Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, a global architecture firm based in Chicago, designs everything from train stations to high-rise buildings to airports.
The company, known as SOM, is currently redesigning the State and Lake CTA station in downtown.
But also beyond Chicago – and even beyond the earth. In collaboration with the European Space Agency and MIT, SOM developed a design for a lunar colony based on science facts rather than science fiction.
This design is now being presented at the world famous art festival of the Venice Biennale in Italy.
We spoke to Georgi Petrov, one of the lead architects on the project, to find out more. Petrov is Associate Director at SOM, where he works as a civil engineer and at least part of the time as a space architect.
How did Skidmore, Owings & Merrill come to design a colony on the moon? As far as I know, this was an initiative of the European Space Agency.
There were a couple of us designers here (working on it). Personally, I work in the building construction group, although I am mainly an architect and in our Digital Design Group there is another named Daniel Inocente – Senior Architectural Designer at SOM – who has long been interested in space architecture. We both work at SOM on a lot of terrestrial projects … a lot of airports and big things. But we got interested in space architecture and it is actually Daniel through contacts at the European Space Agency who made this agreement, where we had this collaboration, where we designed a lunar village.
The former Director General of the European Space Agency had this idea of ââa lunar village and gave a speech in 2015 where he basically challenged the world to design how we return to the moon with the idea that we would do it collaboratively. To take advantage of the precedent of the International Space Station, where many countries come together to share the same infrastructure. So we wanted to apply this paradigm to our return to the moon, unlike the 1960s when it wasn’t about collaboration but competition. So it was our job to give a shape to this idea of ââwhat a lunar village looks like. What does it actually mean in physical form?
What were the parameters of the design project? Can the vision of your design team be realized with the latest technology? How much does science fiction cost – at least currently – and how much science fact?
All architecture and engineering are scientific facts. The only thing that would be science fiction is funding.
All of the technology we’re trying to show has either already flown in space or is already on the (drawing) boards and we have a pretty good idea of ââhow it works. There is nothing that will come out in the future. They are things that, if the commitment and funding are in place, could be done within a decade or less. Not every bit of engineering has been worked out, there is still a lot to be done, but all of the basic technologies are pretty well established.
Did you just design lunar habitats or the entire infrastructure and ecosystem for what a colony might look like?
We worked on three different levels. We started with the master plan. Choosing an actual website. The moon is pretty well documented, so you can choose an actual location rather than an imaginary or theoretical location and design around it. We were working on a master plan on how we could move from one habitat to several dozen over many years. And from a crew of four to a community of dozens and maybe even hundreds.
And then we focused on one of the habitats. By definition, the first one to go there must have it all because it’s the only living space you have. So we designed one with crew quarters and laboratories and other work environments and so on, but we always thought that if you added more of those habitats, you would specialize, like a settlement on Earth. So you would have one that might just be beds and crew quarters, and then another that might just be a laboratory, and then maybe another one for storage and the like.
credit: SOM / Lucas Blair Simpson)” height=”1410″ src=”https://news.wttw.com/sites/default/files/styles/full/public/article/image-non-gallery/Moon%20Village%20Model%202.00130.jpg?itok=SRU2mx65″ title=”A model of a lunar village habitat. (Photo credit: SOM / Lucas Blair Simpson)” width=”1824″/>
The ones we show in our pictures and in our video are only the first … but to bring it back to earth, every new house learns from the previous house. So we designed the first one with the idea that when you live on the moon you improve the way the habitat is designed. And then we worked on how some of the details and the connections and how the whole thing should be put together. So we worked on three different scales.
How should these habitats be built? Do they need to be taken to the moon and assembled, or can we use resources on the moon to build them?
The moon is not very resourceful. The reason we travel to the South Pole is because it’s one of the few places that actually has resources. There is really good evidence that you have water and other organic molecules that you could use to make things there too. The first habitat we designed would come entirely from Earth, but much of the infrastructure could be made on the moon. For example the landing site and the foundations for our living spaces. And then the idea is that while the people are gathering there, one of the most important things to do on the moon is to learn how to build with local resources. In addition to the foundations and roads, one of the things you could do is build a shelter to protect the habitat from radiation, which is one of the big problems we face on the moon.
NASA’s Artemis mission aims to get people back to the moon by 2024 – although most observers expect that date to slip. Do you think that in our lives we will see some of these designs or variations of them on the moon?
I am old enough to have lived through multiple proposals for a return to the moon and some of those disappointments. The most important thing now is that the commercial space sector is really mature and that we have reusable rockets that have the promise to really cut the cost of getting materials to the moon. I think these emerging partnerships between the space agencies and the commercial sector hold great promise to actually get us there (again) this time around. I am still very hopeful that I will get to see something and very much hope that I can actually participate in the design of what flies there.
The exhibition at the Venice Biennale – tell me about it. What kind of installation can visitors expect if they are lucky enough to come to Venice this summer?
The theme of this year’s Biennale is how we’ll live together, which went very well with what we were doing. The whole idea of ââthe lunar village is that we would live together on the moon. So we fit the topic very well this year. We have a couple of models. We have a large model that shows the master plan and what the moon village would look like with hundreds of people. We also have a fairly large model that shows one of the habitats that you can walk in and look around. We also produced a four minute video called Life Beyond Earth that tells the story of how habitat got to the moon and our vision of how people would live there.
Note: this story will be updated with video.