri (formerly of the university where I completed the thesis) formed the basis for the argument of placemaking as an architectural strategy. Architectural precedents ranged from the material explorations of Hassan Fathy and Gloria Cabral, to the never-built Mountain Tindaya by Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida. The architecture – if that’s the right word – of submarines, ISS, Biosphere II, Antarctic research vessels, and even experiments like the Siffre Cave studies were also hugely influential.

Suffice to say I looked at a lot of stuff.

How similar is Antarctica in terms of a climate which is extremely inhospitable but which nonetheless we have colonised and are able to access through architecture?

Very, in fact. Early on in the research phase I looked a lot at the area around Haughton Crater – thought to be the place on Earth that is most similar to Mars in climate, soil composition, remoteness, etc. – as well as the Amundsen-Scott, Concordia, and Haley VI research stations. Each of them is from a slightly different era, which is helpful in pinpointing the changes that have been made as function of what crews have found stressful, insufficient, or most important. Also, each of the research bases operates on a schedule where far fewer people present in winter. I found interviews from those who stay, and their experiences were fascinating and very similar to what those in an off-world colony might have to deal with in terms of loneliness, boredom, anxiety, and isolation.

How would this work geopolitically? To what extent would the architecture become symbol and effectively stand in for the various nations?

The project shied away from the politics of who would get to go to Mars; that question in and of itself could be an entire Ph.D. dissertation. Instead of the geopolitics of architecture standing in for various terrestrial nations, I think an argument is latent in the proposal that the architecture would more likely become an extension of the differences of eventual Martian nations.

There’s an idea in every science fiction fantasy book that there are distinct regions, and in each region are distinct cultures, people, clothing, architecture. Game of Thrones comes readily to mind as a pertinent example. However, Kim Stanley Robinson did the same thing in his Mars Trilogy – areas of Mars came to form their own people groups, cultures, design practices based on the resources around them, the climate, and cultural traditions they carried and adapted from Earth. While these are examples of science fiction, this idea continues to pop up because it is something that reflects and amplifies a condition in the real world. Design in human civilization has always differentiated itself by climate, resources, and geography and each of those things is intrinsic to architecture.

What do you envision as the major motifs for establishing a permanent 'architecture' within the planet?

Well I chose brick as a dominant material, but I think that 3d printed clays or concretes could also be used without any harm being done to the concept, so I’d be reticent to say the motifs are material. I’d say that the idea of large “public” areas where these solar monuments are located became the motif. Of course, the companion piece to that is the densified space on either end of them: the compressed, programmed, inhabited areas that make these large cavernous, almost spiritual spaces differentiable.

As architects what do you see as the major points of concern in constructing in such an inhospitable space?

Selling it as an investment. It’s going to take time, it’s going to be dangerous, and its going to cost money and rely, in part, on technology we are either developing now or haven’t developed. But those things are true of anything great we have ever accomplished as a people – I mean, we went from no Manned Spaceflight Program to landing on the moon in nine years. Nine years! that’s incredible and we are capable of that as a way of getting to Mars. The tougher part is selling the idea that the infrastructural development to make it viable for the long term would be on the order of decades – like if we had never stopped going to the moon after the ‘70s and were on Apollo mission number 60. A space program of that scale is unprecedented and will take major successes intermittently for a very long time to keep political and public interest.

How do you see the architecture developing through time?

Directionally, and I mean that in three ways. The caves are set up to continue to develop horizontally or laterally underground through discrete additions. I developed a system for this that is shown minimally in the section. I think after lateral expansion, radial expansion will occur where the vast networks of these caves will be filled out like veins underground. The maps of these same types of caves on earth create a web of connections that I think would be similar in shape to urban infrastructural networks we have on Earth. There is also something poetic about this idea in relation to Percival Lowell’s “canal” drawings. Finally, I think there will be a development in section or vertically. Every culture on earth has eventually found a way through technology to build up, and I think in this particular case, the development of an architecture that more closely links the subsurface, surface and sky would be really incredible. It could also begin to differentiate the nations as I stated earlier, something that Robinson played with in his Trilogy.

Ultimately, I love the idea that this system and others will eventually develop into multiple Mars-based vernaculars, as opposed to staying one vernacular that’s Earth-based but located on Mars. It will become tied to Mars.

Is the notion of the city something which can be applied and explored within the context of Mars?

I hope so or else this project isn’t really about anything. I think at its core, though, cities are about the same things I’m trying to get at here – people, culture, the act of building, and idea of place. While I don’t talk a lot about the city itself, I go very in depth into how architecture contributes to those societal elements.

To what extent can we talk about clothing on Mars as the first layer of architecture?

Clothing in this project, and especially in its representation, was intended to be a signifier of how the architecture is performing. Pressurized EVA suits are essentially mobile, one-person capsules, so they could certainly be understood as an architecture. In this project though, I made sure to show both the use of the pressurized suit, but also larger pressurized areas (either the deployable construction tents or the cave itself) where astronauts were able to work in heated compression suits, which are much more clothes-like, make work much easier, and give the feeling of being “inside,” or what those in the field call a “shirtsleeve environment.” So, the difference between the use of each suit actually starts to denote what is “inside” and what is “outside,” which again is not only central to pervasive idea of wayfinding in the project but also in architecture as a whole.