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Out of this world

Herbert Wright comes back down to earth

German practice ZA Architects recently announced designs for a Mars base. Essentially an underground cave hollowed out where the planet’s extensive basalt has formed hexagonal columns, it would be built by robots. Basalt fibres spun in situ would span the place and basalt column stubs would make handy stools for astronauts. Aha, I thought when I saw this, here’s an example of vernacular architecture. It uses not just local material, but local working traditions too. This means robots which, with their infinite boredom thresholds, have been pottering about on the bleak red planet since 1975. A vernacular scheme must be so much better than hauling in ‘alien’ architecture, involving say glass or steel... or canals.

Canals, of course, were what astronomer Percival Lowell thought he saw on Mars, and from 1895 he divined a fantastic infrastructure plan for an entire civilisation, covering an area 10 times greater than Siberia. He thought the Martians were battling planetary drought with a complex network of canals, bringing water down from the poles. Even then, many knew that what Lowell painstakingly mapped was all in his head, but its ambition finds echoes with later giant engineering schemes, such as China’s current river projects, which include the Three Gorges Dam and its planned 3,000km overland connection of the Yangtze and Yellow rivers, all to address a severe national water crisis.

A picture illustrating the scheme on the OMA website, where a circle of men sit round a vast table below a halo of lights and big maps on screens, is actually the War Room in Kubrick’s 1964 film Dr Strangelove

A far more sustainable scheme of similar scale was put forward in 2010 by AMO, the think-tank arm of OMA. Its Roadmap 2050 proposed to make Europe virtually ­carbon-neutral by developing renewables bigtime and directing energy from naturally seasonal sources across a pan-continental smart distribution grid. A picture illustrating the scheme on the OMA website, where a circle of men sit round a vast table below a halo of lights and big maps on screens, is actually the War Room in Kubrick’s 1964 film Dr Strangelove.

Dr Strangelove himself had contingency plans for surviving the film’s ultimate Cold War nuclear device, the Doomsday Machine. He advocated living underground, with 10 women to each man to repopulate the planet. Perhaps, somewhere in AMO/OMA’s Road­map team, there is a similar messianic Strange­love figure. (No, I’m not suggesting anyone in particular). Nowadays, the Doomsday equivalent is climate change reaching a tipping point, ­accelerating to runaway pace and rendering the Earth’s surface uninhabitable. Strangelove’s ideas for enforced repopulation would be untenable now, but living underground is worth a try – though comfort levels would need to be high. This may be why OMA is working on the new Design Museum in Kensington – it puts them near some of the biggest and most luxurious basement extensions on the planet, from which much could be learnt.

Some say vernacular architecture and arch­itects are mutually exclusive – a hutong, an igloo or a half-timbered Tudor house came not from architects’ drawing boards. Is a return to the vernacular, with low embedded energy, high thermal performance and unpretentious comforts, a Doomsday machine for architects? French designer Gilles Perraudin, who rediscovered local limestone and traditional methods to create an extraordinary but contemporary portfolio, told an Oslo conference in October that ‘I am more a builder than a thinker’. Clearly, there is more future in getting hands-on with what Earth already offers, than with fantasies from Mars and beyond. 

Trained physicist Herbert Wright is an architectural writer, historian and art critic

Office affairs

Would an architect called Jones ever call their practice ‘Jones + Possibly Co-habiting Lovers’? Maybe not, but the implication crept in when the English language slid another word – in this case ‘partner’ – away from its original meaning. Back in the days of Richard Seifert & Partners, the term described a precise business relationship. Maybe the new meaning does too, but the intimate element is new. It’s no use fighting the way words change, and it’s often for the better – ‘gay’ has found pride and power in its new meaning, for example. But just be careful asking Jones how many partners he/she has in the practice, especially during the frisky Christmas party season.