Norman Foster: “The exploration of space has been good for architecture”

In the editorial of the new Domus, guest editor 2024 explains how space exploration has led to technological innovations that have benefited humanity in various fields, including the world of design.

There is an urban myth that NASA spent millions of dollars developing a “space” pen for astronauts – while Soviet cosmonauts simply took pencils – that would work in the zero gravity conditions of outer space. It is demonstrably false, but it is still suggestive of the ultimate frivolity of space exploration. In other words, why spend money “up there” when we have so many pressing problems to deal with “down here”? The space race may have started against the backdrop of the Cold War arms race, but its purpose (on the American side at least) was made clear in the opening lines of the National Aeronautics and Space Act that established NASA in 1958: “The Congress hereby declares that it is the policy of the United States that activities in space should be devoted to peaceful purposes for the benefit of all mankind.” Sixty-six years and 650 billion dollars later, it is fair to ponder how mankind has benefited.

The answers – over 2,000 spinoff technologies with over 30,000 commercial applications and counting – are to be found in every aspect of our lives. Life-saving bypass operations, artificial limbs, MRI scans, cochlear implant hearing aids and infrared thermometers have transformed medicine. Efficient solar panels, water purification systems and anti-pollution technologies offer us the chance to help heal our planet. LED lights, better firefighting equipment and improved airline and car tyre safety all trace their roots back to NASA innovations. Memory foam, GPS, sunglasses and the tiny camera in your mobile phone make life easier and more enjoyable. 

The Millennium Bridge in London, project by Foster + Partners. Photo Nigel Young / Foster + Partners

None of these benefits of space exploration were available when I was growing up. My initial engagement with all things extra-planetary was mediated through the lens of science fiction – the cinematic adventures of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers held me in thrall with their vision of a technologically driven future. 

Terrestrial architecture has always played a role in the design of structures for the extra-terrestrial.

For me, and so many others of my generation, many of these concepts coalesced around the figure of Dan Dare, the hero of Eagle magazine. As a symbol and metaphor, this form of fictional space exploration left deep traces and I have frequently drawn upon them for inspiration; the Millennium Bridge in London has hints of the “blade of light” found in Flash Gordon. Other examples were neatly captured by the cartoonist Focho in his spoof rendering of the cover of Tintin’s Destination Moon. The many references to the Apple Park campus having “landed” or about to “take off” to (or from) outer space were gratifying – “space age” as a synonym for progress and advancement was taken as a compliment. 

I was still a student when the space race started in earnest with the launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957. The mushrooming of innovation required for the Apollo and Soyuz moon landing programmes in the 1960s and 1970s began to filter into architectural practice in a concrete way almost immediately. The solar-powered Soviet Lunokhod moon rovers can be seen as a reference point for the scheme to regenerate the island of La Gomera in 1975. We planned green and sustainable housing powered by solar panels similar to those on the Lunokhods. The scheme also envisaged water recycling using purification systems developed for astronauts. Later, NASA’s Apollo Lunar Module – of which I had a photograph and model at the entrance to our office – informed our first forays into furniture design for the Renault Distribution Centre and the later Nomos system. A visit to the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center made a deep impression on me – not just the awe-inspiring mobile launch pads and the gigantic Saturn rockets, but also the astonishing interior atrium where the spacecraft were built. There are echoes of the scale of this space in the heart of the HSBC Building in Hong Kong, our first completed skyscraper. 

Domus 1092, July/August 2024

Other cues taken from space exploration can be found in our designs for the world’s first solar-powered urban community at Masdar in Abu Dhabi. The building’s skin has adapted material developed for spacesuits to combat the extreme temperatures in space. At Masdar, the material works in reverse – reflecting back heat and retaining cool air. In the most extreme heat, it is always cool to the touch. More recently, the technology developed for a moon base designed in collaboration with the European Space Agency was reinterpreted by the Norman Foster Foundation to develop the construction of a prototype drone port for the delivery of medical supplies in Africa. The flow of influence between space exploration and architecture is not entirely one-way. Terrestrial architecture has always played a role in the design of structures for the extra-terrestrial. Metabolist capsules and Moshe Safdie’s far-sighted Habitat 67 housing scheme have informed some of the radical proposals that culminated in the 1975 Stanford Torus space base proposed by NASA. 

The mushrooming of innovation required for the Apollo and Soyuz moon landing programmes in the 1960s and 1970s began to filter into architectural practice in a concrete way almost immediately.

Weight and material efficiency are basic considerations for building in space, so it is no surprise that the geodesic designs of Richard Buckminster Fuller (who conceived of us all as copilots of “spaceship Earth”) became intimately bound up with designs for space colonisation. The qualities that make geodesic domes efficient also make them ideal for space habitats. The connection goes further. Two of Buckminster Fuller’s most visionary schemes – the Manhattan Dome (1959) and Cloud Nine (1960) – used geodesic construction to create the level of total climatic control akin to that essential for a space colony. In 1971 I was able to develop this concept at a smaller scale with Bucky for the Climatroffice proposal.

The parallels with NASA proposals in 1975 are evident and demonstrate some of the symbiosis between Earth and space architecture. The first steps away from our planet that began in the 1950s are symbolic of the potential to build a new and better world from the ashes of one shattered by the military application of technology a decade earlier and a timely reminder of the lessons of history. In 1962 John F. Kennedy famously said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Hard indeed but rewarding for humanity. The latest developments in space exploration – blockchain technology, artificial intelligence, 3D printing, materials science, nanotechnology and biotechnology – are already driving what is often termed the “Fourth Industrial Revolution”. Their implications for architecture and construction are profound. The future excited me as a youth and it still does today. 

Opening image: Painting by Don Davis depicting the interior of the Stanford Torus, a doughnut-shaped space colony project developed during the NASA Ames Summer Study at Stanford University in 1975. Photo NASA Ames Research Center

Speciale Guest Editor

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