Space Travel

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John Portman and Associates, Bonaventure Hotel, Los Angeles, 1977. © 2009 Charles Rice

 

Text and photographs by Charles Rice

 

In J.G. Ballard’s short story of 1982, “Report on an Unidentified Space Station,” a group of interplanetary travelers makes an emergency landing on a space station that didn’t appear on their charts. They determine initially that the station was a transit center, part of a larger network that eventually became surplus to requirements, “a relic of the now forgotten migrations of the past.” [1] Through a series of survey reports, the team discovers that the extent of the station is far larger than initially thought; they traverse a terrace containing “thousands of tables and chairs” but soon discover that “this restaurant deck is only a modest annex to a far larger concourse. An immense roof three stories high extends across an open expanse of lounges and promenades. We explored several of the imposing staircases, each equipped with a substantial mezzanine, and found that they led to identical concourses, above and below.” [2] The station soon takes on the proportions of a small planet, with no relief from the endless array of concourses, lounges, and terraces. Finding it impossible to locate themselves, the team surmises that the temporary inhabitants of the station must have “possessed some instinctive homing device, a mental model of the station that allowed them to make their way within it.” [3] They discover that the structure curves gently as if to suggest a spherical form, yet it seems also to be expanding equally in all directions, scaling itself to the potentially infinite length of the journeys taken within it. Slight variations in the decor seem also to suggest evolutions in the architecture itself. The endlessness of the space gives form to their journey as itself endless. The station envelops the entire cosmos and everything within it, becoming the object of the journey, and, in the end, of the travelers’ worship.

From its planetary vantage, the short story satirizes the exponential increase in interest in spatial interiority. It is this interest, as much as the space itself, which consumes the travelers. This appears to the contemporary “space traveler” as a fable: is it still possible to investigate the dimensions of a condition that has been overtaken by its own ubiquity and banality? Is it possible to return to a moment when interest was not yet worship, which we see today in the impending convergence of junkspace, nonplace, and a theory of spheres? These questions took me back to the vast interiors of John Portman’s atrium hotels of the 1970s, the quintessence of what Fredric Jameson called “postmodern hyperspace,” not long after Ballard was writing his short story. [4] The photographs are a kind of survey report of a journey through these spaces, taken in 2009. They initiated a project on what I termed interior urbanism, but looking back at the photographs now serves as a reminder, at least to me, of both spatial discovery and the abandonment of spatial possibility.

 

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John Portman and Associates, Bonaventure Hotel, Los Angeles, 1977. © 2009 Charles Rice

 

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John Portman and Associates, Bonaventure Hotel, Los Angeles, 1977. © 2009 Charles Rice

 

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John Portman and Associates, Renaissance Center, Detroit, 1977. © 2009 Charles Rice

 

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John Portman and Associates, Renaissance Center, Detroit, 1977. © 2009 Charles Rice

 

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John Portman and Associates, Renaissance Center, Detroit, 1977. © 2009 Charles Rice

 

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John Portman and Associates, Renaissance Center, Detroit, 1977. © 2009 Charles Rice

 

Endnotes

1. J. G. Ballard, “Report on an Unidentified Space Station,” in The Complete Short Stories, vol. 2 (London: Harper Perennial, 2006), 635-640.

2. Ballard, “Report on an Unidentified Space Station,” 636.

3. Ballard, “Report on an Unidentified Space Station,” 637.

4. Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernism: the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” New Left Review 146 (1984): 83.

 

Charles Rice is Professor of Architecture at the University of Technology Sydney. He is the author of The Emergence of the Interior: Architecture, Modernity, Domesticity (Routledge, 2007) and Interior Urbanism: Architecture, John Portman and Downtown America (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016).

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