Architecture, Aesthestics, and Space habitats
The Renascence Project, located in Kansas City, Missouri, is a broad-ranging futures-oriented project that includes among its future goals the design and development of megacities and space habitats. The Project’s goal is to teach, market and develop alternatives to anticipated social, economic, and environmental conditions, and place working prototype on the marketplace. Much of the project’s work centers around the design of alternative urban habitats. In the design of habitats, the project works to create “whole systems” environments that synthesize utility with aesthetics, lifestyle, community, and social and personal well-being.
The renascence project, now entering its second year of active operation, consists of three corporations. The Renascence Library is a resource center that offers classes in topics ranging from Redesigning the Future to Stress management. Terra Corporation is buying and renovating houses in the Westport area of Kansas City. Renascence Research Institute provides design, engineering, prototyping and long-range planning for all aspects of the project. The project, which has remained independent of government money and foundation grants, has attracted $250,000 in local investment capital, acquired 16 part and full time staff, and developed an emerging income from properties, lectures, classes, and outside consulting.
Future plans include the construction of an energy-efficient, inexpensive, domed habitat for a family of four; Domicle One, a self-contained urban habitat for 15 people; and progressively large Domiciles, leading up to megacities housing thousands of people. The project intends to build a capital and experience base with each project, beginning with local housing renovation, and use this base to build progressively larger projects without soliciting outside funds.
The project was founded by Matt Taylor, after many years of work as a designer, contractor, businessman, architectural consultant, and one-time apprentice to Frank Lloyd Wright. Taylor has been closely following the emerging concept of space colonization. While an enthusiastic supporter of the idea, he has a number of specific critiques and suggestions in areas such as architecture, the design of social systems, the overall design and implementation process, the reliance on government funding, and the aesthetic concerns in designing space habitats. This interview, taped June 1977 at the renascence Library with Norie Huddle, focuses on these points.
Norie: Could you briefly describe your approach to architecture?
Matt: Most contemporary architecture has been approached strictly on a utilitarian basis, with any aesthetic concerns to be tacked on later, if possible. I reject that idea. Great architecture is a synthesis of three attributes: shelter, arrangement of space and utilities, and the expression of human potential . the subject of architecture is not the building itself; the subject is the lifestyle, it allows, encourages and focuses the person onto the idea that expresses the essence of their ideals. The architect must deal with a unique set of circumstances: the people who live in the habitat, methods of construction, the availability of materials, the time, the historical relationship to the society, the site. The architect must discover what is unique about these circumstances and synthesize and integrate all these elements into a new mix which has never occurred before, to create an environment and lifestyle totally unique from all others in the Universe... and totally appropriate for that particular point and time .
Norie: What is it about designing space habitats that interests you?
Matt: The space habitats present a unique opportunity to create new kinds of environments, new expressions in lifestyles, new attitudes. We have the opportunity to get over the provincialism that tells us, ‘this is the way that man lives, these are the limits to man’s nature.’ There will be an immense cultural evolution and ultimately a physiological evolution which we have not seen on any large scale for 500,000 years or so. We are going to have to deal with extended lifestyles and life spans in partial or zero G environments. Combined with new social systems, this is going to create a new species of man.
Norie: A lot of new species.
Matt: Yes, many. And what is exciting is the feedback loop. We’ll be opening a frontier we haven’s had for 100 years, a new physical frontier in which individualism can thrive and many socioeconomic, political and cultural systems can be prototyped and deployed. But it will be different from our previous frontiers, because there will be instantaneous feedback and communication. This feedback will be just as dramatic and evolutionary for the people who remain on the planet, as for the millions or billions who eventually leave and propagate in space. You can’t view the exploration of space as anything less than coming out of the Cradle, as Clarke put it, an evolutionary event without comparison unless you talk about the beginnings of sentient life on this planet.
But here we are, a culture that has not learned to give appropriate architectural expression to the environments we now have, ready to go into space...
Norie: Along with the MacDonald’s and everything...
Matt: Well not necessarily; it will be much more subtitle. look at the proposals to date, which are advertised to be preliminary engineering concepts...
Norie: Yes, and they look like army barracks...
Matt: I think they will by the time the traditional design process is finished. Generally speaking, the high water mark of any project in our society today is its inception as dramatized by the original artist’s renderings. From that point on, due to organizational difficulties and a series of political and economic compromises, the thing becomes more and more a mere fraction of the original concept. And often the original concept is not that forward-looking to begin with. In kansas City we have a world famous project called Crown Center. If you look at it just for what it is, it is a fairly exciting place. But if you take a look at the process from the beginning and think about what could have been, here is what you see: a multimillion dollar project, to be implemented over a 10 to 15 year period of time, utilizing ultimately design principles that came from the architectural schools of the 1930’s. They started with 1930’s architecture, and in the process of organization it ran downhill. In 1985 they’re going to build apartment buildings out of reinforced concrete, which is impractical now because of escalating costs.
Look at the “mindset,” the hidden design assumptions involved. The Crown Center team should have started with a concept about the 1980’s and worked back from that vision to the reality of the economics and conditions of today . They could be building towards the future, and the parts of the project to be completed in the 1980’s and 1990’s would be conceived using architectural principles and methods of construction probably not yet available, but based on reasonable expectations of coming technology .
Where are we starting with the development of space habitats? We open this page on space colonies and see buildings that are not as contemporary as Richard Neutra built in Los Angeles in the 1930’s.
Norie: Richard Who?
Matt: Neutra . The architect, worked with Frank Lloyd Wright, a German architect, died in the early 1960’s Look at this building here---I can show you a dozen Neutra buildings that were, in effect, architecturally superior to this building. Now, I don’t want to nitpick it. The purpose of this rendering was not to articulate an individual work of architecture. But what I find incomprehensible is this: that we are going to go through this elaborate start-up function to go to the Moon, mine the materials, transport those materials to L-5, and proceed to build stick architecture that grew out of a concept that was feasible 40 years ago on Earth, dealing with the technical realities of the time . This is mindset. This is taking the past and projecting it into the future without saying, what is new about the methods of construction, what is new about the environment and the opportunity, what is different about the life-styles, and how can we mold an architecture that is an integral expression of all these things as a synthesis.
Now I realize one has to conceptualize various kinds of structures that one can set a price tag to, in order to get out a preliminary feasibility study. But if this preliminary sketch gets locked into a final product to which everything must conform, including a social system, what has happened is the old process of starting in the middle of the design problem, going to engineering, locking it in as an absolute, and then trying to save the project aesthetically and hunanistically by tacking the “art” on afterward . What is really needed is a co-operative team of people involved in the ‘toing and froing,’ as Fuller would put it, between the limits of the engineering and the conceiving, so that the engineering limits become opportunities to explore and form new concepts and new concepts ask new engineering questions. The result must be total integration between inside and outside, macrostructure and microstructure, social structure and environment. I fail to conceive, with the possible exception of the very early construction shack environments, that the resulting social system or lifestyle of a colony could or should be anything at all like what we will experience on Earth. Those design teams ought to have anthropologists of the caliber of Margaret Mead  right from the beginning; the anthropologists will be able to observe the birth of a whole new culture, a culture that will manifest more change than we have seen in hundred of years, if not in hundreds of centuries.
Norie: What was your reaction when space colonization was first proposed?
Matt: When O’Neill’s visualization came along, I was quite excited. But I saw several potential problem areas. One is the area of biology. I think the biological processes are going to be more complex than anything we now imagine . I assume the problems can be solved, but we need to look at the life chain in a more wholistic way than the present proposals do; there is an intimate relationship between man and his biological environment. Incidentally, I don’t think, we’ll solve our earth ecological problems until we build successful space ecologies. As complex as it is, it is a simpler problem .
Another large problem area is that of going to the government for funding. The federal government has ably demonstrated itself to be the most inefficient and incompetent aspect of our society. Government’s purpose is not innovation and change .
Look at the organizational paradigm operational in government. The government utilizes a pyramidal, top-down hierarchy that leads to rigid long-range planning into which social systems and aesthetics must be stuffed. They may hire brilliant architects, designers and engineers, but they will be disconnected from the social phenomenon they are designing for. If you depend on the government or funding, you are bringing architecture, engineering and long-range planning into a political environment, and what you’ll probably get is a disaster in terms of compromises. Present day politics, by nature, involves unnecessary compromises and force; force is used when ill-advised compromises fail. What we need is vision and co-operation between equal co-designers and users.
I say this will all due respect to NASA, which did a brilliant piece of work with the Moon program. But NASA did get caught with its pants down after the the Moon program . They could no longer spark the imagination of the American people, and they got caught in the middle of the resulting political compromises . I believe this was inevitable given the circumstances.
Norie: What alternatives do you see to government funding?
Matt: It would be far more desirable to involve only people who see the feasibility of the program, and put the space program on a pay-as-you-go basis. The space program is on a pay-as-you-go basis, but the accounting doesn’t show it because the technological spinoffs, like $60 programmable hand calculators, aren’t accounted for . Our society has displayed a general failure to deal with common wealth and common cost as accounting principles. But, it is not a political problem when only the people who believe in the concept are being asked to pay for it .
Space colonization can be put on a pay-as-you-go basis, if you work a series of steps and models that enables you to stage upwards in terms of knowledge, financial capability, and design capability. This should include earth building projects that use the evolving technology and demonstrate the proposed social systems while building a strong capital base . This is what we are doing wit the Renascence Project. The project was developed with ideas such as megacities and space-habitats in mind. We will be working towards these ideas through a series of steps and models which allow us to build a capital base, and gain experience and credibility. Right now we are purchasing and renovating houses in our own neighborhood. later this year, we’ll build two prefabricated domed habitats, which will be inexpensive, energy-efficient housing models for a family of four .
We are now working on a project called Domicile One , and we view this as the first step towards the part of the project which leads to megacities and space colonies. Domicile One will be a self-contained urban habitat for 15 people, housed in a 75' diameter metal and plastic dome. This is a minimum size for a social system. It will be a total cultural environment. The economic, social and physiological aspects of the project, the development of community, are an important part of the design.
Domicile One will be built in Kansas City in 1978. It will lead to larger and larger Domiciles, and eventually megacities, which will house thousands of people. We will be developing our social and economic base as we grow. We will create an environment for 75 people, then 450 people, 2,100 people, 21,000 people and so on . Each step will be an order of magnitude increase of the complexity of the social, cultural, architectural/mechanical problems.
I have been developing the Renascence Project for 20 years. Prior to hearing about O’Neill, I felt we would ultimately design an orbiting city. then we would go on to my personal life’s ambition--to develop a completely self-contained culture and head for the next star system. I am nearly 40, and expect to live for another 100 years .
Norie: Your life extension may go up to 800 years.
Matt: Right. Then, I can really start to dream. My ambition is to get to at least as far as another Star, maybe even further. But I want to do it with a complete culture of 30 or 40 or 50 or 100,000 people involved in the process .
Norie: How do you see your relationship to the space colonization program?
Matt: At minimum, we see an interactive dialog. In effect, we are devoting much of our effort to developing the software for this kind os society. We are concerned with the wholistic integration of systems into comprehensive design, and we look at the social-psychological systems and aesthetics as part of those designs. We would like to dialog with the people who are developing the technological systems, and have input into what they do, and have their input into or work .
Our Earth Habitats will tell us a lot about designing social systems in space. We’re talking about building essentially self-contained environments for 20,000 people. How are you going to do that in space, if we can’s do it first on Earth to prototype the social systems ?
We’re designing a wilderness megacity  for 21,000 people. This is designed to be a recreational  environment, and the only way you can get to it is through a linear induction/vacuum tube/monorail system that would go back to the nearest city. I have designed the configuration 85 stories tall, 20 stories into the ground. It is extremely self-contained, but is also an alter to nature, a complete expression of viewing and living in a wilderness that is totally preserved . The megacity design is based on technology available approximately in 1985. It could’t be built tomorrow. We’re extrapolating present developments in material and solar cells, construction methods. and manufacturing techniques.
As we build successively larger environments, we will have to deal with a variety of social problems. Education, others...if someone is born into this environment, what are their responsibilities and rights  in the environment? Do they have a right to a free education, and if so, who is going to provide it? Can we establish the ethical concept that no one is asked to do anything they have not previously agreed on before becoming part of the system ? We intend to model answers to ethical and cultural questions as well as architectural and mechanical systems .
Our assignment now is to learn how to live with the technology we have created , with affluence, machinery, mass production, and industrialization. You can’t retreat, you can’t go back. We are at a very crucial stage in our history, and we have to face this assignment and make a design opportunity of it.
Norie: What ideas do you have about the design of space habitats?
Matt: My ideas at this point are purely speculative. I see higher buildings with more going on in the center than is shown in the artist’s renderings. I think we could architecturally exploit the fact that gravity is variable as one goes toward the center, and let new geometric forms emerge from this fact. If you started mile high buildings on opposite sides of the cylinder, what would happen where they meet in the middle? The gravity would be getting lighter as you go up the building, and then it would reverse and go the other way.
The cylinder itself could be part of a finely integrated building. You could have little grottoes and open areas that are long and horizontal exploding into large vertical spaces. There might not be a clear distinction between buildings and mountains. On earth, you have a mountain range, and you put a man-made habitat on it. Why do this in space? Why not build a habitat that uses shapes, buildings, and functions producing a landscape? You can create structural elements as an integral part of the design and use tension throughout the structure the way a bicycle wheel uses tension. In a bicycle wheel, the spokes are tension devices and the wheel around the outside is a compression ring. Tension and compression coexist. If you pull a rope, it compresses at 90° to the line of tension. If press a column it tend to explode 90° to the line of tension. On this planet, we have never exploited these design concepts, Will we in space ?
When we start thinking about what we could do with a cylinder, we might start thinking about the different human activities that would take place in variable air pressures, gravity fields, and space allotments, and end up with a very gossamer design; an integrated total concept where a person would be heard put to distinguish between inside, outside, structure, and what we call nature. We have had all these bifurcations for years, man opposed to nature, and we don’t need to take them into space with us .
Why does a house have a roof? To keep the rain out. But here we can control the weather. How will a floor function near the center with near zero gravity? The environment will completely change the architectural forms, methods, requirements, and materials. I have been speculating on this recently, and in the next few months I will start to put on paper some specific ideas for architecture in space habitats .
The space colonies will be constantly changing environments. After 15 or 20 years the original environment may be for all practical purposes completed, but he society will be constantly experimenting and changing. the architecture must be able to change with it . The colony will have the wealth base to carry out this constant change. We don’t have to take Earth-based economics with us. We will have completely shattered the basis of all previous economic systems, which have been based on the scarcity of materials and energy .
Norie: We’ll wipe out the zero-sum game, and end up with universal affluence.
Matt: Right, and this will open many questions we’ll have to answer. What will be the attitudes about work, leisure, education, and society? What will people owe one another? We’ll have to model all that because we won’t know what kind of environment is the expression of these conditions until we do .
I want to make one more point about utilitarianism. there is a great tendency to use the “limits of growth” argument in support of space colonization, to in a sense reinforce the disaster scenario of spaceship Earth and show the space colonies as...
Norie: Coming in to save the day, on a big white horse...
Matt: yes, and there is an element of truth in this. But utilitarian arguments have little to do with the real reasons for going into space. One leaves oneself potentially embarrassed when, two and half days from now, someone makes a breakthrough with fusion, or a really good solar cell that makes the cost factor miniscule. If the whole motivation of the program was cost, you suddenly have another Moon program that can no longer be justified. Let’s not rush into space with some sort of orbiting barracks in the sky solution, because we can do it in ten years instead of 15. We’ll spoil the process of creating a whole new culture, and the experience of letting that culture be born. The utilitarian ethic has got to go.
You can’t separate ends from means, goals from process. Let’s enjoy the process: after all, that is all we really experience. People in involved in megacities, space colonization, and other future development should look at their own organization very, very carefully. They should check their own ways of dealing with information, power, influence, and money, and make sure they are modeling an organization that can and will evolve into the kind of society they want to develop .
Norie: Why is aesthetics such an important concern in this process?
Matt: Aesthetics makes concrete and perceivable abstract values and long range goals. It serves as both a vision and a reward . That is desperately needed when you are launching a program and will not even see the rewards for 15 or 20 years. But the near term kick one gets from aesthetes is fitness.
Norie: By fitness, do you mean appropriateness?
Matt: Fitness means that an idea comes into a pattern, that it works, that it is eloquent, comprehensive, economical, and goes together. The aesthetic experience of creation occurs when you have created the totally unexpected out of the totally known, and it is unbelievably perfect . It can be a two-mile high skyscraper, three words that create a beautiful sound sequence, a symphony or a conceptualization of an idea. To me, the most profound human spiritual attribute is to have made that connection. The creative thinking process doesn’t stop with thinking; it has to go into some expression, a document, a building, a new mathematics, a remodeled room, a space habitat. It may be debatable where we are going as a species, but is seems to me our present assignment is to understand our place in physical reality, and to make it an expression of our goals, values, and life. When we can elevate our lifestyle into a totally aesthetic expression of life itself, as a species we will completed that assignment .