Monday, June 13, 2011

White Walls, Hard Wear (Part 6)

Parthenon Frieze; Telephone Switchboard
When Corbusier wrote in 1923 that, "Architecture can be found in the telephone and the Parthenon," he was not thinking of whiteness as part of an inheritance of immutable visual meaning like Albert Speers and other devils who dreamed of white neoclassical cities, he was thinking of whiteness as a way to express a modern system. In his book, White Walls, Designer Dresses, Mark Wigley observes:
The Parthenon has to be thought of as a system of communication like the telephone. And the telephone is has to be thought of as a means of production of space like the Parthenon. The telephone, like all systems of communication, defines a new spatiality and can be inhabited... Like the coat of paint, the telephone is a form of clothing that can be occupied, but not by the preexisting culture.
The systems of communication that emerged out of WWII, are not only very different from what existed before ("I don't know what the hell this 'logistics' is... but I want some of it."), the ways we have come to inhabit them today are wholly different then anything any during the Cold War (or even Wigley in 1995) could have predicted.
NASA PLSS engineering Diagram (1964); systems engineering "House of Quality" diagram

In his book, Spacesuit : Fashioning Apollo, Nicholas de Monchaux explains that American Cold Warriors not only mastered logistics, they became enthusiastic adopters of command-control systems built on "cybernetics," a discipline that grew out of the mathematician Norbert Wiener's work during WWII to build more accurate anti-aircraft targeting, and management strategies like systems engineering developed by Bell Labs.

These disciplines were harnessed to the monumentally complex task of building America's arsenal of ICBMs; an effort that involved the blending of American military, academic, industrial, and governmental elite into the so called "military-industrial complex." NASA was the most visible aspect of that covert network, the very public tip of an iceberg that was otherwise wrapped in secrecy and violent paranoia. The game theories of military planners and the literal "black box" compartmentalization of military contractors were at the procedural core of NASA's effort to put a man on the moon. According to Monchaux, the Mercury rockets that propelled the first American astronauts into space were nothing other than a "repurposed missile" with capsule instead of a warhead.
Minuteman III Launch Control Capsule; First maned Mercury rocket launch (1961)

For years NASA pursued the goal of a spacesuit adequate to the task of walking on the surface of the moon. It was imagined that such a suit would be built by means of the same compartmentalized technical approach as those used to design and build missiles and jet fighters. According to Monchaux what the engineers desired and expected was a hard military-industrial spacesuits built on the the same manufacturing principals and using the same "conceptually clear systems" used to build ICBMs. This was a system that required individual machined parts, each tested and accompanied by unambiguous providence documented by schematic technical drawings and long detailed bureaucratic paper trails.

These early system analysts prided themselves on being rational and objective. For them white was the whiteness of laboratories and clean rooms. This was no longer the appearance of hygiene, it was the look of objective neutrality; rationally structured progress; of control.
Mercury spacecraft the clean room at McDonnell Douglas Aircraft (1960); awkward moment in the clean room

But that is not to say the desire for a hard suit was objective or unsullied by bias. The closer the system got to the astronauts bodies, the more intimate the contact between system and body, the less objective it became:
Their hard, gleaming surfaces fulfilled a science-fiction fantasy of spaceflight; sleek, efficient, functional and firm. The vision was both more physically substantial and more stylistically masculine than the layered soft goods of Playtex.
The lead designer of NASA's AX series of hard suits, Hubert 'Vic' Vykukal (pictured striking a manly posing in his hard suit below), mocked the humbler logic of clothing: "I wouldn't go into space in something made on a sewing machine." He inhabited a system of communication that valued breaking complex problems like spacesuits and rocket, into discrete component parts, each of which could be presented by a contractor in a black box, protecting its workings from those with no need-to-know.
Vic Vykukal modeling AX-5 hard suit; the black-box look of NSA headquarters

But hard suits refused to yield to astronauts bodies. They weren't cuddly. And astronauts bodies refused to yield to the segmented ethic of cybernetics. The system of design that sought to reduce the body to cybernetically inflected inputs, outputs, and controls failed. NASA only gave up on hard suits during the 80s, and then the Air Force continued to pursue the idea into the 1990s. It was hoped the armored suit could be used by soldier-astronauts to attack and disable booby trapped Soviet  satellites. But even this goal to weoponize spacesuits failed to justify the bruising discomfort of hard wear. And while they would be used for publicity, appearing as empty props at international expos and celebrated in design books, no hard suit would ever be worn into space.

At its best NASA's culture of command-control was able to fulfill its goal of putting a man on the moon by 1970, but that success, blinded it to the failures of its system (like the rolling debacle that was hard suits) and gave systems engineers an unrealistic self image: "If we can put a man on the moon, surely we can..." cure cancer, end street crime, or whatever else. That can-do attitude, supercharged by success, lead to a disastrous overreach by systems engineers.  
Apollo 11 Mission Control and moon landing (1968)

Monchaux explains that, "the space program was only ever designed to produce a single TV image of an American man on the moon. In 1968, once they’d succeeded in doing that, you had all of the original engineers losing their jobs. For instance, at Berkeley, where I teach, and also at MIT, there was a summer school in 1968 explicitly organized to train engineers who had been let go from NASA for new jobs in urban administration—for NASA engineers to become city managers."

The culture of system engineering exploded into American urban planning community like virus. And while squalor and hygiene was first and foremost in the mind of Modernists in the 1920's, during the 1960s it was rising crime rates and social disorder that preoccupied the imaginations of urbanists. And as efforts at control became increasingly violent the hi-tech look of white took on a deeply negative cast. The hard shelled hi-tech white of Vykukal's weoponized spacesuit, the florescent whiteness of NASA clean rooms and the gridded white of corporate headquarters, the objective look of control, became the oppressive look of control; hygiene became sterility; structured progress became arbitrary force. Monchaux notes, "most attempts to cybernetically optimize urban systems were spectacular failures, from which very few lessons seem to have been learned." (Continue reading Part 7.)
Memphis TN (1968); THX 1138 (1971)

1 comment:

  1. To defy the final Monchaux idea, I have noticed the white light cast on a room when the ambient light is nil and the computer screen is running. (It would be especially stark with THX running, given the washed-out palette.) The index of cybernetic optimization?