by Jerry ElengicalDec 12, 2021
A lot of what we now accept as science fiction visuals rely on tropes from the 70s and 80s. The concepts underlying those visuals are a little older, such as those written by Isaac Asimov, Philip K Dick and JG Ballard. One idea that remains consistent is the terraforming and off-world migration. The premise may change, whether it is overpopulation, extreme climate change, or the results of a nuclear fallout, the desire to occupy new worlds continues to consume human imagination.
The possibility of realising this migration into a real-life solution was explored in an exhaustive science-centre competition organised by The Mars Society and fully developed by the SONet network. Headed by the astrophysicist Guillem Anglada, who led the discovery of exoplanet Proxima-B, SONet comprises an international team of scientists and academics. The finalists presented their proposals at the 2020 annual convention held between October 15-18, which also featured Elon Musk (SpaceX), George Whitesides (Virgin Galactic), and Jim Bridenstine (NASA), among others.
Nüwa City, by ABIBOO Studio, an international architectural and urban design firm specialising in large-scale projects, was selected as one of the top 10 finalists of this competition. Nüwa is SONet’s first attempt to formulate a development for a city that is self-sustaining and capable of growing without being reliant on Earth. SONet’s Nüwa differs from the various off-world proposals in its attempt to ensure that it is actionable. Alfredo Muñoz, the founder of ABIBOO Studio, in an interview with STIR mentions, “One of the challenges I have seen in the past with the proposal with off-world construction. Sometimes the solutions are very existing visually but they don’t have any reason to work, because there is no science behind it”.
Working with academics and other members of SONet, the studio developed a design to protect future inhabitants from some of the surface conditions of Mars. This included ensuring a precaution against the atmospheric radiation and access to indirect sunlight, protection from potential impact from meteorites, as Mars’s atmosphere is very thin and not capable of burning them off as it occurs on Earth. The design also addresses the atmospheric pressure difference between the inside and the outside of the buildings.
There is an exceptional degree of freedom attributed to an off-world project like this. It is the closest an architect can hope for as a true tabula rasa, the possibility of designing without any pre-existing historic style dictating the aesthetics, in a geographic location that has never been dealt with before, allows for the development of a new visual language. Cautioning against the popular futuristic motifs, Muñoz says, “A lot of movie directors and filmmakers can create beautiful visuals. Architecture is about building and about creating solutions that can be built. When we came on board, we were very clear, as were the scientists at SONet, we wanted to create a solution which was very doable, and economical”.
The masterplan of the proposal consists of five cities, with Nüwa as their capital. Each city accommodates between 200,000 and 250,000 people. Muñoz explains this strategy saying, "Mars has a very harsh environment and the natural resources are distributed across different locations. Sustainability was a critical aspect as was self-reliance, to maintain the cities’ needs without the resources from Earth. One of the things we had to do to achieve this, was to use the material and minerals that can be found on the Martian terrain as part of the proposal. We worked with the scientists of SONet to understand what material we could find and use for construction”.
Abalos City is proposed to be located in the North Pole to ease access to ice. Marineris City is to be located in what is one of the largest canyons of the solar system. The buildings themselves, dubbed "macro-buildings", are located on the faces of naturally occurring cliffs and were the result of a collaborative effort between the architectural studio and a team of planetary geologists at SONet. These macro-buildings are akin to the ideas of the super skyscraper on earth, however, they aren’t built. Muñoz captured their crux saying, “The building is not a building, it is a series of excavation inside a rock”. Most of the building is a rock, the spaces within are defined by excavation and are connected by means of a high-speed elevator system, similar to skyscrapers on earth.
One of the lessons to take from Earth to any new settlement off-planet would be our growing understanding of what being sustainable truly means. Depleting natural resources results in long term detriments and this proposal incorporates this understanding into its self-sufficient cycle. The material gathered from the cliff's excavation is placed on the top of roofs at the ground level, as a protection against radiation.
The modularity and scalability of the project is something that builds off ideas currently employed in contemporary design and architecture on earth. The construction modules consist of a tubular form that is 10 meters in diameter and 60 meters long. The designed modules have three different residential and work modules. This makes the design both flexible and scalable by providing the opportunity to connect modules as needed. This reduces construction complexity, costs, and schedules.
While the technical details of the macro-building remind one of Ballard’s novel High-Rise, Muñoz emphasizes the importance of community spaces and creating sensitive connections, saying, “We as a studio engage with creating an emotional connection with habitat. When we don't have a relationship with the spaces we use on a daily basis, that is when from an architectural point of view, a lot of challenges start to happen. Creating emotional connections is critical to creating an identity. Nature, again from a design point of view is a linkage to life. Because in the end when we are in any extreme environment, nature does not grow. On Mars, we will have to create nature around the spaces that will be lived in. The hope is that it will somehow make it feel less harsh”.
With an estimated capacity of 1,000,000 across five cities, one has to wonder about the culture that would develop on the planet. Muñoz was kind enough to engage with STIR in a short discussion on the projected possibilities of such a society and how the spatial design would facilitate that. “Mars will take the idea of community to a whole new level. Because of the harsh environment, the individual will not be able to live on their own, they will have to rely on the community. We envisioned all the spaces keeping that in mind as a factor. At the same time, space is very expensive on Mars, not only to build but also to maintain. So, spaces, where one sleeps, are small, while spaces where one can interact with the community are larger,” he explains.
Commenting on one of the biggest differences between proposing a large-scale project like this for Earth and Mars, Muñoz left us with this gem, “We can change Earth to accommodate what we want, but Mars is not going to be like that”.
***More than 25 people from multidisciplinary fields have worked to make Nüwa a functional, unique, and feasible city on Mars.
Authors: Guillem Anglada-Escudé, Alfredo Muñoz Herrero, Miquel Sureda, Gisela Detrell, Ignasi Casanova, David Cullen, Miquel Banchs i Piqué, Gonzalo Rojas, Engeland Apostol, Sebastián Rodríguez, Verónica Florido, Philipp Hartlieb, Laia Ribas, Owen Hughes Pearce, David de la Torre.
Contributors: Jordi Miralda Escudé, Rafael Harillo Gomez-Pastrana, Lluis Soler, Paula Betriu, Uygar Atalay, Pau Cardona, Oscar Macia, Eric Fimbinger, Stephanie Hensley, Carlos Sierra, Elena Montero, Robert Myhill, Rory Beard.