Spacesuit and Cities
When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the lunar surface in July of 1969, they wore spacesuits made by Playtex: twenty-one layers of fabric, each with a distinct yet interrelated function, custom-sewn for them by seamstresses whose usual work was fashioning bras and girdles. Playtex’s spacesuit went up against hard armor-like spacesuits designed by military contractors and favored by NASA’s engineers. It was only when those attempts failed—when traditional engineering firms could not integrate the body into mission requirements—that Playtex, with its intimate expertise, got the job.
The twenty-one-layer spacesuit, Nicholas de Monchaux argues, offers an object lesson. It tells us about redundancy and interdependence and about the distinctions between natural and man-made complexity; it teaches us to know the virtues of adaptation and to see the future as a set of possibilities rather than a scripted scenario. The relevance of this story to architecture and planning should be relevant through a system of metaphor alone — clothing the body has provided inspiration for architecture from prehistory — but history tells an even stranger story. By tracing the direct history of ideas of ‘engineering man for space’ into 1960s and 1970s urban proposals from RAND, HUD, and even the University of California and Oakland, de Monchaux presents an explicit argument on the continuing failure of technologically mediated design to adequately grasp the scope and complexity of urban situations.