Our Once Familiar Future

July 18th, 2011 by Tim Maly

This is a painting of the proposed interior of a Bernal sphere. The painting was commissioned by NASA in the 1970s as part of a series of summer studies about space habitation. I grew up looking at images like this.

Suburbs in space NASA’s Space Colony Art from the 1970s

It’s a marvellous piece of design fiction. My favourite part of it is the cluster of nearly multi-racial yuppies in the lower right. No wait, my real favourite part is the landscape that stretches out above them; an extended facsimile of suburban countryside. As if the advent of space colonies holding 10,000 people would have no impact on the public consciousness or fashion. As if the best use that designers and architects could find for a 500m diameter sphere’s interior would be giving everyone a nice lawn. As if the sudden appearance of Soviets in space had not led to the Sputnik Burger.

I’m being unfair. The painting is really a cognitive hack. It works the same as our habit of referring to pocket computers linked to satellite radio networks as “phones” or the fact that “wireless cable” is a meaningful term. The yuppies and motorboats on the artificial river are trojan horses and reference points to help us grasp the sublime scale of a half-kilometre glass ball that traverses the heavens with people inside. The interior has to be banal. It makes the future seem more believable for a time. It makes the future easier to accept.

Until that time passes and the depicted future is not built. When that happens, neither the future nor the reassuring veneer of past-present is familiar. Instead, you get these strange fantasy objects, unstuck from time. It’s a wholly alien environment combining stuff we don’t have anymore with stuff we never got.

Filed under architects, astronauts

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