Sep '11 - Nov '11
Yesterday China launched Tiangong-1 (Heavenly Palace-1), its first step towards a manned orbital space station. I remembered reading that the last Space Shuttle mission, STS-135, finished earlier this year, signalling an end to America’s utopian dream of colonizing space.
As I read more about the history of these inhabitable satellites, they started to attain personalities independent from the astro/cosmonauts who passed through their airlocks. The life of satellites began to take on similar narrative arcs – beginning with a dramatic countdown to a launch sequence filled with nationalist pride, followed by a productive scientific research phase, and then a long period in exile as space debris. They would eventually spiral back down to Earth, burn up in the atmosphere, and finally disappear into the sea.
This fact that these skeletal, modular, fully functional structures possessed an animistic fate triggered a realization that the Japanese Metabolists’ dream of growing and degenerating architecture had actually been realized in the context of zero gravity. The prototypes for metabolic buildings proposed by Tange, Kikutake, Isozaki, and Kurokawa never physically grew further than their original boundaries. The completed buildings were frozen in their final construction stage as they had to be occupied, and the dream of architecture-as-organism remained as a series of beautifully executed models.
Kiyunori Kikutake, Floating City Project, 1971
International Space Station, 2009
The space station possesses few aesthetic qualities that we can relate to, unlike the space shuttle with its streamlined aerodynamic shape. However, a different set of stylistic considerations govern space station design: surface area-to-volume ratios, weight, and structural integrity in the vacuum become key. The unfolding, layering, and collapse of form becomes a practical constraint for deployable elements such as solar panel arrays that pack down into minimal storage volumes.
For the space station in the hostile vacuum of outer space, modular growth becomes a necessity rather than a theoretical concept. Due to restrictions on launching heavy rockets from earth, structures were designed to be upgraded with additional scientific or habitation modules as needed. The entire typology of the space station thus becomes pure metabolist architecture – a technological utopia whose growth and eventual obsolescence allows it to regenerate in future iterations with knowledge gained during its own existence.
Looking back at some early Metabolist projects, I wonder if Kikutake ever dreamt of launching his earthbound architecture into orbit.
Kiyunori Kikutake – Expo Tower, Osaka, 1972