Craig McCormack, director at felix., is currently completing a PhD theorising the relationship between space architecture produced within the space program and science fiction, and the broader discipline of architecture. He holds degrees in art, music and architecture, and has exhibited in the Formations – New Practices in Australian Architecture at the 13th International Architecture Exhibition – la Biennale di Venezia.
He is also a Creative Director of Augmented Australia 1914-2014 at the current, the 14th, International Architecture Exhibition in Venice.
Architecture and Design spoke to McCormack about his work with space architecture, why Lego sparked his interest in space, and whether aliens are out there.
Can you tell A&D about your PhD and the work you're doing?
The history and theory of space architecture is a topic that has received, to date, very little academic research. Until recently, space architecture has not been recognised as a valid extension of its larger architectural family tree, but seen only as a feat of engineering and an acme of technical achievement.
My work intends to address this lack of theoretical research within the discipline of space architecture by theorising its own historiography and how it relates to the broader discipline of architecture. There is also a lack of research surrounding the theoretical trajectory of space architecture and how popular culture in the form of science fiction has played a pivotal part in defining its history. You could say I am interested in limits – the limits of architecture.
The term 'space architecture' might be a little unfamiliar to some readers. Can you explain what it is and what types of challenges it has?
Commonly referred to as, ‘The theory and practice of designing and building inhabited environments in outer space’, space architecture refers to the built environment that has been created or has been speculated for use in outer space.
By ‘created’, I refer to examples of space architecture designed and produced as a result of the space program; for example, the initial foray into space exploration from the 1940s right up until the present day, including examples such as the International Space Station, Skylab, Salyut, and Tiangong.
By ‘speculated’, it exists within not only NASA’s (or any other space related design practice) design archives or on their drawing boards, but also that found in science fiction - examples: in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Neil Blomkamp’s Elysium, Aliens and Star Trek. The idea of space exploration has been alive and well in the field of science fiction since the middle of the 19th century, giving life to some fascinating designs. Even within the architectural fraternity there has been some incorporation of outer space as a datum suitable for the practice to expand into.
Space architecture faces many challenges, the most important of which is to support a life-form that has evolved on a planet with gravity, water and oxygen, all of which are conspicuously absent in outer space. Architecture in space essentially has to take the role of a life support system, or at least be well integrated with one.
On the other hand, amongst the premium for space and the incredibly high performance limitations, there are amazing opportunities for architecture. Take for instance the cupola, or viewing window, at the International Space Station – it has to be the most spectacular view seen from any window ever created.
What practical applications do you hope your work with the PhD will have?
I believe at a very fundamental and practical level, that if mankind is to venture away from the earth for any great period of time, we will require environments that are both physically and psychologically conducive to living. At the moment astronauts have been confined to orbiting the earth, save for the odd trip to the moon half a century ago. Due to the prototypical nature of these endeavours, comfort was an afterthought for the most part. NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope (or its successor) may eventually discover a planet that is perfect for human habitation and some group of unfortunate people will be sent out to settle it, undertaking a multi-generational voyage. These people will need a well-designed space, and I hope that I can contribute to this discussion and potentially the design of these spaces.
On a more realistic scale, a continued presence in orbit around the earth will demand investigations into the design of space to allow for mankind to inhabit the stars for increasingly longer periods of time. Even small modifications to how we inhabit space, such as working without a common vertical, as was attempted in NASA’s Skylab space station, were met with failure. I see my work as potentially informing the design of future space environments.
Where does your interest in space come from?
It most likely came from playing with the space-themed Lego as a child. Growing up in Ireland in the 1980s I think that most children were captivated by the rapidly developing technologies of the time. I suppose I saw space as the next logical step at the time and have been captivated by it ever since.
I started out studying architecture without any thought to applying what I was learning to my interest in outer space in any way. It was only during my final year of my Master of Architecture degree where students were to undertake a design by research project, that I thought, ‘Hey, I’m going to design a space station’. And so I did, using a narrative inspired by my love of science fiction to tell a story over a thousand years through a series of hand-drawn postcards sent from space.
You recently visited the NASA headquarters. What was the experience like?
Apart from the expected prototype space station designs and historical NASA information, it was amazing to see material regarding architects such as Corbusier and Buckminster Fuller kept within the archives as it was seen as relating to the space program in some way, shape or form.
During my stay in North America I visited various space centres, from Cape Canaveral in Florida, to the Johnson Space Centre in Houston, seeing sights such as rocket launches and their associated launch complexes, vehicle assembly buildings, 1:1 mock-ups of the International Space Station and the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory where the astronauts train in simulated zero-gravity. It was quite overwhelming, but I believe necessary to help gain an insight into the reality of the discipline.
Finally, we have to ask – do you think aliens exist?
I think that considering the enormity of the known universe, the amount of planetary bodies within it and life’s amazing capability of thriving in the most extreme environments, I would be a fool to rule it out entirely.