Thursday, October 03, 2019

Space Settlements

Space Settlements
Fred Scharmen
Columbia Books on Architecture and the City, July 2019



Paperback | 5-3/4 x 8 inches | 416 pages | English | ISBN: 978-1941332498 | $24.00

Publisher Description:
In the summer of 1975, NASA brought together a team of physicists, engineers, and space scientists—along with architects, urban planners, and artists—to design large-scale space habitats for millions of people. This Summer Study was led by Princeton physicist Gerard O’Neill, whose work on this topic had previously been funded by countercultural icon Stewart Brand’s Point Foundation. Two painters, the artist and architect Rick Guidice and the planetary science illustrator Don Davis, created renderings for the project that would be widely circulated over the next years and decades and even included in testimony before a Congressional subcommittee. A product of its time, this work is nevertheless relevant to contemporary modes of thinking about architecture. Space Settlements examines these plans for life in space as serious architectural and spatial proposals.
dDAB Commentary:
Every now and then I think how the interests people had in their formative years, say around 10 to 13 years old, resurface a few decades later in adulthood. For me it was golf and, more specifically, the design of golf courses, something that evolved throughout high school and pushed me into architecture school but was then eclipsed by the design of buildings. Although I'm certainly not pursuing a second career as a golf course designer, in recent years I have found myself gravitating to books on golf course architecture and once again watching golf on TV — if the tournaments are played on a great course, that is. I can't help but think that Paul Goldberger's latest book, Ballpark: Baseball in the American City, is likewise the manifestation of his interest in baseball as a young boy; although it is aligned with his career as an architecture critic, it's enough of a departure to make me wonder. I also wonder about Fred Scharmen and his book — his first, and hopefully not his last — Space Settlements, which likewise taps into a subject I was interested in as a child but that did not, for whatever reason, rear up to grab my attention as an adult. Nevertheless, the combination of beautiful archival images, deep research, novel analyses, and clear prose make for a fascinating book that should appeal to anyone interested in the convergence of science and design.

Simply put, Scharmen's Space Settlements tells the story of the series of Summer Studies that NASA held in the 1970s to explore the design of habitats in outer space. They found their greatest expression in colorful renderings by Rick Guidice and Don Davis. Guidice's cutaway view of the Stanford Torus is one such iconic image from the Summer Studies, a rendering I remember from a book on space I had as a kid (the name of the book, which I no longer have, escapes me). More than 40 years later, that view seems perplexing, with its earth-like vegetation and terraced villages somehow occupying a giant torus slowly rotating about its axis in orbit somewhere between the Earth and the Moon. Scharmen delves deep into the motivations behind these and other images in terms of the desire to "settle" in space, the science behind the torus and other shapes (the sphere was the main contender to the torus), the perception and psychology of living in such environments, and many  other aspects of them across six chapters (eight if we count the introduction and conclusion). Many times in the book I found myself learning loads about the Summer Studies only to follow Scharmen down other paths, be it architectural tangents, ruminations on the science, or his own interpretations. The whole is fascinating, dense, and academic, yet still accessible — hard to digest in one sitting, Space Settlements is well worth the time and effort.
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Author Bio:
Fred Scharmen teaches architecture and urban design at Morgan State University's School of Architecture and Planning. His work as a designer and researcher focuses on how architects imagine new spaces for speculative future worlds and who is invited into those worlds.
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