THE WORKING ENVIRONMENT of tomorrow can be glimpsed in Herman Miller’s recently completed showroom at the Merchandise Mart in Chicago–and it’s a far cry from the boxy, cramped, ineptly furnished cubicles found in many offices today. Instead, shimmering screens tethered to steel poles cleave the room’s wide-open spaces into honeycomb-shaped cells, furnished with workstations that future inhabitants can easily reconfigure. This is the company’s new Resolve system, and the showroom was designed to accommodate it. “Everything is so integrated,” says Rick Duffy, vice-president of Herman Miller’s Genesis design team, “that it’s hard to separate our product from the architecture of the space.”

Like the company’s furniture, the showroom is sleek, inventive, flexible, and multifunctional. Slim floor-to-ceiling glass panes form the zigzagging picture window that divides the showroom from the Mart’s prosaic hallway. As Mark Sexton, principal at Krueck & Sexton Architects and the job’s project architect, says, “It’s completely clear and doesn’t distort the furniture, yet it manipulates light and color to add a sense of activity and energy to the space.”

Alongside this wall are a built-in freestanding reception desk, clusters of Herman Miller furniture–including celebrated Eames pieces as well as the Resolve system–and a gleaming, spacious kitchen for use by employees and customers. The area is backed by another riveting expanse of glass, a series of partitions that nearly span the showroom’s 200-foot width. These walls, each made of three large panels of etched glass shingled together with pins and posts of stainless steel, enclose four conference rooms that occupy the showroom’s middle zone. Inside, the ceilings are equipped with recessed colored lights that wash the glass walls in subtle, shifting hues.

Beyond the conference rooms is a third area, open except for support columns, which makes up half of the showroom’s total square footage. Here, the company shows its contract and residential offerings. A three-dimensional geometric grid clings to the ceiling; edged at the bottom with soft curves, it resembles an undulating sea. Along two exterior walls, the Mart’s old-fashioned casement windows are equipped with translucent floor-to-ceiling pivoting glass panels which, like giant Levelor blinds, can be adjusted to modify the amount and angle of incoming natural light.

In addition to the arresting use of glass to orchestrate space, Krueck & Sexton’s innovations include the showroom’s lighting system; in the conference area and beyond, it employs colored lenses, bulbs, and gels, and can be programmed to change hues at various rates throughout the day. In another notable move, the architects constructed the space largely with recycled materials, a nod to the company’s modus operandi regarding its furniture, which incorporate recycled and “green” materials whenever possible.

Despite such bravura flourishes, the showroom is, ultimately, utilitarian–the perfect venue to present what Duffy describes as “our vision of what the future holds.”

Lisa Skolnik’s recent books include Retro Modern (Friedman Fairfax, 2000) and The Right Light (Rockport Publishers, 2000). Her feature on the Chicago restaurant Mod appeared in the August 2000 Interiors.


SUSAN HALAS I Universal Studios Director of Design and Planning, Global Real Estate

As a furniture buyer, how effective do you think the showroom really is? I have 12 million square feet of space to manage in virtually every region of the world, so I’m always trying to find multifunctional office products that I can use globally. This showroom really lets you see how their furniture can do that.

How so? They stage many different functions there, and for each one the space seems to be so perfectly tailored to the event it’s as if they created it just for that particular presentation or party. But they didn’t, and in fact don’t really change the space at all–it takes on different characteristics by virtue of its lighting and the way the furniture is organized. Yet it always seems to remain a viable working environment.

And that’s your bottom line? Realistically, yes. Their product line is full of workplace solutions, and the showroom allows the company to reveal how their furniture can be used in almost any context.


FOR NEARLY A CENTURY, the main reading room at the New York Public Library has been the literary heart of a bookish city. A Beaux-Arts landmark designed by John Merven Carrere and Thomas Hastings that opened in 1911, the room exudes both civic grandeur–for a time it was the country’s largest uncolumned interior–and a warm, oaky intimacy. One feels impressed, enlightened, and uplifted here, but never over whelmed. It is also a truly public space, welcoming everyone from intellectuals to schoolchildren in a (usually) hushed harmony.

Over the years, however, the room had grown tarnished, and dusty. Nearly one quarter of the 23,000-Square foot space was obscured by an unsightly warren of microfilm readers. And the long, golden tables, with their vintage green-glass lights, had dulled with age and overuse. One of the greatest detractions from the room’s beauty came about when the magnificent windows on its north and south sides were blackened out as a precaution against World War II bombing; post-war, they remained gallingly dark to make microfilm reading easier.

Tourists now flock simply to stand and marvel at the restored reading room. Davis Brody Bond’s $15 million project has returned the space to a glory that few may remember, but none will soon forget. The focal point is the 55-foot-high ceiling, a celestial football field of plaster molded to resemble carved wood, highlighted with copper-and gold-leaf, and supported by neoclassical Caen limestone walls. Three trompe l’oeil rectangles reveal the pinkish clouds and soft blue light ofan appropriately literary rosy-fingered dawn. These atmospheric murals replace artist James Wall Finn’s originals, which were too ravaged by time to be restored or even accurately reproduced. The new ones, by Yohannes Aynalem of Evergreene Painting, are all “meant to give the impression of looking through the ceiling directly up at the sky,” says Lewis Davis, a founding partner of Davis Brody Bond.

A number of the room’s new features are, like the ceiling murals, creative interpretations rather than historic copies. For example, two new reference centers, large stations made from carved oak, and based on Carrere and Hastings’s designs, “blend so harmoniously,” says Davis, “visitors think that they’ve always been there.”

Led by Davis, the firm–feted for a previous renovation of New York University’s Center for the Humanities–faced not only the challenge of bringing back the space’s historical luster, but also that of ensuring its continued vitality with the addition of Information Age accouterments. Thus, the 22-foot tables, with their Carrere and Hastings chairs, were not only meticulously sanded and refinished, but retrofitted with electrical grommets and conduits for power and data.

The wonders of technology can hardly compete with the room’s classical elements, though. Its full floor area once again devoted to reading tables, the layers of grime removed, and lighting added to play up ceiling arches and illuminate bookshelves, the room is newly replete with light and air–a hothouse for learning, its lofty spaces open to all.

Tom Vanderbilt is a contributing editor to Interiors.

MICHAEL LEVINE I Freelance Writer and Editor

What’s your favorite part of this room? The ceiling.

How often do you come to the reading room? I come here on average three times a week.

How many hours do you spend? Anywhere from four to seven.

Do you find this room is a pretty encouraging place to work? I’ve been coming here so long, feel at home.

Is there anything you would change about this room? When you sit at those desks to write, some of the seats don’t get very good light. I was hoping they would improve that.

What’s the best thing about the restoration? The ceiling.


Twelve years ago, fire coursed through Higgins Hall, home of Pratt Institute’s architecture school. The flames destroyed the Victorian building’s central wing, and severely damaged the north section. New York-based architects Rogers Marvel were commissioned to quickly rehabilitate the damaged area, while the school raised money to replace the lost part. The firm opted to leave a patch of charred rubble between the wings, and to preserve other vestiges of fire damage throughout the renovated hails–that is, to remind students, who don’t yet know, and the faculty, who may have forgotten, that buildings are always vulnerable.

Robert Rogers, a principal in the firm, was on the Brooklyn-based school’s faculty at the time of the disaster. “The firemen hosed the building from eight trucks for six hours,” he recalls. The water damage exposed a kind of sedimentary archaeological site of 19th- and 20th-century construction methods: load-bearing masonry, iron columns, concrete-block in fill, rubble-filled concrete-and-masonry walls. (Built in 1868 as a boys’ academy, the edifice had been expanded four times before Pratt acquired it in 1965.) “We let the layers become the material quality of the building,” Rogers says. From that point, he adds, the design became a matter of “selective insertion of the things you need in a school, like studios and pin-up space.”

In most rooms, the new insertions frame just a few original details: a cast-iron capital here, a line of brick archways there. The firm cut new arches into existing brick walls in some classrooms, and lined brick halls with white canvas-wrapped Homasote display boards. But the memory of smoke still gets in your eyes: some openings are filled temporarily with panes of translucent Kalwall, and a few panes have been left clear for peeks at the rubble next door.

There’s also one space whose new configuration was entirely defined by fire: a two-story jury room, formed by a street-front gable that had been left dangerously unsupported after the roof burned off. To keep the gable from falling into the street, firemen hosed it heavily, pushing it into the building; its collapse destroyed several floors and created an accidental atrium. Another roof-level space that still reflects its fire trauma is a formerly unused attic, which has become a light-flooded undergraduate studio. Its new roof rests on steel trusses rather than the original wood, and the ceiling planes shift as they dodge around the beams: a contemporary, fractured environment has been born within the familiar restrictions of a 19th-century garret.

Victoria Milne is a New York-based desinger, curator, and writer. She is currently working on a book about natural forms in design.

DAMAN VAN HORNE I Third-year Undergraduate Architecture Student

What works best for you in the renovated North Wing? I admire the respect shown the irregularities of the existing structure. There are many areas in which bad spacing in brick, or sections that would be considered bad masonry, have been left uncorrected. Looking from the attic studio onto the remnants of the gutted courtyard has really affected my work in a positive way.

ALEX PORTER I Assistant Visting Professor

And what works best for you? The way the openings look onto that central space-some are translucent and some transparent. I’m interested in seeing how that will relate to the new building [design, awarded to Steven Holland Rogers Marvel]. Also, I like the warmth of the found materials versus the metal and

new materials, and some interesting stuff is going on with the moving partitions in the offices. They function in terms of a whole, dynamic space.


WHEN OSCAR EOND left an executive post at Aveda to start his own beauty salon in Manhattan, he knew he wanted to distinguish his place with something other than the uptown-ladies-who-lunch look. So when Jordan Parnass and Eric Liftin –friends from Columbia University’s School of Architecture, each of whom is the principal of his own design firm–pitched Bond a high-concept scheme, he was receptive. “They came up with one sentence: ‘The Jetsons meets Barbarella,'” says Bond. “That sold me.”

Within a drum-tight $200,000 budget, Bond remained open to whatever the young team wanted to try in his basement-level, 3,500-square-foot space in Soho. “It was really good that they’d never done a hair salon,” says Bond, “or it would have looked like a hair salon.”

To dispel the former storage space’s dank, dark feel, Liftin and Parnass installed a long processional staircase that deposits customers in the middle of the room — a feature that’s evocative, appropriately enough, of a fashion runway. The space around the steps accommodates the salon’s merchandising of Aveda products, which can bring in as much revenue as its styling services.

Along the walls, the team draped nylon parachute material, backlighting it slightly so that it glows. Compared to drywall, notes Parnass, the nylon “feels a little more generous and makes the whole space read less subterranean.” The fabric was also cheaper than drywall and is more easily replaceable; it also affords Bond storage space behind the curtains.

The network of exposed ducts and pipes overhead, which at first glance didn’t exactly bespeak the elegance associated with a high-end salon, became another case in which virtue was made of necessity. With neither the budget nor the inclination to conceal the space’s infrastructure, Parnass and Liftin incorporated the tube and wires into their design. Liftin used plumbing materials to build what look like mutant chandeliers. The fixtures encapsulate the Bond salon’s core aesthetic: a mix of heavy, industrial materials (plumbing, exposed concrete) and sleek, light, colorful ones (vinyl upholstery, backlit Panelite walls).

Parnass and Liftin saved their most unusual move for the waiting area, turning what’s often a salon’s dead-zone into its centerpiece. They created an elevated stage with inviting orange benches set smack in the middle of the salon, which offers views of the entire space. The architects also installed two tangerine-colored iMacs, complete with high-bandwidth Internet connections. Here, tiny video cameras panning the salon send images to the Bond homepage, and waiting customers can surf, check email, or just admire the setting. According to Liftin, “The idea is to expand the space beyond its physical confines.” And, as it turns out, the orange vinyl benches make good mouse pads.

Parnass and Liftin’s work proves that, given the right client, even confined parameters can leave plenty of room for creativity; that cheap, inventive solutions are often the best ones; and that unconventional thinking can provide a lot of marketing value. As Bond says, “We’ve got more press for those two iMacs than any good haircut.”

Steve Bodow is a New York-based freelance writer. His feature on a dotcom office designed by award-winner Jordan Parnass appeared in the October 2000 Interiors.


What’s your favorite part of the space? The lights, and this whole cutting area.

Why do you like the lights so much? They’re a different design and I’ve never seen anything like it. Unfortunately it’s not really ideal for seeing lines and what-have-you in a haircut, but it’s just the mood that it sets; it’s very nice.

What about this design makes doing your job easier? It’s very open. You can see the whole space from every angle and you can get inspiration from everyone and everything around you. I like that there’s nothing closed off.

If you could change anything about the salon, what would you change? I wouldn’t change a thing.

That’s a diplomatic answer. No, when I first walked in here to apply for a job, I was like, “This is it.”


Though he was only 43–almost a stripling architect years-Shigeru Ban has made Time magazine’s list of “100 Innovators” and Architectural Review’s list of “Six to Watch.” His placid, broad features appear regularly on global TV networks and in popular magazines. His work has turned up in design sanctums such as New York’s Museum of Modern Art and in frenzied attractions including London’s Millennium Dome and Hannover, Germany’s 2000 World’s Fair.

Many visionaries are best known for building on paper. But Ban’s reputation largely rests on building with paper. The Tokyo-based Japanese architect has elevated the lowly papertube into a structural element for beautiful, durable houses, public buildings, and furniture. He’s also employed it as a pragmatic solution forquickly erecting and then neatly disposing of temporary quarters. A man whose humility approaches self-denigration, he is dismissive about ingeniously transforming this humble material into shelter: “Once you hear of it, you think, ‘Oh, it is very possible– nothing special,'” he claims. In truth, Ban’s paper buildings have opened up radical new possibilities for greening architecture, housing refugees, injecting warmth into minimalist spaces, and eliminating barriers between interior and exterior.

Ban loves to contrive cheap solutions for elegant constructions. Mud, sand, and cardboard are his staples, along with beer crates, storage containers, and polycarbonate forms filled with Styrofoam beads. Even conventional building materials adopt new roles in his hands: precast concrete piles make their way above grade, and scaffolding, bookshelf supports, and cabinets become structure.

Born in Tokyo, in 1957, and educated in Japan and the U.S., Ban began dabbling with materials shortly after he graduated from Cooper Union in the ’80s. His experiments increased in size and complexity as he grew more confident. He first used precast pilings in 1992 on an overscaled wall separating a residential building from an adjacent train line, and later employed them as strong, slender columns for the 1997 Tazawako Rail Station. His foray into temporary storage containers began in 1996 with –what else?– a traveling exhibition. Used as vitrines, the containers were rented at each exhibit site from afreight company with offices throughout Japan, saving considerably on transportation costs. Similarly, Ban introduced prefabricated steel boxes at the Japanese pavilion in Hannover, which he displayed under an enormous vault of papertubes designed in partnership with the esteemed German architect Frei Otto.

Ban’s paper-tube structures are his most evolved experiments. The series began in 1989 as simple scaffolds of fat cardboard shafts, which were soon joined by dainty chairs of the same material. (Cappellini now produces these chairs as well as a bench, a chaise longue, and a wall screen of Ban’s design.) In 1995, he employed the tubes as vertical cantilevers in shelters for people left homeless by the earthquake that leveled Kobe, Japan, and in a gracefully unfurling nautilus-like chamber, designed in collaboration with Gumuchdjian+Spence, in the Millennium Dome. More recently, Ban devised paper barrel vaults: the 46,000-square-foot pavilion at Hannover was the largest cardboard structure ever made. A smaller vault, which floated delicately over the Sculpture Garden at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in the summer of 2000, incorporated a set of paper arches as its primary structure.

“I have tried to be very careful about using paper,” Ban notes, “because I don’t want to be considered the ‘paper architect.’ If I have an opportunity to develop paper structure further, I do it.” Such chances turn up: he is working again with Philip Gumuchdjian on a paper space frame for Kew Gardens, outside London.

Arata Isozaki, in whose office Ban briefly worked after graduating from Cooper Union, once said that industrial materials in architecture have “bred paradox and wit.” The witty side of Ban’s architecture beguiles; its paradox, namely a resourceful use of rubbish, provides deeper satisfaction, allowing Ban to build virtually anywhere at the drop of a hat. This has resulted in shelters–known as “loghouses,” because they are wrapped in a sturdy wall of vertical paper tubes-for victims of the 1998 earthquake in Turkey and of the 1995 Hanshin earthquake in Japan; more recently, they provided housing for flood victims in Vera Cruz, Mexico. Ban has also developed and deployed tents with paper-tube supports in Rwanda for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and built a lovely church in Kobe to address emergency needs neglected by the Japanese government. With news of disaster, he gathers up donated plastic sheets and cardboard tubes and flies to the site, where local volunteers collect beverage crates and sand. (He prefers local plastic and paper as well, but has thus far found their quality unpredictable.) In other humanitarian endeavors, he designed an AIDS hospice in Uganda in 1999, and recently completed a Japanese museum to exhibit artwork by children with disabilities.

Paradoxes aren’t easy to sell. Because paper is weak and combustible–though in fact it can be strong and fireproof–the bureaucracies in many countries discourage Ban’s experiments. German authorities delayed the Hannover pavilion until Ban and Otto redesigned the foundation to allow for more rapid and orthodox construction. As is typical of Ban, he turns to an everyday item to illustrate the problem: “The authorities are not flexible. You have to put a line on wineglasses to mark how far you pour! That shows their mentality.”

But Ban is slowly eliminating impediments. First with engineers in Japan, and now with the international firm Buro Happold, he has demonstrated the practicality of his ideas. Engineers understand Ban’s clever tinkering and appreciate its breadth. Cristobal Corea, a Buro Happold designer who has collaborated with him, notes that “Ban has confidence when speaking to engineers; he knows what we are talking about.”

Students are also receptive. Ban rallies them to work as volunteers on his shelters by spreading the word at schools and on rock radio stations. He challenges young people in Turkey and Mexico not only to aid him in design and construction, but also to improve on his prototypes. He runs the nonprofit Voluntary Architects’ Network to respond to disasters and hopes to strengthen the role students play in this organization by moving it from his practice to one of Tokyo’s universities.

His willingness to experiment with materials and his humanitarian approach to design show Ban to be a committed interpreter of postwar modernism. He enrolled at Cooper Union to study under the school’s dean of architecture, the late John Hejduk, from whom he learned a highly disciplined approach to organizing buildings. Ban’s work has the careful precision of Hejduk’s better-known “nine square” designs–a set of exercises aimed at finding a minimalist, compositionally perfect plan. The younger architect paid pointed tribute to Hejduk with Nine Square Grids House (1997). There, Ban partitioned a 34-foot-by-34-foot space into nine square sections, using sliding doors that allow users to reconfigure the area. His cylindrical bathrooms (found especially in the early houses, almost invariably in brick) allude to the spatial arrangement in Philip Johnson’s Glass House, a building Ban has long loved from afar, but has felt too shy to tour.

Ban also acknowledges modernism by naming his most experimental residences Case Study Houses, after the mid-century icons in Southern California, where he first studied architecture in the States. (To establish U.S. residency, required for enrollment at Cooper Union, he spent a year at SCI-Arc.) Ban built ten Case Study houses between 1991 and 2000, all in Japan. At first he described his houses in purely formal terms: two parallel walls; two walls and a structural core; three walls, two cores. Apparently to make these systems more graphically legible, he rendered them with contrasting finishes–raw, textured surfaces sandwiched between smooth white floor and ceiling planes. The spatial character of modernism inevitably took hold as well. Horizontal planes slice off flat planes of unbounded space. Without impeding walls, interior and exterior are often linked in a harmonious whole.

The interiors electrify; they have a forceful horizontal quality that pushes beyond the boundaries of Ban’s architecture. The houses, especially those designed for people privileged enough to withdraw to summer quarters, remind residents that their space is part of a larger community. In Ban’s 1997 Walls-less House, the floor turns up to act as a shear plane, and the living space is little more than a sandwich of air compressed between the glossy floor and ceiling. His Curtain Wall House is a tiered stage, a raised, double-height living room concealed behind a long, shimmering curtain that billows as suggestively as a chiffon skirt. When the owner opens this wall, the living room stretches into the street.

Of course not every site, especially in crowded Tokyo, offers this kind of sweep. When faced with cramped conditions, Ban sometimes relies on clever devices to suggest openness. In many of his city residences, greenery covers an outside wall, creating a shallow landscape. More recently, in his 1998 Hanegi Forest apartments (built in the same Tokyo neighborhood as the office he designed for himself in 1988), he used high-clarity mirrors in an open area below the building. These reflect trees that penetrate the structure and create a labyrinthine forest that seems far larger than the site.

Ban takes increasing interest in testing personal boundaries, too: the Walls-less House allows even the bath and toilet to be completely exposed. In Case Study House #10, otherwise known as the Naked House, the family members keep their clothes in a communal space and all dress together. Ban designed the bedrooms as mobile boxes and he feared that if clothes were stored in the units they would make the boxes too heavy to move.

Uniting Ban’s work are clarity, textural richness, and ingenuity. These qualities come together seamlessly in each project, whether it’s a temporary exposition building or a permanent museum, a house designed for people with second homes or for those with no home at all. Ban notes that “even in disaster areas, I want to create beautiful buildings.” And indeed, one of his loghouses made its way into the collection of the Centre Georges Pompidou. This breezy breadth is part of Ban’s appeal. He recognizes that architects want to build monuments–he himself admits to this urge. But he also recognizes that public service is part of modernism’s mission.

On the boards are four more paper-tube buildings, in Portugal, plus a history museum in Dijon, France, houses near the Great Wall in China, and a museum of paper art in Mishima, Japan. The last, ironically, will not be made of paper. Ban keeps outmaneuvering most expectations. Though he seems to be asking design professionals to reconsider building materials, what he really wants is a new definition of architecture’s reach. In the introduction to a monograph on his firm forthcoming from Princeton Architectural Press, he describes his search to control the conditions of working with paper: “I had been under the impression that some things were simply impossible to build regardless of how logical their structural design seemed.” That impression was fleeting. “Anything is possible,” Shigeru Ban concludes, “if the design is credible and one has the will.”

This Bland Is My Bland

There’s a joke in Don DeLillo’s White Noise about the “world’s most photographed barn.” No one remembers why anyone took its picture in the first place. It has become famous merely for being famous.

Martin Parr collects the world’s least photographed barns and presents them in books called Boring Postcards. Published by Phaidon, last year’s introductory volume concentrated on sites in the U.K., and Parr has recently followed it up with a book devoted to the U.S. These compendiums of actual postcards boast postwar motels, banks, highway underpasses, and industrial infrastructure so staggeringly mundane, so risibly banal as to defy belief. There’s “The Mall” at Horseheads, New York, a 1970s shopping plaza clad in wood shingles and stuffed with wrought iron, where a smattering of fake plants rings a colossally unspectacular water feature; there’s the TraveLodge in Kingman, Arizona, a two story affair whose parking spaces extend to the pool’s edges (drive-in swimming!); there’s the “Taylor Rental Center” in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, with a humble enfilade of snowblowers and power mowers assembled out front (Wish you were here?). There are scenes the mind’s eye has absorbed–and promptly discarded–a hundred times, cruising the turgid iconography of the suburban strip. What makes them noteworthy is that someone has bothered to select a perspective, find the best light, frame the image, and commit the structure to posterity.

“I don’t really think they’re boring at all ,” says Parr, a reserved Englishman residing in Bristol who is himself a photographer. For years he has accrued his artistic reputation with a mordantly witty eye and a penchant for chronicling obsessions, such as Japanese commuters sleeping on trains, bad weather, and the English middle class. Most recently, he’s deployed a ring-flash camera normally used in medical photography to put his subjects–even those on the bright English seaside–under a revealing light. With Postcards, Parr indulges in the charms of curatorial work. “I think they’re absolutely interesting–the title is a way to get people’s attention,” he says. “In fact they have this whole layer of information and revelation about the society behind them.” The postcards present a secret history of the anonymous buildings that surround us and the moment that produced them. When the English M1 highway was built, a flurry of postcards circulated in its honor. “People would literally write on the back, ‘I’ ve just been on the M1; it was fantastic,'” he says. Decades of gridlock and accidents have taken their toll, however–the novel has ossified into the dreary. “You can’t buy a postcard of the M1 anymore,” he notes.

Parr would know–his methodically sorted postcard collection numbers well into the thousands. Boring Postcards stems from an idea he shared with a Bristol arts center to mount a competition in search of the “world’s most boring postcard.” For the U.S. version, he haunted postcard shows in Manhattan. “I kept asking these dealers about these cards and by the end they were coming over and asking, ‘Is this boring enough for you?,” Germany will be the theme of the final Boring Postcards compilation. “And Germany is meant to be boring,” notes Parrwith wry satisfaction.

Boring Postcards USA reads as a Technicolor-toned paean to the optimism of postwar America, when every “Farmer’s Bank” and bus terminal that went up from Wauchula, Florida, to Raton, New Mexico, was cause for celebration. Who can look at the photo of the taconite plant in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, a gray assemblage of buildings photographed from a distance, and fail to be stirred by the large white square marked on an adjoining section of forest, which reads “Site of Proposed Larger Taconite Plant”? Who would not get sentimental gazing upon Tri-County, the “Shopping Showplace of Ohio,” a series of flat, outsized boxes sailing majestically in a sea of parking?

Comparing the boring postcards of England and America evinces subtle cultural distinctions. People in the English cards, for example, register more as crowds than individuals; rarely does anyone look at the camera. Similarly, the architecture seems more institutional in the British collection–the tower blocks that rise ominously in the backdrop of the “Market Precinct” in Scunthorpe or the Le Corbusier-esque mix of large buildings and empty spaces that compose the “Harlow New Town.” Another curious distinction is that American cards frequently embellish the title–they’ll go on about “The Beautiful New and Modern Greyhound Bus Station and Ramp Parking Garage” or “The beautiful and spacious dining room of the Wesleyan Retirement Home in Georgetown, Texas,” while their English counterparts never do. “Perhaps it’s just typical British understatement,” offers Parr.

Parr’s books raise the question of what boring architecture–and boring photography–really is. He compares some cards to the photos of Bernd and Hilla Becher, the German artists acclaimed for coolly detached shots of industrial structures, such as water towers. The “Fast Reactor” atomic plant in Caithness, Scotland, may indeed be “boring,” but the postcard presents an expressionistic, almost haunting black-and-white image of a Bauhausian box with a huge bulbous dome. Its boredom is in the mind of the beholder.

Martin Parr’s postcards are a populist chronicle of a time when the idea of modernism was trickling down into everyday life, when a town’s signal achievement was to have an airport with a glass box terminal and a clean, well-lit departure lounge; when American prosperity could be measured in the abundance of custom car washes and “Oil Tank Farms”; when no technical achievement–whether the M1 motorway or Flexalum Aluminium (sic) Awnings–seemed undeserving of photography that prompted visitors to communicate a sense of wonder or adventure. Once contemporary viewers get beyond the initial perverse frisson–“I can’t believe someone made a postcard of this”-they will be anything but bored. They may even be a little awestruck.


Waiting for a flight usually means sitting on the bony edge of your suitcase, gnawing on some stale peanuts, and nursing malevolent fantasies as flashing monitors push the hour of your departure back, and back, and back. By comparison, waiting in Virgin Atlantic’s Upper Class Lounge at John F. Kennedy International Airport feels bizarrely pleasant. As you enter, leaving behind the chaos of JFK’s Terminal One, a receptionist takes your coat, then offers you a towel in case you’d like a shower in a sleek bathroom trimmed with modernist chrome fixtures. Or if you prefer, she suggests, you can savor a liqueur or an espresso at the stainless-steel, oak-topped bar, play chess in the main lounge, or settle down for a three-course meal in the dining area.

But wait, weren’t layovers supposed to be like this? “During the ’60s and ’70s, emphasis was placed on the future of air travel,” notes Patrick Hegerty of JHL Design, a consultancy that manages Virgin lounges worldwide. “There was widespread public fascination with space and technology, and flying was seen as a glamorous, luxurious adventure.”

Richard Branson’s hiply positioned airline has set out to capture the retro mystique of air travel; Calvin Tsao and Zack McKown made it a reality. Principals of New York firm Tsao & McKown Architects, the pair applied mid-century furnishings, spots of mod red and cool chrome, and a frisky jet-set attitude to the airline’s New York clubhouse. (Note that “membership” is granted only to international travelers who can afford Virgin’s upper-class tickets–$5,000-$7,000 for a quick hop across the pond.) “We’re from that generation in which Weekly Reader inspired our visions of the future,” says McKown. “Later we saw those visions spoofed in Austin Powers and other contexts.”

From its first bravura spectacle–a view through vast double-height windows to the tarmac, where Virgin’s sleek red-and-white jets wait to whisk you to London’s Heathrow–the design refers to the delights of pre-deregulation air travel while acknowledging the needs of 21st-century workaholics and the nerves of shaky passengers. If the thought of flying makes you jittery, the reception area sets a calming tone with a glowing bench of fluorescent tubes under a long slab of three-inch-thick resin. The spare entryway introduces end-grain block velva wood floors and paneling of end-grain white oak treated with an alcohol stain to bring out pacific gray hues.

The 5,500-square-foot main level is divided into several intimate spaces by furniture arrangements–two Windsor chairs bracketing a Pfister sofa by Knoll in one area, a circle of silver Eames lounges and antique Chinese drums in another, a bank of celadon Aarnio Ball chairs facing the runway. To the north is the long bar lined with dark brown barstools, and beyond, a small dining area with a row of Conan tables, each decorated with a purple orchid in a clear glass vase. To the south, you’ll find the showers and a business center, a circular bank of desks where passengers can plug in their laptops, send faxes, or search the Web on a computer with a flat-screen monitor. And though it’s a workspace, the layout doesn’t disrupt the room’s tranquility–the fax machine, paper shredder, and a globe are arranged in the wall like a museum display. The desks, inspired by library reading rooms, are flanked by comfortable Eames swivel chairs upholstered in light-gray wool.

Upstairs, a mezzanine level features a row of interlocking C-shaped carrels, covered in dark brown wool felt and arranged along a walkway. The carrels allow passengers to work alone and still peek out on what’s happening in the rest of the lounge. At the far end of this row, the space opens into a large circular area, where the architects have created a kind of 1970s romper room for adults: a low banquette covered in thick wool felt by Italian designer Paola Lenti forms a U facing the tarmac, and a large peanut-shaped sheepskin rug is sprinkled with a cluster of Lenti’s wool felt blocks and a bulbous red plastic Aarnio Tomato chair.

Unifying the design is a sense that flying can be joyful and humorous, an idea Virgin Atlantic aggressively promotes. McKown acknowledges that he experienced several “self-consciously Austin Powers moments” while designing the space, in part because the airline has such a playful image (and because that International Man of Mystery, a velvet frock-coated relic of Swinging London in the mod ’60s, served for a time as Virgin’s poster boy).

“What I thought was really great about Virgin was that it put the spunk back into air travel,” says Tsao. “That’s why we allude to those early years of optimism about it.” He hastens to add that the project was far less historic recreation than inspiration: “We used all kinds of things, as a metaphor for the Plurality of contemporary life, so it’s not really nostalgia at all. It was a nod to the period.” And what could be more modern than that?


Sexy isn’t an adjective often applied to buildings, but Roissy-Charles de Gaulle Airport Terminal 2, Hall F (CDG 2F) is supremely sexy. All smooth curves, arcs, and filigree struts, it’s the ultimate icon of 21st-century modernity. And for extra cool points, CDG 2F appears regularly on MTV prime time and in films — the latest U2 video was shot here, as were a feature starring Catherine Deneuve and the latest movie by director Luc Besson. But to see it you have to fly to or through Paris on an Air France jet. Hall F is the Air France flagship, a dedicated terminal handling more than 40 percent of the airline’s passenger traffic that is the result of a well-spent $4.9-million investment by Aeroports de Paris. It is also the latest extension to France’s busiest airport, which has been designed in stages since the ’70s by Paul Andreu, the Frenchman behind most of CDG’s architecture. Terminal 2F is proof of Andreu’s evolution as an airport designer; compared with the bulky Brutalist profile of Terminal 1, which l ooks heavy and permanently grounded, CDG 2F appears lightly tethered to the ground, as if it can barely be restrained from taking off with the planes. But the terminal’s not all about looks. CDG 2F can handle up to 12 million passengers a year, 50 percent of whom are connecting to other flights.

One of 2F’s best points is the diagrammatic simplicity of its plan. Where Halls A-D are described by two adjacent and equally sized ellipses, each equipped with six aircraft docking points on either side, Hall F is half of a single ellipse twice the size of the others, some 1,312 feet long and 230 feet wide with two piers, called peninsulas, that extend 394 feet on the runway side. Evenly spaced telescopic gangways stick out around each peninsula, allowing speedy access to and from up to 22 aircraft. (Opposite will be Andreu’s curvaceous Hall E, to be completed in 2003.) The pier concept was devised specifically to increase the number of aircraft able to park in contact with the terminal. In other words, hello convenience and goodbye shuttle buses! Further aiding speedy ingress and egress, all halls are linked by rail and road networks, and below and between Halls C, D, and F is a station for the ultra modern TGV train, which connects the airport to the rest of France and beyond–30 minutes to Paris, 20 minu tes to EuroDisney.

From the moment you enter the airport, through a series of massive split concrete columns set within an otherwise all-glass facade, it is clear that Terminal F is a monumental celebration of flight. The concrete ceiling, finely ribbed like a sweater, seems to float above the front facade then dip down to tuck behind the check-in desks that line the length of the entrance hall. Gone are London Heathrow’s complicated elevators, endless corridors, and moving walkways; banished is JFK’s insular brand of corporate nullity. At CDG 2F the very swoops and folds of the building incline toward takeoff and seem to ease travelers on their way. Once Air France passengers have checked in, they simply pass through security(at the foot of the peninsulas in line with the check-in desks) to wait by theirgates. From there they can see their planes. The maximum distance traveled from entrance to farthest gate: a mere 492 feet. CDG 2F’s efficiency is remarkable, perhaps its greatest triumph is its atmosphere. Passengers can rela x on comfortable leather seats beneath a dramatic soaring 107,000-square-foot glass canopy that affords a spectacular view of the runways and aircraft. (At night pinprick spotlights on the ceiling look like stars.) 2F also offers abundant opportunities for upscale snacking and shopping: beneath the peninsula departure area, in the lower-level belly of the hall, passengers have the run of a central boulevard of fine French boutiques and eateries. Fast food is Carte d’Or double-chocolate ice cream, creme caramel, and le club sandwiches served in cafes featuring clusters of wood tables, each adorned with a jaunty Strack-esque lamp and surrounded by upholstered stools or chairs. Restrooms are plentiful and spacious, and the business- and first-class lounges (think luxuriously simple: leather armchairs, round maple-topped tables, marble floors) are housed in the tips of the peninsulas, with swift elevator access to the departure floor. Should the unthinkable overnight delay occur, the 256-room Sheraton Paris Airpo rt Hotel, with interiors by Andree Putman, is moored like a boat between Halls A-D and Hall F.

Despite traffic peaks of 90,000 passengers per day, all is calm and orderly. Hassle-free people movement is aided not only by the building’s transparency, which makes orientation easy, but also by clearly illuminated signs and omnipresent banks of information screens–it’s practically impossible to get lost.

It is a pleasure to be a passenger at CDG 2F, and this is just as Andreu planned. “I no longer intend my buildings to be finished entities in and of themselves,” the architect has said. “A building’s completion comes when it is inhabited by people who bring with them color and movement.” No wonder, then, that travelers don’t feel like anonymous drones shuffling on soulless conveyer belts, but rather, like Important International Airport People. It’s a space that positively invites one to strike sexy poses against the concrete, a la U2. And with room for expansion, it won’t be long before we’re all rerouting our flights so we can hangout there for an hour or two, and enjoy Paris in the meantime.


ONE MORNING LAST NOVEMBER, a glitzy gala was in full swing in the middle of the cluttered concourse at New York’s Penn Station. Passersby peered beyond the security guards and velvet rope to witness a big band blowing jazz and waiters toting silver trays of canapes. Then, as if time had leapt backward into 1970s TV-land, Henry Winkler–a.k.a. the Fonz from Happy Days–appeared at the speaker’s podium. The motorcycle-riding Fonzie was an odd choice to herald the inaugural run of the Acela Express, Amtrak’s new, high-speed Boston-to Washington train. But glamorous references to rail travel aren’t easy to find in contemporary American culture. The best contender, the train-helicopter chase in Mission Impossible, comes with a rather unfortunate title.

Amtrak’s mission, if not impossible, is beyond the Fonz’s capabilities. Train travel is still perceived in the U.S. as a second-class mode of transportation. To Congress, the government-subsidized Amtrak is an unwanted stepchild, under legislation to break even by the end of 2002 or go into liquidation. As one Amtrak official was heard to say, the 150-mph electric Acela is the corporation’s last chance: “We’ve bet the farm on this one.” A one-year delay in its launch, due to equipment problems, hasn’t helped the gamble. The contrast couldn’t be greater in Europe, where governments pour billions into high-speed rail. The 186-mph French TGV trains have been running for nearly 25 years. Spain reinvented the TGV as the AVE for the Seville-to-Madrid run in 1992, and more than a million passengers used it in the first month. Germany’s high-speed ICE train, designed by Alexander Neumeister, is now in its third generation.

In the U.S., trains seem to have been frozen in time, coupled in the public mind with hobos and freight. When the Acela train slid into the New York station, the photographers and TV cameramen who stood on the platform focused their lenses not on a futuristic-looking piece of equipment, but on something almost stately. The Acela cuts the journey time between Boston and Washington to roughly five and a half hours, but Amtrak is not out to portray Acela as a European-style speed demon. Far from it; Acela’s brand identity, defined by a sail-like logo, is built on the idea of a “Zen-like standing still while you’re moving at 150 mph,” according to Brent Oppenheimer of OH&CO, who worked on the project with the design consultancy firm IDEO. Acela’s slogans–“Recharge, Unwind” and “Prepare, Ponder, Relax”–are more suited to a spa than a speedy railway.

The train itself, despite a racy snub nose, is firmly in keeping with the American railroad tradition. The body is mostly stain less steel, and the 304-seat interior has a prosaic feel. Lighting is bright and seats are upholstered in a wool-nylon fabric in corporate-looking blue/purple/green variations. Other materials–gray strips of carpet flooring, imitation wood veneers, aluminum edging, and bulletproof windows–are more rugged than luxurious. In fact, the Acela bears many hallmarks of a Detroit car: it’s safe, comfortable, thoroughly market-tested, and designed by committee to ensure public approval. Even the luxury add-ons, such as in-seat audio entertainment, seem modeled on the kinds of amenities that auto dealers emphasize to sell cars.

It might have been different. When the project first went out to tender in the early 1990s, several companies submitted bids, including Siemens, which developed the ICE train. Amtrak awarded the $710-million contract to the consortium rumored to have made the lowest bid, Bombardier Transportation, of Canada, and Alstom, of France. Bombardier–which developed the cars; Alstom provided the running gear–was better known for boxy regional trains and subway cars than for premium high-speed equipment. The ensuing design process could be characterized as an effort by Amtrak and its consultants to turn a standard Bombardier design into a world-class travel experience.

The Amtrak project management team first realized it needed help when Bombardier, its Montreal-based design consultant, Jean Labbe, and seat manufacturer Morelli Designers began submitting plans in 1996. Within months, lacking the experience to give design direction, Amtrak called in IDEO Product Development. IDEO put together a small Acela-specific team, many of whose members had worked on the Spanish AVE train revamp.

A painstaking design development stage ensued, with Bombardier presenting what Oppenheimer describes as a “relatively off-the-shelf” scheme and with IDEO suggesting and designing changes. The number of parties involved and their differing interests made the going difficult. Former IDEO designer Nick Oakley describes the process as a “multidimensional political fandango.” Labbe and Bombardier were faced with another interfering design group. “I felt that we were battling against Bombardier tradition and conventional practice,” says Oakley. “If you tried to introduce interesting materials or fabrics or carpeting, they’d say, ‘We want the carpet to be laid in strips so you can rip it up and replace it, and it has to be fireproof, and these are our suppliers.”‘ Bombardier was eager to get the project out on time and within budget. (As of press time, Bombardier had not returned Interior’s calls for comment.) IDEO argued that the Acela project had to be positioned as part of an overall strategy for the Northeast C orridor and that design decisions should be based on a general service philosophy. This, according to Oppenheimer, meant asking basic questions such as, “Who were we designing the equipment for? What kind of traveler?”

Amtrak, for its part, paid great heed to market research data from passengers and staff, wanting every design decision validated. Compared with the officials who’d overseen the AVE’s development, the U.S. company gave its designers a short leash. “Amtrak is at one end of the spectrum and the Spanish train was at the other, in terms of the willingness to take the experience and point of view of the design teams involved,” says Adrian Corry, who worked on the IDEO team. “Everyone [at Amtrak] was very cautious in their approach.”

The most dramatic revisions to result from the “fandango” included a complete redesign of the cafe car, which initially had been conceived to look like a stainless-steel “airplane galley,” according to Corry. IDEO proposed raising the windows four inches so that when the train tilted on curves, snacking passengers saw the horizon rather than an unsettling view of railroad tracks. With the help of Amtrak data on catering staff requests, the designers reconfigured the cafe service area to discourage Amtrak personnel from turning their backs to customers while preparing food. Curved wood-veneered and polyester-resin-topped counters, barstool seating, and video feeds encouraged passengers to see the area as a short-stop eatery rather than a long-stay dining room.

IDEO also reconfigured the toilets as part of a separate vestibule, away from the passenger seating area. Each car has two bathrooms, one of which meets ADA standards. Amtrak wanted the restrooms to be upgraded to the level of hotel facilities; IDEO provided a window, a large mirror, and better lighting.

Amtrak’s sensitivity to customer requests and its preoccupation with safety also yielded some idiosyncrasies. Acela’s tilting technology ensures a smoother ride than any other U.S. train, but Amtrak was fearful of overhead luggage flying around at high speeds. They insisted on closed containers rather than

the open baskets preferred on European trains. More elaborate is a feature that allows passengers to rotate their seats 180 degrees. Amtrak argues that rotating seats facilitate meetings and encourage social contact. “Amtrak was absolutely determined to do this,” says Corry, arguing for a stationery model. “If the seats were fixed the train would be a generation better than it is.” Oakley adds that a nonrotating seat would have required less space and facilitated integration of the cantilevered tables in the seat backs.

If there’s truth in the notion that innovation doesn’t test well, and focus groups react against change, this wasn’t Amtrak’s concern. Acela’s design was ultimately dictated by a desire not to scare off passengers with high styling. “Truly it was designed for American travelers, and a tremendous amount of research went into the design–everything from consumer testing of the seats to questions about color,” says Amtrak’s executive vice president Barbara Richardson. Or, as Oppenheimer notes, “From the beginning Amtrak stated that whatever we did, there had to be a significant return.”

By the end of the year, Amtrak plans to have 20 high-speed trains in operation and the entire Northeast Corridor rebranded under the Acela identity. Even the old regional trains will carry the Acela logo, which IDEO proposed should become synonymous with the idea of a “seamless journey.” The benchmark will be the Acela Express train, but the transformation is meant to be achieved through systemwide improvements to station interiors, signage, and customer service.

It’s an ambitious program. And everything now hangs on reputation. Before, Amtrak positioned its premium rail services as distinctive brands. Now, one bad passenger experience on a local run can take the wind out of all the other Acela sails. Congress is also watching closely. The Acela-improved Northeast Corridor is projected to bring in $180 million a year for Amtrak, stimulating high-speed programs proposed for other areas of the country. Yet Amtrak’s national deficit for 1999 was close to $500 million.

One missing component of the rebranding exercise and Acela advertising salvos is the environmental argument. Even by conservative Department of Energy estimates, an electric train offers energy-efficient d distance travel with relatively low environmental impact. According to a DoE study, a train passenger uses slightly more than half the amount of fuel per mile of an airborne traveler. Electric trains create air pollution only at the power source. Since they run between city centers, they’re less likely than planes to require passengers to use other forms of transport. “How many people walk to the airport?” asks Ross Capon of the National Association of Rail road Passengers. “The fact that the train leaves from a downtown area means that it reinforces the vitality of an energy-efficient city center.”

To survive and grow in the U.S., however, rail needs a massive investment. The “High Speed Rail Investment Act” now before the Senate would allow Amtrak to issue $10 billion in bonds to raise capital. And to make its case to a Republican-controlled House, Amtrak has one strong argument: federal support for highways last year was $28.5 billion; for air travel, $10.1 billion; and for rail, less than $600 million. Says Barbara Richardson, “What we’re arguing for is not to be supported on the operating front but to be provided with the necessary capital. We can generate profits from a well-run system.”

For now, Amtrak is left to hope that air and road congestion will help its case, and, as word of the swift, comfy East Coast ride spreads, that Americans will begin to see rail in a new light. “I think that the popularity and strength of the service will really come through word of mouth,” hopes Richardson, “and when people hear that there is another way to go, I think they’ll leave their car keys at home.”

Space station orientation

In space, what your architect doesn’t know can kill you. Squared edges might snag a life-support hose or another vital piece of equipment. The routes to escape vehicles must be clearly marked–in fact, everything must be very clearly marked, since visual cues give zero-gravity astronauts their sole sense of orientation. Then there’s the simple matter of dinner. Seating seven astronauts at an ordinary table could be fatal (and not for lack of scintillating conversation). “If you have seven people sitting around a table and they’re all exhaling,” says Garrett Finney, lead architect at NASA’s Habitability Design Center, “there’s this potential to build up [CO.sub.2] and start to suffocate everyone around. In space, there’s no natural convection, so it doesn’t rise or fall–it just stays there.”

In brief, life on NASA’s planned “habitation module” for the International Space Station would be nasty, brutish, and short were it not for the engineers and designers who create a livable environment in one that is distinctly unlivable, a place where a table is not just a table, but a piece of equipment as vital as an oxygen tank. The “hab module,” as it is called–still some five years away from deployment–is not a capsule for space flight, as are NASA’s shuttles and Russia’s Soyuz, but a machine for living: aboard the ISS, astronauts will be dwelling in space for record amounts of time.

NASA engineers are well trained in ensuring survival on short-term space flights, but the mission of the year-and-a-half-old Habitability Design Center–made up of everyone from architects to aeronautical engineers to human factor specialists–is more earthbound: to make the astronauts feel at home. This is the horizon of a new discipline, space architecture. “Because people are being sent up there for longer periods of time,” says Finney, “everyone realizes that something more than engineering solutions has to happen.” As Janis Connolly, NASA manager of HDC, describes it, the center’s goal is “putting the human factors and such in the beginning of the design process, rather than having us come into the game as these designs have already been developed.”

In general, says Finney, a Rome Prize-winning architect more accustomed to building below the stratosphere, space architecture is rife with “lots of basic stuff you never have to think about on Earth.” Color, for example, is not merely a matter of aesthetics. The case of the “local vertical” is instructive. The arrangement of equipment has to be consistent to give astronauts a sense of personal orientation. For this reason, the tops of the habitation modules will be painted off-white, while the bottoms will be in color. The color, however, cannot be so dark that it absorbs available light (which needs to be a minimum of 10 feet of candlepower at any point, notes Finney), nor can it conflict with the palette used for emergency and equipment markings (for instance, green for oxygen). Because the various modules look essentially the same, each features different colors to help provide “mental mapping.”

Earth architects take gravity for granted, but aboard the ISS, there is no “normal” body position, and the simple act of opening a kitchen cabinet–above and beyond the cabinet itself–poses a thorny design problem. “It’s like elementary high-school physics,” says Finney. “If you try to turn a switch and you’re not attached to anything, you’re just going to turn your body–it’s all equal and opposite reaction.” Hence the architects installed a variety of foot and hand restraints throughout the modules to enable personal movement and the operation of controls. Yet, like most things aboard ISS, even small conveniences are not simple. Velcro, which is commonly used on shuttle flights to attach objects to surfaces, tends to degrade overtime in the absence of gravity, says Finney, eventually shedding a powder, which on the ISS would become a part of the air system–and the astronauts’ lungs. Also, restraints, like everything aboard the ISS, must fit a wide user profile that ranges from the 5th percentile Japanese woman to the 95th percentile American male. The question then becomes, do you design an adjustable restraint, or a fixed restraint that can accommodate featherweights and heavyweights alike?

Historically, NASA has been good at designing individual pieces of technology, Connolly notes. “One of the things HDC is looking at is the overall context in which this hardware fits,” she says. “We’ve gotten away from developing the piece parts and hoping they fit later by looking at an integrated approach: How does this table relate to the window, and to the galley, and to the location of the stored food?” On Russia’s Mir and currently in the Russian service module on the ISS, the treadmill used for exercise is located near the wardroom table.

Because heat doesn’t dissipate by it self in space, the jogger ends up running in a ball of his or her own sweat. “It’s actually kind of disgusting,” Finney says. “You have little globules floating around right where you’re trying to eat.” Astronauts do require enormous amounts of exercise, though, to prevent muscle atrophy and to maintain bone density, so HDC is thinking about where to put an exercise unit on the hab module without creating a similar conflict. Complicating the issue, HDC, like NASA as a whole, must rely on simulated environments or brief experimental phases to replicate space conditions; these range from the world’s largest indoor pool, the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, to the (C-135, or “vomit comet,” an airplane that flies in parabolic arcs, allowing 25 seconds or so of zero gravity about 40 times in a two hour-flight.

In shaping the habitation module, the HDC must balance the social functions of architecture and design with a bewildering array of engineering and safety constraints placed upon even the smallest detail. For a table designed for the wardroom, a common area, HDC acknowledged the social importance of dining in a group. But that is where the comparison to an Earth table ends. This one, which will probably be made of aluminum, needs to be quickly removable in case of an emergency in the “rack” (NASA’s term for the standardized compartments that comprise the module’s walls, floors, and ceilings) below. It also needs to breakdown into sections so it can fit easily on the shuttle, the conveyance for the entire hab module. The table’s edge matches the standard hab module handrail so that tools and gadgets can be clipped to both spots. Then there’s the space in the middle, which Finney dubs the “accessory trough.” twill feature an air circulation system, to prevent the “asphyxiation problem,” as well as a suction acc essory, a screened sort of box over which one might eat–to prevent crumbs from drifting into the air system–or perform experiments that require a screw to stay in place. (On the Russian space station Mir, notes Finney, cosmonauts shaved over the suction box, placing a napkin to catch stubble.) And then there’s the “ladder restraint” below the table. The ascending toeholds mean that astronauts of varying sizes can easily “sit” (the space table has no chairs; astronauts assume what Finney describes as a “dead man’s float” position), as well as “torque” their bodies for comfort by quickly switching to another rung–rather than reaching under the table to undo a strap.

Some perennial space problems still need solutions–such as hygiene. HDC envisions a “Full Body Cleansing Compartment,” which may or may not be a shower. “A shower is a design solution,” observes Connolly. “The requirement is full body cleansing.” In space, of course, designing a shower is more than a matter of picking tile and a shower-head. Of primary concern is water itself. The ISS is a “water poor” environment where even urine will be treated and reused (unlike on the space shuttles, where water is generated as part of the fuel-burning process). Previous space station efforts such as the U.S. Skylab and the Mir attempted, but later abandoned, showers. “On Mir they tried to have a positive airflow that would blow the water down to the floor,” says Finney. “What happened was that the surface of the water globules would spin around but the globules themselves wouldn’t move anywhere.” Also, beads of moisture tend to be attracted to one another, as well as to the body; the water may float up to the astronaut ‘s mouth and interfere with breathing.

One side effect of the habitation module’s uniformity is that the astronauts themselves become interior design elements; the cotton clothing they wear for comfort becomes a welcome source of nonregulation color. The only other fabric surfaces are on the exterior and interior of the crew quarters and stowage bags. These are limited to two shades of NoMex, a DuPont fabric used in firemen’s coats. “Only a few colors have been approved for space flight,” notes Finney, “meaning that they’ve been sent to a lab and ignited–different dyes are differently toxic when burned.” The palette is now overwhelmingly white with some blue, but Finney hopes that areas will be set aside to accommodate personal design touches by the astronauts, ranging from family photos to, say, an Indian scarf.

But in space, as on Earth, there’s no accounting for taste. When the legendary designer Raymond Loewy employed a series of earth tones in his design scheme for Skylab, in the late 1960s, it was to make the occupants more comfortable by reminding them of their home planet. The plan backfired, Finney relates: “‘It’s drab as hell up here,’ the astronauts said. ‘We need some interior decoration.”‘