Architecture for Extreme Environments: Design Challenges in the Realm of the Uncommon

By Jennifer Cahill.

Published by Spaces and Flows: An International Journal of Urban and ExtraUrban Studies

Format Price
Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

In the vacuum of outer space, the usual parameters for architectural design simply don’t apply. There is no gravity, no north arrow, no atmospheric weather—not even a designated up and down. Yet as explorers and researchers venture into such “extreme” environments, drawn by the allure of the unknown, architects will undoubtedly follow. As a profession, we must ask ourselves: what is the architect’s role in extreme environments? The label of “extreme” suggests a wide spectrum of conditions, from outer space to Earth’s polar regions. As climate change and population growth continue to strain available space and resources, human development will increasingly encroach on these environments. Contrary to popular belief, such intrusion into the natural landscape is not only inevitable but may be beneficial, as exposure to unfamiliar environments produces a population that will advocate on their behalf. This paper examines three frontiers of human exploration: the Arctic, undersea environments, and outer space. Information about their built environments is conveyed through case studies as well as inhabitants’ own observations. Habitats studied include Summit Station in Greenland, Jules’ Undersea Lodge and NOAA’s Aquarius habitat off the coast of Florida, and Angel Marie Seguin’s unbuilt design for a long-duration, self-sustaining space station. Analysis of these three environments highlights the similar design challenges they face. In each, architecture has the opportunity to mitigate extreme conditions such as disorientation, atypical daylight, containment, and lack of familiar sensory stimuli. Designs must be especially sensitive to users’ psychological comfort as they attempt to adapt to their unusual surroundings. In conclusion, this paper suggests that architects are uniquely qualified to address the challenges of building in extreme environments, since hostile conditions demand creative solutions to difficult spatial issues.

Keywords: Extreme, Environment

Spaces and Flows: An International Journal of Urban and ExtraUrban Studies, Volume 3, Issue 4, pp.71-78. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 513.594KB).

Jennifer Cahill

Graduate Assistant, Department of Architecture, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, USA

Born and raised in St. Louis, MO, Jennifer has nonetheless adopted Ohio as her home state, having studied at Miami University from 2007 to 2013. She has lived and worked in Cincinnati's historic inner city and has come to relish the challenges of a difficult design project, whether it be the regulations of a Historic District or—as her graduate thesis examines—the hostile environment of Outer Space. As Orson Welles once said, "the enemy of art is the absence of limitations."