Wheels Down on Mars

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Mission Control at the Jet Propulsion laboratory, just before landing the Mars rover Curiosity

Image source for all images: NASA TV

   If rocket scientists viewed advancement and progress the way architecture does, the "rocket boys" would still be launching bottle rockets and NASA would not exist! Early this morning, the Mars rover Curiosity touched down, culminating a year-long flight and several years of development. But long before that, the rocket scientists were doing something the architects do not allow: learning from both past and present, and building stuff that works.

Mission Control scientists at the Jet Propulsion laboratory conferring on Curiosity

   What if the rocket scientists discounted Newton and the Law of Universal Gravitation because he was from the past? Space travel would be no more precise than firing a shotgun at the moon. How about Gottfried Leibniz, who is credited along with Newton with inventing calculus in the 17th Century? They're not "of our time," the architects shriek, "so we can't possibly draw from their work." But without calculus, space travel would be impossible as well.

   The most prominent scientists of all time have credited those who came before them, most famously Newton: "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." But small or great, an endless thread of scientists realized that their work could not have happened without the foundations laid by others. Architecture, on the other hand, more often embodies the idea that "nothing that came before us is worthy of us." (I keep referring to Newton, by the way, because he's not just a recently dead scientist. Instead, he lived several centuries ago.)

rocket scientist giving directions at Mission Control at the Jet Propulsion laboratory, during the Mars rover Curiosity mission

   But now, consider a scientific instrument that has been developed almost entirely within my lifetime: the electronic computer (to distinguish it from earlier mechanical computing devices.) The iPhone today reportedly contains more computing horsepower than Apollo 11's onboard computer that flew when I was only nine years old. But what if Steve Jobs would have accepted the standard of today's high architecture that all new work must not draw from old work? Had he followed architecture's direction, he would forever have been making unique versions of the Apple 1 out in his parents' garage… or at least until he went broke, that is. The MacBook Retina? Never would've happened. The iPad? Forget it. The iPhone? Impossible. Astonishingly, Frank Gehry is now being criticized by other architects such as Zaha Hadid for "self-plagiarism"! In other words, he's doing work that bears some resemblance to work he's done before! So now, every new project has to be a complete invention, never seen before. This utterly ridiculous proposition needs to be called out for the juvenile insanity it really is.

rocket scientists celebrating the successful landing of the Mars rover Curiosity at Mission Control at the Jet Propulsion laboratory

   You don't land on Mars by ignoring stuff that works. Instead, you use every tool you can find to get the job done, whether you invented it yourself or someone conceived of it centuries ago. Why doesn't someone hold architecture to the same standard? Like maybe the clients whose money the architects are spending? Real exploration and real advancements come by building discoveries on foundations of things that are known to work. It's high time for architecture to grow up and learn where you find the real cutting edge… it's in the workshops of organizations such as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory which don't self-lobotomize themselves of all that came before them.

   ~Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments

Steve Mouzon · Board Member at Sky Institute for the Future

Here's the post I was referring to last night... a rant on the fraud of progress in architecture. It should be subtitled "How Rocket Science Grew Up While Architecture Didn't".

Aug 6, 2012 10:33am

Roland Beinert · University of Idaho

Architecture is part science and part art. I think some architects simply emphasize the art part too much (same could be said about landscape architecture, I admit). The idea that you have to do something new all the time clearly comes from the art side of things.

Aug 6, 2012 11:39am

Michael David Rouchell · Architect at Williams Architects

Actually, an interesting take on the history of flight compared to the history of architecture is this: We still have hot air balloons. We still have hang gliders, and we have ultra-light planes, which are similar to early Wright Brothers' planes. We have blimps that hover over stadiums during the football games to film aerial shots. We have helicopters. We still have propeller driven planes. There are also turbo prop planes. There are jet planes for flying passengers to cities around the world. There are fighter jets that can break the speed of sound. We have rockets and missiles, and we can put satellites into orbit around our planet Earth. We landed on the moon several times. We landed on Mars several times, and we have a couple of spaceships that are out in the far reaches of the solar systems. Architecture, on the other hand, it seems we have to constantly purge out the "old" as we embrace the "new."

Aug 6, 2012 11:47am


So in other words, architecture has literally devolved into pure fashion. You can't do that again... because it's the same thing you did with last season's lineup! 
BTW it's not completely true that building upon precedent is verboten in the starchitecture racket. Neomodernism and neobrutalism are quite popular in some circles (judging by the "second wind" of grim, high-tech, steel-and-glass boxes), and not a few architectural 'theorists' wax reminiscent about silly utopian stunts from the 1960s and 70s (that Archigram Walking City is a perennial favorite). So it's indeed permissible to build on precedent... as long as you don't go back further than the 1920s. Neo Corb? Fine. Neo Mies? Fine too. Neogothic? Get the hell out of here, you evil historicist! 
Starchitecture is a broken record. None of the ideas are new; they're just re-veneered 1960s utopianism dressed up with "green" gizmos (thanks for coining that phrase, Steve!)

Aug 6, 2012 1:09pm


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