New Worlds, Old Metaphors

Interview with Ricardo Scofidio for uncube magazine issue no. 19: "Space"

Architect Ricardo Scofidio co-founded Diller Scofidio + Renfro, an interdisciplinary design studio based in New York in 1979. His practice is as well known for its installation and performance projects as its architecture. He talked to uncube’s editor Sophie Lovell about skeuomorphism and the dangers of investigating the new when burdened by luggage from the old.

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Architect Ricardo Scofidio co-founded Diller Scofidio + Renfro, an interdisciplinary design studio based in New York in 1979. His practice is as well known for its installation and performance projects as its architecture. He talked to uncube‘s editor Sophie Lovell about skeuomorphism and the dangers of investigating the new, when burdened by luggage from the old.

(see the original article online)

I understand that you have an interest in science fiction and space. Is there a particular author whose visions have left a strong impression on you?

Yes, I’ve read many books over the years. Science fiction has changed so much from the times of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells through cyberpunk to an incredible amount of dystopian fiction today. I’m less interested in somebody’s idea of what the future of technology might be and more in stories dealing with bodies and people and ideas and problems – I guess “soft” versus “hard” science fiction.

With the recent Mars missions, Chinese probes on the moon, and the move towards commercial space flight for private citizens, we seem to be entering a new space race era. I find it interesting how little architecture has been involved in these plans. Have you ever been involved in thinking up scenarios for space habitation?

I haven’t been approached to make a proposal, but I do think it’s an incredibly interesting problem, for many reasons. On earth, if you make an architectural or construction mistake, you may get water leaking from the roof; if you make a mistake in space it may mean the end of your life. There’s such an enormous amount of technological issues that have to be met that it would require an architect to spend years acquiring that knowledge or else working with a compatible engineer. The other problem is that when a design needs only to solve pragmatic problems a creative approach often becomes less important.

But probably the thing that scares me the most is that wonderful word “skeuomorph”. If I look at my browser and click on a skeuomorphic “home” symbol it takes me to my personal folders. We’re burdened by so many analogies that attempt to help you deal with new, unfamiliar technologies by using old metaphors rather than creating a new language. For example, if you were designing a gravity-free architecture, I’m sure somebody would still insist that you put a standard doorway in the wall just so people know it’s the place to enter.

Like the designer Raymond Loewy, who was the first to suggest putting a window in the American manned spacecraft so the astronauts could actually look out.

What is a window on a spacecraft compared to a window on earth? Windows are often an opening to daydreaming, allowing the mind to think, fantasise, and wander. At the turn of the millennium, we did an installation project called Master/Slave for the Cartier Foundation in Paris about the shift from the twentieth to twenty-first centuries. Our project involved a collection of tin toy robots that were owned by Rolf Fehlbaum from Vitra. The Cartier exhibition included a spectacular film by Andrei Ujica, called Out of the Present, about the astronaut Sergei Krikalyov [he spent 10 months aboard MIR during the collapse of the Soviet Union, ed.]. Ujica gave Krikalyov a camera, which he smuggled on board the Russian space station. Sergei was at the opening of the Cartier exhibition and Elizabeth Diller and I were lucky enough to sit opposite him at dinner where we talked about living in space. He found that being in space for an extended period of time produced a continuously enjoyable euphoria. One orbit took an hour and a half, during which time he saw night and day, and all four seasons. The most incredible thing for him was spending hours looking out of the window at earth. So to design for space I think you would have to spend some time in orbit just to understand the issues involved.

We have had ideas of outer space influencing architecture for many decades: from Buckminster Fuller’s Spaceship Earth to silver flying-saucer shapes and streamlined rocket forms. Norman Foster’s new Spaceport America for Virgin Galactic is particularly interesting since it seems to blend the terrestrial with an alien aesthetic. Humans seem to have a propensity for turning science fictions into science facts. Is this also the case for architecture? Are we building our futures according to how we envisage them to be?

In the 1920s, Norman Bel Geddes and other engineers started looking at automobiles in terms of aerodynamics and streamlining. Suddenly there was a whole field of aerodynamic design being applied to things like irons and toasters and coffee pots – even if they didn’t move one inch. So what is the vision for an object in space? The closing sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the protagonist Dave Bowman [Keir Dullea] ends up in a Louis XVI bedroom, was alien, inexplicable and disturbing for me to watch. Much more so than if it had been something that we perceive as a “space environment” as represented by Hollywood today. You mentioned that the future becomes what we project upon it – as far as I’m concerned there are very few examples in which someone predicted the future and that’s exactly how it happened. Foster’s Spaceport seems to me more symbolic of the way we think space or the future will be, rather than really what the future might be.

The first photograph of the earth taken from behind the moon in 1968, Earthrise, inspired the idea of “spaceship earth” and suddenly changed our whole perspective of ourselves. Do you think it continues to have an effect on design?

Scientists have invented and sold us so many things that the industry can’t now turn around and say: “Oh we made a mistake, this thing is terrible for the environment and now you can’t have it.” Rather than developing new paradigms energy is being spent to allow us to keep what we have been convinced that we want and desire, with modifications to make it less aggressive towards the environment. We really have to dump some things and find new answers to old problems, rather than propping up old solutions.

How would you envisage the beginnings of a Martian or a lunar colony?

Thinking about skeuomorphism I become concerned that a lunar colony might look like a suburban town under a big protective dome. I wonder what Frank Lloyd Wright or Mies would do with a space colony? Would we even be designing for our same bodies? How much luggage are we dragging from one discipline into an area that really wants to be perceived in a totally different way? I reread Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange a while ago. What’s so beautiful is that when you first start reading there are new words in the opening chapter that you don’t comprehend. But as you continue reading you pick up the language and start to understand this future time/place. So, how can we take a new problem and give it meaning that transforms the way we think about the object we are trying to make?

Do you think all the film material documenting the lives and work of astronauts on the ISS has any kind of effect on architects and how they think about environments?

I’m still struggling with the idea of what space is. At the moment I can’t think of space in terms of feet and inches. At one time the earth was flat with heaven above and hell below, and if you went too far you fell off the edge. Then with the industrial revolution, space became about the transportation of goods from one place to another. Someone in a prison cell had no space, and someone in a mansion had lots of space. My personal understanding of space is no longer feet, inches, or metres, but time. I don’t say a place is 500 metres away, it’s five minutes away by foot – or if it’s in Los Angeles, it’s five hours away by plane. If we talk about going to Mars we don’t talk about distances, we talk about how many days we will spend travelling to it.

I was talking to a mapmaker once and got him a bit upset by saying: maybe the Moon is just half a mile from the earth, but it’s very small. So, when we leave earth and travel towards it we shrink, getting smaller and smaller, which is why it takes so long to get there. How do we know that is not the case? I wonder how much we really know about what’s out there in terms of distances and dimensions. We have an Einsteinian understanding of space and know that dimensions change and space warps, but there are so many new discoveries and questions, I think in the future scientists will look back at how little we knew.


From: uncube magazine issue no. 19: Space, edited by Sophie Lovell