Proteus: Mars Colony Thesis

"I like elements which are hybrid rather than "pure", compromising rather than "clean", distorted rather than "straightforward", ambiguous rather than "articulated," perverse as well as impersonal, boring as well as "interesting", conventional rather than "designed," accommodating rather than excluding, redundant rather than simple, vestigial as well as innovating, inconsistent and equivocal rather than direct and clear. I am for messy vitality over obvious unity. I include the non sequitur and proclaim the duality."  - Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (Venturi, 16)


When Robert Venturi made his famous statement in favor of Postmodernism he was offering a rebuttal to the visionary, contemporary architecture that overreached in its attempts to control society through architecture. In effect, Venturi sounded the battle cry of a generation jaded to progress and disillusioned by the economic, political, and societal upheaval of the 1960s and 70s. This generation was one prone to romanticism longing for a fictional time of simplicity and traditional values. Peter Noever described it as "the expression of an age, of a critical attitude towards our technology and technology of thought, of an attack on a society that is homogeneous and yet devoid of inner substance (Noever, 8)." This paradigm is the one that spawned the declinist environmental movement, multiculturalism, and sustainability. While all worthy goals, these late 20th century paradigms are typical of a society looking inward and towards the past. They are typical of a generation obsessed with failure; a paradigm distrustful of science and technology.


Fundamentally, there was a certain promise, pervasive in the 50s and 60s that an ever increasing level of innovation would continue forever. People believed in flying cars, electric vehicles, fusion power, and colonization of Mars by the year 2000. Engineers and architects became the new keepers of the public trust. Yet, that promise of progress was broken. Politics and economics conspired to create a society that believed that the lack of technological progress was a failure by engineers and architects. People stopped asking “when” and started saying “maybe never”. Instead of the best and the brightest striving to solve the great problems of the age, they submitted their services to the world of finance and for a generation created wealth from nothing.


Architecture was not spared by these trends of the late 20th century. Thom Mayne describes best the shift from the optimism of the 1950s to the late century despondency when he wrote the following:


"I was educated in the late sixties when most schools of architecture in the United States were circumscribed by the tenets of Utopian Determinism and a somewhat dogmatic, Eurocentric modernism. There was a tremendous energy propelling us into the future (we were all planning for the future) with holistic visions and a rationale of analysis and synthesis. The focus was on infrastructures with their emphasis on program, change and flexibility, and the environment. The objective was a generic, neutral architecture resulting in a pure manifestation of information. Architecture was a social art, produced collectively. There was an implicit antagonism toward the private or the personal. It was, of course, a time of great social and political activity; there was great optimism regarding the collective aspirations of an otherwise pragmatic society rooted in the concepts of autonomy of the individual, with their attendant definitions of freedom."


Tying into Thom Mayne's assessment of architectural thought is Michael Sorkin's dejected essay entitled Nineteen Millennial Mantras from 1991. Essentially, Sorkin is attempting to give himself rules for architecture in a world bereft of ideology. Dripping with tones of epistemological pluralism, his writing exhibits distrust of truth from any one source. He seems to give up on visionary architecture and instead sardonically advocates anarchy. Fascinatingly, Michael Sorkin reached this cynical state after embracing technology in the 1980s. It would seem he succumbed to late 20th century depression. Sorkin correctly identified the mood of his era when he wrote in 1987 that, "We live in a time when the incitement to remember overwhelms the imperative to invent. The lush and fulfilling promise of the technical is indexed by a profession that prefers to wallow in predigested certainty of recombination, the endless manufacture of fresh freaks from a familiar gene pool (McCarter, 62)."


Into the beginning of the 21st century, this lack of trust in truth morphed directly into a society preoccupied with finance and property wealth delighting in the cheap glow of social media and mass consumerism. Yet the Great Recession has awakened the young creative class. No longer do young people automatically assume that wealth comes from finance. A generation is realizing the technology is within reach to realize the forgotten dreams of their parents. The day has dawned when we, the youth of this country, ask “not if”, but “how”. The old job descriptions are changing, as well. Institutionalized science is being disrupted by a rising creative class un-intimidated by big business. Also known as the maker movement, this new class learned first to create their own content on the internet. Now they are leading the charge forward into the manufacturing 2.0 revolution. Mass customization and inexpensive 3d printing are beginning to offer unprecedented access to manufacturing by lowering barriers of entry. No longer will expensive production cycles and mass production runs be needed to achieve low prices and high quality. This disruptive new technology is beginning to release an explosion of creativity that fundamentally alters the nature of labor, manufacturing, and finance.


What then is the place of the architect within this new economic and political ecology? In this new world, the designer who deals in aesthetics only dooms himself to irrelevance. The great problems or our time cry out for visionaries with ambitious vision, unbridled invention, systematic theorization, obsessive technical rigor, sweeping universalism, and an anti-classicist bent (Kwinter, 57). If architects are to contribute to the greater good, they must embrace the total deployment of all of civilization’s machines and systems (Kwinter, 58). An all encompassing total war incorporating economics, politics, societies, bureaucracies, marketing, engineering, manufacturing, art, and urban planning. The chief imperative of architecture must be the creation of visionary solutions that move architecture away from its currently reactive state.


To move beyond this reactive state, one must develop a way of understanding design in terms of the dynamic historical interplay between the “control” and the “market”. Thus, one may posit that there are two systems of architecture on this planet. On the one hand, is classicism. A system of architecture I define as an approach which fetishizes the act of building. An architecture of power and control filled with axial relationships and the concretization of the functions of the state. Classicism diminishes agency and builds to create an immobile monument to its creator.  Set against classicism, is the architecture of the meshwork. Meshwork design integrates with the landscape bending to the unique constraints of the context rather than imposing alien forms and values. This is a plastic architecture. This is a mobile architecture representing the destabilizing forces of the world.


But why should it be mobile? Many architecture theories begin with the primitive hut or the woven wall of the nomad. If one is to create a mythical state of man beyond the reach of time, then his “natural” state is one of an explorer. Gathering his resources as he pushes back the edges of the known universe, early mankind was a race of explorers. They settled the Polynesian Islands on ships. They swept across the uninhabited plains of North America in search of “Prehistoric” game. They penetrated Africa with its multitude of dangers.


Yet as the edges of that universe were encountered, mankind began the unnatural process of building cities as fortifications against other men. Stationary fortifications negated the life of living from the land and necessitated farming. The benefits of the static life were clear. Increased numbers led to more ideas and greater technology. However, not all ideas and goods could be obtained from one city alone. Trading networks developed to spread goods and gradually the city became the meeting place of goods and ideas. In turn, these ideas gave rise to the industrial age with factories that required vast numbers of people to operate the machines.


For some time now, it is increasingly obvious that all of the trends of technology are leading toward a world of ever increasing automation. With the decentralization caused by three-dimensional printing and most manual task performed by robots, what will be the place of mankind in this new century? The old need for cities to be immobile centralized collections of people, goods, and manufacturing do not exist. On the contrary, the only need for humans will be in the creation of new ideas. So they must live together. However, they are no longer tied to fixed locations for resources. It is time for humans to resume their nomadic ways from the distant past. On Mars, adoption of this new way of living and building is adopted by default for there are no traditional cities to hold mankind back. Now humans can travel from resource to resource pushing back edges of the known universe limited only by their collective creativity.


The year is 2040, mankind is radically altering the way they collectively inhabit space on Mars. Automation, 3d printing, and resource constraints are freeing humans to return to their natural nomadic state. A new kind of meshwork architecture imbued with vision, unrestrained invention, technical rigor, and mobility has risen to the challenge. This is a call to action. This is a call to anticipate the future of architecture. A future visualized through a blend of practical constraints, theory, and a narrative. This is the Proteus Colony.