Thursday, May 19, 2011

White Walls, Saturn Rockets (Part 1)

Sigourney Weaver, Aliens (1979); Otto Apel, Former American Embassy, Frankfurt Germany (1955)

A day or two before Apple announced they would release the long delayed white iPhone 4 my friend Joanne McNeil wrote me because she was working on a piece about the concern and confusion elicited in strangers by cracked face of her black iPhone. The cracks had not effected the phone's interface and because Joanne had liked the way her cracked screen made her phone easy to identify from other's perfect, and perfectly identical iPhones, she had decided not to have the cracks repaired. But the imperfection was troubling to those around her. Strangers, afraid she would cut herself would urge her to have the face replaced. Joanne would explain that the screen was still smooth and worked fine, but still the anxiety (in others) remained. Even after she explained it's personalizing utility, her choice not to repair the imperfection flummoxed smartphone Samaritans. Joanne's phone is black but thinking about perfection lead her to wonder about the "hi-tech look" of white. She was wondering if I had any thoughts about where/when that all began.

Because he always is, my first answer was "Stanley Kubrick." There were no cellphones in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and there was a lot of color, but there is, throughout the film a glowing, perfect, and hygienic whiteness. But because Kubrick was rigorously borrowing and projection forward from the look of NASA, and doing so with the assistance of America's then emerging space industry, the whitewashed look of Saturn rockets and clean rooms was my second answer. 
Richard Schadewell telephone (1929); Bell Picturephone (1969)

But because the American space and ballistic missile programs were built from the plundered Nazi V-2 Rocket program, and because my own art work is most often all white, I was a little uncomfortable with that historical lineage. Best case it suggests that their might be a Bauhaus connection - but since no one wants to admit influencing or being influenced by Nazis, finding a connection there would be difficult at best. Besides the recent Bauhaus show at MoMA made it pretty obvious that the Bauhauser's appliances were all black, chrome, and conventionally Deco (I did hope to find an early cue ball white nitrocellulose phone).

Most surprising however is that after years of producing white on white drawings and sculptures, beyond the precedence of a few key artworks, I had never thought about whiteness in any systematic way. I put Joann's question to everyone around me and had an especially helpful a long talk with the blogger and satelloon geek Greg Allen. I dug back into Mark Wigley's book on Whiteness in architecture, White Walls, Designer Dresses, and spent a lot of time asking myself why white art architecture and devices are so attractive to me. The deeper I dig, past Bauhaus architecture, whitewashed ocean liners, fun parks and the Inquisition the more I am convinced that my first instinct has some merit. The perfection of white all starts with the moon, but it's contemporary meaning has a lot more to do with clean underpants and architecture bridges the two.
German V-2 rocket preparing for Launch, and its direct descendent, the American Saturn V preparing for launch.

"Architecture is in the telephone and the Parthenon," was Le Corbusier's answer. Corbusier was an enthusiast of whiteness. He wrote that "Whitewash is extremely moral. Suppose there were some degree requiring all rooms in Paris to be given coat of whitewash. I maintain that that would be a police task of real stature and a manifestation of high morality, the sign of a great people." He wrote that in the early 1920s. He associated white with the then high tech look of floating-architecture like bicycles and the ocean liner Aquitaina, not rockets. This was way before the German V-2 rockets had been painted black and white, much less taken on the scale of steam ships. 

Corbusier was dreaming of white at a time when architects had few, if any, affordable stable white exterior building materials to choose from and modernist architectures success would be built on affordability. He was writing about phones that were all still made of black bakelite. For the early moderns, white was still more of an ideal than a reality. The ideal, from the beginning, had everything to do with the moon and a lot to do with marking class.
Aquitaina (1921); Space Station 5 (1969)

Modernism and its contemporary inheritors like to name check utility, "form follows function" and all that. But Apple's 9 month delay of the iPhone 4 points to how arbitrary that ideal, especially when it concerns making things white, actually is. White plastic has less carbon and is therefore weaker. White plastics yellow. Whitewashing rockets is, if not equally non-utilitarian, just as arbitrary. According to Steven W. Squyres' account of NASA's Exploration program, Roving Mars, "When something really works in the rocket business, you tend not to mess with it unless you have to." It turns out rocket science is extremely conservative. NASA's Delta rockets, which date back to 1960, still use cork glued on to their exteriors, which Squyres explains because badly glued and then delaminating cork delayed a launch of his team's Martian rover:
Cork in a spaceship? It was so nineteenth-century. It made you think Where’s the gutta-percha? Where’s the beeswax? But cork really made sense if you thought about it. It’s a good insulator, it’s light and it’s cheap. It had worked well in the seventies, and when something really works in rockets, you tend to leave it alone unless you don’t have any choice.
The reason sited for painting rockets is UV protection for the insulation - but in the case of the Space Shuttle's large External Tank, it was originally done to match the rocket to the shuttle. It was only after the first two launches of the space shuttle that the large ET rocket was left unpainted, and therefore uncharacteristically orange. This was done to shave 600 lbs. from the tank's overall weight. At roughly $10,000 per pound per pound to launch anything into space, that's a lot of very expensive paint, and it doesn't explain why NASA rockets aren't painted yellow, International Orange or plastered with the stars and wavy stripes. Any of those would be an improvement on white paint, since, like white plastic and white skin, it is not a very effective way to protect against UV.
The Echo Satelloon (Circa 1958); Space Shuttle ET (2008)

While the first liquid-fueled rocket was launched in 1926 by an American, Robert Goddard, it was the German's who advanced the technology the most during WWII (although Goddard whined that the German rocketeers had stolen his ideas). When American GIs scooped up 300 trainloads of parts and machines and 126 of the principal designers, including Wernher von Braun, his brother Magnus von Braun, and Walter Dornberger, from the Nazi's V-2 rocket, they were getting a huge jumpstart to a then very primitive and disorganized American rocket program.

The first rocket launches made at White Sands and Cape Canaveral were captured V-2s. NASA was directly grafted onto the very particular root stock developed in Germany by von Braun. Judging by Squyres account, the original V-2 program's character would have had an enormous influence on the look of NASA even if Werner von Braun had not lead both programs.
Robert Goddard (1926); V-2 (1945) 

Formally, our phones seem most closely related to accessories like jewelry, yet they are as different from those things as steam ships are from buildings and rockets from washing machines. And vehicles, skyscrapers and appliances like phones all passed through a common machine age bottle neck; they share justifications, ethics and myths that jewelry has no share in.

In the case of the iPhone's whiteness, I put the question to owner of Modernlink, and his unhesitating answer was "Dieter Rams." He told me that Jonathan Ive, Apples head designer, points to Dieter Rams as his greatest influence. Rams made his first important industrial design in 1956, the Phonosuper SK4 music system, commonly referred to as ‘Snow White’s coffin.’ Rams admits to being heavily influenced by the Bauhause. And indeed Rams trained as an architecture at the Wiesbaden School of Art, worked for a time under Otto Apel, the architect of the former American embassy in Stuttgard, a deliciously white structure with clear Bauhaus origins. But Apel wasn't a Bauhauser, he worked under Hitler's architect Albert Speer - who fetishized the white of classical Greek architecture. That is a sinister linage for the contemporary look of white, but it is also over literal, simplified and wrong at its core. The Greeks didn't associate white with perfection, at least not in their architecture, and neoclassicists like Speer new it. (Continue Reading Part 2.)
Dieter Rams, Phonosuper SK4 (1956); iRaq, 


  1. The White City, 1893? Perhaps a direct re-interpretation of classic style at the advent of artificial light, which has shown kindly on white plastics in homes and sci-fi.

  2. Funny, I hadn't thought about the Columbian Exposition - which is, perhaps, telling since I grew up in Chicago hearing about it. I suppose I would lump the White City with the 19th century false romance with the whiteness of antiquity the so captured Albert Speers imagination that I discuss in Part 3. That is not something I like to associate with my hometown.

  3. Oops, Part 2, I got ahead of myself. :)

  4. Fascinating series of articles. Just one quibble: the suggested link between the Bauhaus and the Nazis has it backwards. In fact, the Nazis (and their reactionary predecessors) actively *targeted* the Bauhaus for repression. So there would be no shame at all for a Bauhaus connection to be found for whiteness & modernism.

  5. Agreed Jeremy. The Nazis were anti modernist reactionaries.

    What I wrote was: "Otto Apel, the architect of the former American embassy in Stuttgard, a deliciously white structure with clear Bauhaus origins. But Apel wasn't a Bauhauser, he worked under Hitler's architect Albert Speer..."

    Because the Nazis wanted nothing to do with the Modernism of the Bauhaus does not mean modernism is unstained by fascism. One of the questions that sparked this blog, was wondering why movie audiences in 1977 were so comfortable with the image of an International Style space station occupied by Nazis.