Build a Martian House review – will this be your little golden room on Mars? | Architecture


Living on Mars is a game for billionaires and superpower government agencies, for Elon Musk and NASA, not for the average person. The reason is obvious and simple: it is extremely expensive and complex to transport people and equipment to a planet located 140 million kilometers from Earth. Artists Ella Good and Nicki Kent are undeterred, however. On a wharf in Bristol, next to the M Shed museum of the city’s history, they have installed what they call a ‘popular version of life on Mars’, a budget-built ‘Martian house prototype’ of £50,000, with an additional £20,000 spent on workshops, plus in-kind support from several construction companies. Their expenses are about enough, on the face of it, to pay for the toothbrushes of a typical real-life space program.

Their two-tiered structure resembles a shiny golden insect – a woodlouse? a tardigrade? – perched on a shipping container. It stands small but prominent among the masts and rigging of heritage shipping, as well as the cultural and commercial buildings and preserved cranes of a former industrial area. It represents a unit, designed for two astronauts, of an imaginary community that could be built on the planet, where 50 people could stay for months and more. The idea is to provide a “lens” on life on Earth, exploring how to survive in a place of scarcity and danger.

There is an element of realism. The artists asked Hugh Broughton, an architect best known for designing Antarctic research stations, to design the structure, based on the fact that he has worked in the places closest to Mars, in terms of environmental hostility, on earth. Working with Owen Pearce, an architect once employed in his office, who has now set up a practice called Pearce+, Broughton has come up with techniques that, while untested, have some practical plausibility.

The insect is a lightweight, gold-coated sheet structure, to be shipped from Earth, that would be filled in place with Martian rubble known as regolith. The habitable space below would be created by mining the lava tubes that would lie beneath the planet’s surface and reusing spacecraft components that would transport humans to their new home. By these means, resources would be used as efficiently as possible. Residents would be protected by the mass of matter above them from cosmic rays which are among the worst dangers on Mars.

Good and Kent developed their ideas by visiting the Mars Desert Research Station in the Utah desert, which simulates missions to the planet, and consulting with a space systems engineer and an Earth and planetary scientist. at the University of Bristol. In the end, their interest is less technical than human. What do you need to live well, they want to ask, in conditions of isolation? What would you have for breakfast? How would you cope with the fact that it takes up to 20 minutes for a message sent from Mars to reach Earth, and the same for the reply to come back? Or that you have to fix something yourself if it breaks, using whatever is available?

A sketch for the construction of a Martian house. © Hugh Broughton Architects and Pearce+

They have therefore organized educational workshops and will hold others in their Martian home. Ultimately, say Good and Kent, they want to offer “a hopeful vision.” They want to show what is possible where high levels of ingenuity are required, and how even in extreme circumstances it might be possible to think beyond mere survival. Whatever discoveries may arise are likely to be more relevant to an Earth whose environment is under threat than to the Red Planet, especially since workshop attendees will likely never reach the latter.

The interior of the structure serves as a backdrop for this work. As Broughton’s Antarctic projects are also about wellness and mental health in difficult circumstances, he and Pearce can bring that expertise to the Mars/Bristol effort. It has features designed to cheer up or at least entertain its inhabitants and connect them with nature: a window to the dusty landscape (or, in this case, office buildings and a cathedral tower); a double-layered skylight that contains part of the unit’s water supply within its thickness, so that it would freeze and thaw with local weather conditions. (Mostly the former, given that the average temperature is minus 60C, the maximum 20C.) Hydroponic plants, useful for survival and sanity, surround the putative astronauts.

Artists Ella Good and Nicki Kent in astronaut gear at the Mars Desert Research Station, Utah.
Artists Ella Good and Nicki Kent in astronaut gear at the Mars Desert Research Station, Utah. © Satori Pictures

At the same time, you get an idea of ​​the extremely limited dimensions available to space travelers. On the lower level, inside the shipping container, you see how cramped the dorms in these places are. There was a concept in German architecture of the 1920s called existentzminimum, which described the minimum space in which people could decently live; interplanetary travel takes this idea to a new level of smallness.

There’s a part of me that would like this project to be a little less speculative, to show more precisely what could be built on Mars if humans were ever to live there. The Nasa-supported Hi-Seas project in Hawaii has been pursuing this subject with substantial resources and expertise for a decade, as has the European, Russian and Chinese Mars500 from 2007 to 2011. Well-funded exploration of their findings would do something.

But, given that much is still unknown on the subject, there is value in the insight offered at Bristol. It is also an extreme illustration of a famous saying by William Morris. “Have nothing in your homes that you don’t know is useful or believe to be beautiful,” said the designer and wise Victorian. This would be true on Mars, with the buttons enabled.


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