Monday, June 20, 2011

White Walls, Soft Wear (Part 8)

Whitey on the Moon, Neil Armstrong, looking exhausted; Gil Scott-Heron, mad as hell.
(Return to Part 7)
Had NASA engineers been less enamored with AX hard suits, the most glamorous failure of it's military-industrial culture of design/production, and more conscious instead of the success born out of that failure, the soft complex layering of hand-sewn textiles actually worn on the moon by Apollo astronauts, perhaps when it's systems engineers turned to urbanism they may have approached the "problem" of the city with a bit more humility and flexibility. But I doubt it. The engineer-urbanists were primed by decades of wrong-headed idealism espoused by authorities like Lewis Mumford to "solve" the blight of "metropolitan centralization," and "remedy... increasing congestion" of cities like London and the "dingy railroad metropolis of Chicago" by turning them into country estates.

Unlike the black and white rockets produced by aerospace engineering firms, fabrication of the Apollo spacesuits were at odds with NASA's culture of systems engineering. In his book, Spacesuit : Fashioning Apollo, Nicholas de Monchaux draws a parellel between the 21 layers of fabric that protected astronauts from exposure to vacuum, micrometeors  and radiation to the the layers of engineering specialists and procedure used by the garment maker Playtex to mediate between its corporate culture of couture textile fabrication and NASA's bureaucracy of cyberneticians. NASA required technical drawings and precise specifications on individually machined parts. The girdle makers worked with sewing patterns, textile blends, compound materials and the idiosyncrasies of handstitched seams that were wholly alien to the procedural logic developed for making ICBMS. 
Ed White, first American EVA (1965); 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

But in order to fulfill its own mission requirements for an Apollo spacesuit NASA had to make important concessions as well. "For elements toward the outside of the suit, especially in the covering Thermal Micrometeoroid Garment (TMG), changes followed standard systems engineering protocols." Monchaux writes, "Closer to the astronauts skin, however, the engineering logic evaporated in favor of a humbler logic of clothing." John Glenn described the soft spacesuit he wore on the moon as "tough, reliable, and almost cuddly." The cuddly suit Glenn wore was in no way a realization of Corbusier's  "machine for living." In his book The Modern Mind, Peter Watson writes of :
Le Corbusier sought to achieve simplicity and a purity, combining classical antiquity and modernity with the ‘fundamentals’ of new science. He said he wanted to celebrate what he called the ‘white world’: precise materials, clarity of vision, space, and air, as against the ‘brown world’ of cluttered closed muddled design and thinking. 
The white world we ended up with is very different from the one Corbusier predicted. Playtex's A7L spacesuit was a bastardized architecture of girdle structures, bra fabric, and precision hand craftsmanship akin Comte de LautrĂ©amont's dream of something "beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella," and that is exactly the level of strangeness that underpins the white world we inhabit.
Hans Bellmer, The Doll (1934); Layers of Apollo A7L spacesuit.

Cybernetics is now a word with about as much hi-tech cache as the package of terms that carry the masculine suffix -ator (refrigerator, escalator, percolator, and so on). Like the whiteness of early modernist exteriors, it is most notable now that it has disappeared inside. We fret about attacks on our infrastructure (cyber-warfare), and our economy (cyber-crime); we valorize hackers and whistleblowers (cyberpunks); denounce anonymous cowards (cyber-bullies), negotiate new forms of social intercourse (cybersex) and machine congress (cyborgs). 

In an interview for BLDGBLOG Monchaux worries that "parametric urbanism" is a return to the hubris of "attempts to cybernetically optimize urban systems," and that "very few lessons seem to have been learned." However, even without algorithmically driven designers - computers, the internet, and now smartphones have brought the procedural logic of system engineers deeper into the most intimate spaces of our cities and ever closer to our persons. And as these systems have surrounded us the interface has become increasingly soft and fuzzy. 
Dr. Who, CyberMen (1960); Yves Saint Laurent, wedding dress (1965)
The ethic of command-and-control has steadily given way to peer-to-peer networks. Agressive stat-driven crime fighting programs like CRASH in LA and New York's SCU went down in scandal, and are giving way to programs like 311 and DC Apps. By the turn of the century the the strict controlling efforts of cybermen had become less threatening. "Some of their rules can be bent, others can be broken." Morpheus would explain. Our intimate data is not only power, a commodity to be mined; it is also something to be shared and loved

The architecture of smartphones is more akin to the soft white world of Playtex than Corbusier's precise clearity. Smartphones are intimate ware; something we keep on our persons and hold directly against our skin. They connect us us to enormous systems that dwarf the greatest fantasies of postwar engineers, but, like the Playtex spacesuit, they do so through dozens of flexible mediating layers that overlap and personalize the contact - government regulated bandwidth, proprietorially networks, open-source operating systems, apps, collections of personal data and finally the physical interface itself, the particular hard-wear we choose to hold against our faces. 
Matrix agents (1999); Lady Gaga (2010)

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