ARCHITECTURAL GUIDE: MOON, published to broadly coincide with the 50th anniversary of the first manned lunar mission, is a fascinating hybrid of various types of reference guide. From its first pages, the book fully commits to addressing the contradiction contained in its title: namely, how can one discuss the “architecture” of a place that is not just currently uninhabited, but could remain so indefinitely? While other entries in DOM’s Architectural Guide series (including Japan, which we covered previously) are organized by region, the Moon guide is, understandably, instead chronological – after all, with most existing structures on the Moon having been built with little to no idea where they would eventually end up, the book can be forgiven for suspending the idea of architecture as a site-specific practice in this case.

Lunar station with classic and classicist shape vocabulary, designed by Anton Rakov of the Samara Polytech (2018) © Samara Polytech

The central pillar of the book’s argument for a “lunar architecture” is Hans Hollein’s 1968 essay, “Everything is Architecture!”, included in full. While this core text does have a degree of utopian playfulness, it also provides a prescient and useful discussion of the full range of what architecture can be:

For thousands of years, people have artificially changed and shaped their environment… primarily by building, and the built structure has been the most prominent manifestation and expression of humankind. To build has meant to create a three-dimensional structure that delimits space and serves as a protective envelope, instrument, psychological vehicle, and symbol.

Such passages, written less than a year before the Apollo 11 mission, almost read like a manifesto for manned space exploration. His list – protective envelope, instrument, psychological vehicle, symbol – could have been written as a direct response to the robot/building hybrids used for lunar exploration, with their countless systems to safeguard passengers while taking measurements and samples of extraterrestrial worlds. But as the following sections of the book amply reiterate, it is the final element, “symbol”, that served as the primary motivational force for much of the early decades of lunar missions, as well as the selfsame reason those missions all but dried up in the decades that followed. If the “Space Race” was a series of competitions with clear winners (the Soviets for manned space flight and first lunar contact, the Americans for manned lunar missions), the appeal of being a mere “runner-up” in such a race was an increasingly hard sell given the (literally) astronomical costs associated with space travel. Ultimately the Apollo missions, which some thought might usher in a new era of lunar exploration, may have been as demotivational as they were inspirational.

One of the strategies of the State-run lunar programs: considerations of a stationary lunar station and the mining of raw materials. © European Space Agency, Foster + Partners

Rather than dwelling on the somewhat pessimistic view of lunar exploration as a necessarily nationalistic or even propagandistic pursuit, the book strikes a good balance between scientific idealism and political realism. Its fascinating central sections describe each major lunar mission in great detail, accompanied by photos, drawings, diagrams, and concept art that would not be out of place on pulp sci-fi covers.

Illustration of the three-tiered lunar station made from inflatable modules (ca 1972) © Barmin Design Bureau of General Engineering

The mission descriptions do an excellent job of tempering the narrative of space exploration as a net positive – the next step in human progress, and perhaps even human evolution – with just enough sobering realpolitik to keep it grounded. While the thousands of scientists and astronauts who gave their careers (or in some cases, even their lives) in pursuit of space exploration perhaps did so out of a desire to advance humanity’s place in the universe, the funding behind such utopian visions is dependent on much more fickle currents of political influence.

Scale model of a module from the Swesda lunar station © Barmin Design Bureau of General Engineering

The book’s final sections cover the new global era of lunar and space exploration by India, Japan, China, Israel, and the EU, as well as the next generation of commercial and corporate space missions funded by megacompanies like SpaceX and Google. Despite incredible leaps in technology since the early lunar missions, and commonly available resources unthinkable 50 years ago (such as Google Moon), the relative dearth of current missions shows the degree to which the Cold War drove the early decades of lunar exploration. In the absence of the massive, world-defining rivalry between the US and USSR, modern-day space exploration is much more dependent on billionaire investors, international grants and funding, and of course corporate sponsors (best symbolized by the distinctive four-ring logo on the Audi Lunar Quattro). Even with access to technology past generations of scientists could only have dreamed of, the fevered pitch of past decades has slowed to a trickle: it has now been nearly 50 years since the last manned lunar expedition, with a mere three years between Apollos 11 and 17 that bookended the era of humans on the moon. While the Cold War could certainly be seen as a half-century waste of resources, efforts, and lives, its role as a driver of scientific progress, particularly in the field of lunar exploration, is undeniable.

Model of the training station Yuegong-1, in which candidates underwent a test program from 2017 to 2018 © CNSA

Ultimately, the question of whether the book is a true architectural guide is less important than whether it succeeds in its project, which could be described as expanding the definitions of architecture for the post-Earth era. In the coming decades and centuries, as space travel becomes an increasingly common reality, works such as this will be seen as the precursors to a new age of exploration, much as Antarctica was mapped in fiction and semi-mythological travelogues centuries before it was actually explored and mapped. And much like the literature that preceded actual exploration of the southernmost continent, books such as this will be seen as a necessary first step in that exploration.

Paul Meuser
DOM Publishers, 336 pages, €38