Miércoles 31 de Octubre de 2007, Ip nº 214

When the Space Age Blasted Off, Pop Culture Followed
Por Randy Kennedy

It was not the most eloquent line uttered in movie history, and it may have been one of the silliest: “Greetings, my friend. We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives.”

But the sentiment, as intoned by the celebrity psychic Criswell at the beginning of the 1959 astro-disaster “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” was a perfect way to explain the influence that the space race, then in its infancy, was already beginning to exercise on American popular culture and art, from movies and television to architecture and design.

An effect was much more than simply a spillover from the silvery streamlining of the space program. It was an increasing preoccupation with the future and technology that helped change not only the country’s look in the 1950s and ’60s, but also, in some ways, its very conception of itself, as if seen anew from space.

The architect Buckminster Fuller, one of the space age’s most ardent proselytizers, put it much more coherently in his book “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth”: “We are all astronauts.”

Deciding which cultural offerings from those post-Sputnik years were deep and lasting and which were probably not (space-age bachelor-pad music? “The Jetsons”? “Barbarella”? Tang?) will always be topics of impassioned debate among space aficionados. But a half-century into that once-imagined orbital future, it has become a little easier to put the era into cultural perspective.

The worlds of fashion, furniture, comic books and children’s toys were all profoundly affected, often for the good.

Television and the movies, as evidenced by examples like “Plan 9,” “Lost in Space” and “Invasion of the Saucer Men,” in which an alien’s severed hand crawled around wreaking havoc on the big screen, did not fare quite as well.

Even so, it is difficult to imagine cinema without Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” And it is almost impossible to imagine that movie, made in 1968, looking the way it did in the absence of an American space program, even with earlier influences like the spacey designer Raymond Loewy or the architect Eero Saarinen, whose curvy 1948 Womb chair looks like something made specially for Kubrick’s set.

In the realm of art, the influence was smaller and, usually, less direct. The cultural scholar Dave Hickey said he always felt that the “the ice-white cube,” which became the standard kind of ascetic interior in museums and galleries by the ’60s, could be traced in part right back to NASA.

“I remember thinking at the time that, all of a sudden, we were looking at art in clean rooms like those where the astronauts suit up,” Mr. Hickey, a professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said in a recent interview.

Robert Rauschenberg was probably the most famous artist to use space imagery front and center, incorporating pictures of astronauts and space capsules into his works in the ’60s.

At Bell Laboratories, which was intimately tied up with NASA in its earliest years, Billy Klüver, an engineer, organized groundbreaking collaborations with artists, including Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol, to inject space-age technology into artworks, a program whose legacy is still felt today.

Many cultural critics say probably the biggest impact can be seen in architecture. Especially in California and elsewhere in the West, the work of architects like John Lautner transformed the look of cities and highways with upswept winglike roofs, domes, satellite shapes and starbursts that became the dominant visual language of motels, diners and gasoline stations.

Professor Hickey describes the look as “somewhere between Hindu temples and launching pads.”

The look, sometimes called Googie, after Lautner’s design for the Googie’s coffee shop in Los Angeles, predated the Sputnik launching and had influences back to Wayne McAllister’s curvaceous hotels and drive-ins, to Frank Lloyd Wright and even to Futurism in the 1920s. It took off along with the space race and produced buildings that tried very hard to bring the Jetsons to life, like Lautner’s 1960 Chemosphere, a saucer-shaped house that looks as if it is preparing to hover out over the Hollywood Hills.

Kenneth Frampton, the architectural historian, said it was often difficult to disentangle the threads of the space-age look, whose origins come from early airplane and jet design. Mr. Frampton added that the lines of influence that began with Fuller’s geodesic domes and other futuristic ideas could be traced across the ocean to Archigram, the visionary group of British architects who proposed far-out projects (never realized) like capsule-shape living pods and suits that could expand and double as structures.

Their spirit has in turn inspired and animated many contemporary high-tech architects like Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid and Renzo Piano, whose tubular, machinelike Pompidou Center, built with Richard Rogers, seems to evoke the space race in very specific ways.

“You could draw certain parallels between the structure of the Pompidou and the structure of the rocket-launching facilities at Cape Canaveral,” said Mr. Frampton, who teaches at Columbia. “They might not have been thinking about it, but I think there is some kind of unconscious affinity there.”


  25/09/2007. The New York Times.