Wheels Down on Mars

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Mission Control at the Jet Propulsion laboratory, just before landing the Mars rover Curiosity

Image source for all images: NASA TV

   If rocket scientists viewed advancement and progress the way architecture does, the "rocket boys" would still be launching bottle rockets and NASA would not exist! Early this morning, the Mars rover Curiosity touched down, culminating a year-long flight and several years of development. But long before that, the rocket scientists were doing something the architects do not allow: learning from both past and present, and building stuff that works.

Mission Control scientists at the Jet Propulsion laboratory conferring on Curiosity

   What if the rocket scientists discounted Newton and the Law of Universal Gravitation because he was from the past? Space travel would be no more precise than firing a shotgun at the moon. How about Gottfried Leibniz, who is credited along with Newton with inventing calculus in the 17th Century? They're not "of our time," the architects shriek, "so we can't possibly draw from their work." But without calculus, space travel would be impossible as well.

   The most prominent scientists of all time have credited those who came before them, most famously Newton: "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." But small or great, an endless thread of scientists realized that their work could not have happened without the foundations laid by others. Architecture, on the other hand, more often embodies the idea that "nothing that came before us is worthy of us." (I keep referring to Newton, by the way, because he's not just a recently dead scientist. Instead, he lived several centuries ago.)

rocket scientist giving directions at Mission Control at the Jet Propulsion laboratory, during the Mars rover Curiosity mission

   But now, consider a scientific instrument that has been developed almost entirely within my lifetime: the electronic computer (to distinguish it from earlier mechanical computing devices.) The iPhone today reportedly contains more computing horsepower than Apollo 11's onboard computer that flew when I was only nine years old. But what if Steve Jobs would have accepted the standard of today's high architecture that all new work must not draw from old work? Had he followed architecture's direction, he would forever have been making unique versions of the Apple 1 out in his parents' garage… or at least until he went broke, that is. The MacBook Retina? Never would've happened. The iPad? Forget it. The iPhone? Impossible. Astonishingly, Frank Gehry is now being criticized by other architects such as Zaha Hadid for "self-plagiarism"! In other words, he's doing work that bears some resemblance to work he's done before! So now, every new project has to be a complete invention, never seen before. This utterly ridiculous proposition needs to be called out for the juvenile insanity it really is.

rocket scientists celebrating the successful landing of the Mars rover Curiosity at Mission Control at the Jet Propulsion laboratory

   You don't land on Mars by ignoring stuff that works. Instead, you use every tool you can find to get the job done, whether you invented it yourself or someone conceived of it centuries ago. Why doesn't someone hold architecture to the same standard? Like maybe the clients whose money the architects are spending? Real exploration and real advancements come by building discoveries on foundations of things that are known to work. It's high time for architecture to grow up and learn where you find the real cutting edge… it's in the workshops of organizations such as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory which don't self-lobotomize themselves of all that came before them.

   ~Steve Mouzon

© The Guild Foundation 2013