The Postlunar Imaginary through Inflatable Architecture

Katarzyna Balug

This essay is an excerpt of New Geographies 11: Extraterrestrial by Jeffrey S. Nesbit and Guy Trangoš.

The membrane of the [inflatable] structure becomes an extension of one’s skin, seen from inside the body, as it indents, sweats and changes shape, as the person inside moves over and through various locations. . . . We are all part of an energy continuum throughout the universe. . . .Understanding of energy processes is reaching the point where the wave emissions of the body and brain can be registered and measured, opening up the possibility of ultimate environmental control. . . . We are not alienated by technological hardware, but freed by technological forecasting, control and simulation of the elements. —Graham Stevens, “Pneumatics and Atmospheres,” Architectural Design

The artistic exploration of bodily enmeshment with technology and environmental control is emblematic of the changing conceptions of human subjectivity that occurred throughout the 1960s. In his 1972 article for Architectural Design, English artist Graham Stevens claimed that an existential extension of the body becomes coterminous with its environment—a body that, like its environment, is fully quantifiable, its mysteries decoded and controlled. NASA’s 1960s Apollo missions made explicit the case of human dependence on technology as they transformed the lunar voyage from long-standing fiction to reality.[1] This article explores how the existential questions prompted by the Space Race manifested through inflatable structures, an often overlooked mode of experimentation in architecture. Inflatable constructions, made in the United States and Western Europe in the 1960s, appropriated the physical materials, iconography, and narrative of the NASA Apollo program to produce the imaginary of a new world not in outer space but firmly grounded on Earth. Deploying the materials of the Space Race, these structures expressed possible meanings of lunar conquest for humankind.

Graham Stevens ‘Atmosfields’ [1968-70] On location in St. Katharine Dock London. Photo: Andrew Tweedie. Copyright G.A.Stevens 1970.
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[1] Though, as Nicholas de Monchaux and David Mindell have shown, human physiology and psychology tend to resist total control, so that the most efficient techno-rational systems leave some room for human autonomy. De Monchaux’s analysis reveals, for example, how the logic of cybernetics influenced a brief consideration of the human body in space as a cyborg whose responses to the pressures of air space could be adapted not by external prosthetics, but by chemical, mechanical, and biological changes to its internal control systems. While this did not endure, it illuminates how the new technology-enabled age was an environment to which the human mechanism, thoroughly integrated into a global technology network, was expected to adapt. Here, technology tended to displace the human body from the center of achieving a feat the systems technicians saw as technological, rather than human, as the pilot astronauts saw it. Mindell shows that it was only through arguments that Wernher von Braun, head of the Apollo program, conceded to allow lunar flights to be manned. Though it seems difficult to imagine Apollo 11 without Neil Armstrong’s “small steps,” this attitude is an important scientific precursor of the posthuman philosophies that are discussed in the rest of the article. See Nicholas de Monchaux, Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011) and David A. Mindell, Digital Apollo: Human and Machine in Spaceflight (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008).
[2] Anne Collins Goodyear, “The Relationship of Art to Science and Technology in the United States, 1957–1971: Five Case Studies” (PhD diss., University of Texas at Austin, 2002), 44.
[3] Ibid.
[4] James Dean, “The Artist and Space,” Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 3, no. 3 (1978): 244–259.
[5] Ibid.
[6] All the works of the NASA Art Program from 1963 to 1969 are compiled in Hereward Lester Cooke, Eyewitness to Space (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1971).
[7] Hans Blumenberg [1975] in Benjamin Lazier, “Earthrise; or, The Globalization of the World Picture,” American Historical Review 116, no. 3 (2011): 602–630, 619.
[8] Russell Schweickart in Frank White, The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987),12–13.
[9] Patrick McCray argues that the Earthrise image, which was taken on the Apollo 8 mission on Christmas, 1968, was especially instrumental in making the notion of “Spaceship Earth” a much less abstract concept. Patrick McCray, The Visioneers: How a Group of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies, and a Limitless Future (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013).
[10] Lazier addresses Heidegger’s ideas of Earth as world picture in Benjamin Lazier, “Earthrise; or, The Globalization of the World Picture,” American Historical Review 116, no. 3 (2011): 602–630.
[11] Lazier, “Earthrise.”
[12] McCray, The Visioneers.
[13] See, for example, Chesley Bonestell’s illustrations of Wernher von Braun’s articles on space colonization in Collier’s magazine from the 1950s, particularly March 22, 1952, “Man Will Conquer Space Soon.”
[14] McCray, The Visioneers.
[15] Felicity Dale Elliston Scott, Architecture or Techno-Utopia: Politics after Modernism (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007); Caroline Maniaque-Benton, French Encounters with the American Counterculture, 1960–1980, Ashgate Studies in Architecture (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011).
[16] For example, the article by Graham Stevens, cited at the start of this essay, appeared in the March 1972 issue adjacent to work on and about modernism. A special issue of the magazine, Space 2000+, from February 1967, featured extensive contributions by Fuller and John McHale that concerned life on Earth and in space in the year 2000. Another special issue, Pneu World, from June 1968, was dedicated to inflatable structures.
[17] Maniaque-Benton, French Encounters. For more on the counterculture’s paradoxical embrace of both cybernetics and resistance to modern politics and practices, see Fred Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).
[18] Charles Jencks and William Chaitkin, Architecture Today (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1982).
[19] Ant Farm and Chip Lord, Automerica: A Trip down U.S. Highways from World War II to the Future (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1976).
[20] Felicity Dale Elliston Scott, Living Archive 7: Ant Farm; Allegorical Time Warp: The Media Fallout of July 21, 1969 ; plus the Complete Ant Farm Timeline (Barcelona; New York: Actar, 2008).
[21] Constance Lewallen and Steve Seid, Ant Farm, 1968–1978 (Berkeley: University of California Press; Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, 2004).
[22] I thank Stephanie Cannizzo at UC Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive for the reference for this project and Ant Farm member Curtis Schreier for further elucidating it.
[23] Chris Salter, Alien Agency: Experimental Encounters with Art in the Making (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015), xii. Salter makes this distinction in analyzing contemporary art projects; I find his framework useful in reading the earlier work. Salter borrows the concept of performance from Andrew Pickering, examined in Andrew Pickering, The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches for Another Future (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), as cited in Salter, Alien Agency, 8.
[24] Frank White, The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, 2nd ed. (Reston, VA: American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, 1998), 44.
[25] The concept of nonhuman agency is certainly not new, but it has become more commonly explored by theorists since the 1970s, starting with Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, and Bruno Latour, and more recently by movements like Object-Oriented Philosophy, New Materialism, or Speculative Realism. For more on these ideas, see Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987); Levi Bryant et al., The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism, Anamnesis (Melbourne: re.press, 2010); Diana H. Coole and Samantha Frost, New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010); Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), among many others.
[26] Curtis Schreier (member, Ant Farm), conversation with Katarzyna Balug in Berkeley, CA, March 18, 2019; Ant Farm, Automerica.
[27] See, for example, Ant Farm Inflatables, 16 mm film to dvcam transfer. Filmed by Kelly Gloger, 1969–1970/2006.
[28] Elizabeth Grosz, Chaos, Territory, Art: Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth, Wellek Library Lectures at the University of California, Irvine (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008).
[29] László Moholy-Nagy, Vision in Motion, ID Book (Chicago: Paul Theobald, 1947).
[30] Cary Wolfe, “Lose the Building,” in What Is Posthumanism? (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009). Wolfe describes the Blur Building by architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro to illustrate his point in this chapter.
[31] As cited in Richard Holmes, Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air, 1st US ed. (New York: Pantheon Books, 2013), Hugo’s 1863 Letter on Flight included the following: “Let us deliver mankind from the ancient, universal tyranny! What ancient, universal tyranny, you cry. Why, the ancient, universal tyranny of gravity! . . . Today the balloon has been judged, and found wanting. . . . To be torn from the ground like a dead leaf, to be swept along helplessly in a whirlwind, this is not true flying. And how do we achieve true flight? With wings! . . . What do you see above you? You see clouds and you see birds. Well then, these are the two fundamental systems of aviation in operation. The choice is right in front of your eyes. The cloud is the balloon. The bird is—the helicopter!