• Sunday , 8 December 2019

Architecture and the Human Project

Moon and Colony Collage

‘Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual. Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god.’
― Aristotle, Politics

From Aristotle’s contentious words we can reason with some conviction that the ‘social animal’ is the foundation of the Human Project. A project begun on a branch of the evolutionary tree as we climbed the food chain and took dominion over the earth. In moments of clarity we feel inconsequential, tiny creatures clueless to a grander design. In moments of grandiosity, we feel powerful, large and vital, the earth bowing to our will.

An avoidable Armageddon or a natural catastrophe notwithstanding, humans will one day be selecting the first permanent colonists for expeditions off world. A bespoke selection of individuals – highly trained in various useful fields, of sound mind and body, catapulted at 11km/s from their birth planet to prepare – in concise engineering detail – a new base for human occupation in the hope that the Human Project will not become extinct. Every facet of their lives will be designed in advance by an unknown multitude of engineers, scientists, psychologists, and architects who will categorise the minutiae of daily life deemed relevant for the lab rats in space.

Whether selecting candidates for off world colonies, for experimental co-housing, co-existing in a retirement facility or simply sharing a home: the Human Project necessitates a shared experience of our journey through life. We recognise that the design of our shared spaces is critical, not only for health and safety, but for comfort, contentedness, and general wellbeing. When making a vessel to take humans into space, design will be understood as a factor in maintaining the mental and physical health of its occupants – so why not apply this knowledge to the design of a house, an apartment, or an office block as a matter of course?

In thinking this way, we might wonder can design similarly save us from the inertia of thoughtless building? Can it break through the haze of commercial apathy that ignores the civic potential of space? Can design take us to new territories of human existence, as yet unreached?

No doubt some of the problems we face in the present will follow us off-world one day. But right now, on terra firma, our cities chafe against orbiting satellite ghettoes. Housing crises drag on as economies stabilise. Banal design sprouts throughout, like weeds in a field. It can feel as if we stumble forward with the Human Project – manoeuvring expectations into position rather than aiming for what’s best. Casting an eye towards the infinite net of permutations and possibilities of the present, the question for designers is: from here, where can we go and how shall we live?

No design conundrum will be left untested by our off-world cousins, for the first generation at least. Design may either be a liberator or jailer for these cocooned people, where air and light and shade and space are so finely tuned that they seem innate to the artificial environment. Architects ought to recall this future that might yet be, and design with astuteness and curiosity, creating powerful spaces to nurture the astonishing Human Project on this chaotic, beautiful, messy Earth.

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