You’re The Only Star in Heaven


Deployable Space Truss Mk 2, photomontage, mixed media.

Jan Kaplicky’s drawings for NASA of the International Space Station are a triumph of that period in history in which our most expansive, ambitious infrastructure, the one that slipped the surly bonds of earth into space, was first conceived by men drawing with set squares at tilted boards. I love the collage in which a huge space frame extends up or rather out towards the viewer from the Space Shuttle with the surface of The Blue Marble beneath. It suggests a limitless structure that can be extended outwards at apparent will. Superstudio only dared to impose their grid over nature, whereas as Kaplicky within the scope of a technical drawing suggests that the grid can continue on to the stars.

His speculative projects from the early 1970s are incredibly, almost unfeasibly cool. Yes, there is incredible skill in the finely detailed cross-sections and plans, the dextrous use of ink on tracing paper or drafting film but these drawings are not simply technical. The cutaway isometric which he perfected was a technique with suggested an but also of the Eagle comic. It is a view which suggests both the utterly complexity of the planned project but also the privilege of the designer to be able to control that complexity. That these simple line drawings were drawn sitting at a kitchen table in a Bayswater flat with a set square and pen makes them all the more poetic.

In a great little exhibition at the Architectural Association in London, you can see that his most powerful drawings are in fact collages with stunning landscapes as their backdrop; be that the Blue Marble or an Alpine lake. Without them it would be possible to imagine that Kaplicky was simply a technological fetishist interested in creating nothing but a high tech sublime. Yet he isn’t simply replacing the massive infrastructure projects of the 19th century with a new robotic aesthetic at all. What he’s doing is suggesting that transport technology is reordering our relationship with nature. His Peanut house is a monocoque on a crane. It is doubly isolated, situated on the island in the middle of a lake, it rises to provide perfect isolation.


Peanut, 1984, Photomontage, mixed media.


The view from the Peanut might be a little like that of the one afforded to The Wanderer Above the Mists, Caspar David Friedrich’s famous picture; only you have mountains reflected on the water rather than emerging from the mist. What is important to remember for our purposes though is that in Friedrich’s famous picture what one sees in the picture is not the sublime view but the viewer contemplating that view. We are asked to imagine what that romantic figure is thinking and doing; what impression it is having on him, and why is he there.

When we look at the Peanut – a pretty unlikely name for a Romantic device I admit – and what we see is a machine designed to give you a view. And not just any view, an isolated view of the natural sublime; no wandering required, the hydraulics do all the work. It is a celebration of technology’s ability to extend experience, even if that is through an artificial isolation. We are not privy to the view from the Peanut. It isn’t for the common viewer. Nor is the Media Centre at Lords, which is ultimately a privileged view on a large expanse of grass.

Technology isolates us in a physical sense simply by providing the opportunity for us to be more alone; to be in more extreme places and to be able still to communicate with the rest of the world when we are there. Today many people think that this isolation is troubling. I don’t think Kaplicky did. His drawing of the bulbous cockpit of a vehicle suggests he loved cars for their ability not simply to permit us to see the world but the way they allowed us to create our own world. I am not really convinced that Kaplicky is interested in the social element of housing in his project Coexistence. It is more about allowing us to be left alone even as we must accept living in closer proximity. Just look at those little portholes.



House for a Helicopter Pilot, 1979, Photomontage, mixed media


Kaplicky’s interest in the relationship between an isolated consciousness and a technologically enabled world is a trope of science fiction, even if it fell away from the blobs that he built with Future Systems. When he began building and influenced more by moves in architecture rather than engineer,  he opted for a formal separation from the world around him. The Ferrari Museum aside, they aren’t for me. It is only in that project that you get a sense of playful inter-relation with the world outside. Although is an obvious homage to the car, it is an acknowledgement in both a formal and metaphorical sense that one cannot live in isolation for ever.


About cosmopolitanscum

Journalist, writer, commentator, blogging about architecture, urbanism and design from a humanist perspective.
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