There is a special light that illuminates the face of Alfredo Muñoz, the forty-three-year-old Spanish architect and founder of studio Abiboo and, with his astronomer friend Guillem Anglada-Escudé, of SONet, an interdisciplinary partnership of scientists projected towards a non-dystopian future.
It is the light of those who have grasped a very distant secret and now want to bring it as a dowry to society, so that it can be treasured. Muñoz's gift to the world is called Nüwa and it is the capital of the first sustainable and self-sufficient human colony on Mars, designed by Abiboo and SONet with four other imaginary settlements, not for offer humans a remote escape route from Earth, but so that man can learn to live better and respect his own from the extreme living conditions on the red planet.
“On the surface of Mars the average temperatures are about 60 degrees below zero , the atmosphere is so rarefied that it contains almost no oxygen. Solar radiation is irresistible and lethal, growing food is a difficult undertaking to say the least".
Precisely for this reason, according to Muñoz, the simulation of life on Mars becomes the ideal training ground for the architect and for the designer, because it means measuring oneself against a series of limits and instances that are making way more complicated even life here on Earth.
Nüwa, which is the capital of a colony made up of five settlements designed two years ago by the team of this visionary architect, is designed to protect the inhabitants from the planet's radiation, ensure indirect access to sunlight (and therefore protection from diseases and tumours), defense against the potential impact of meteorites and remedying the problem of the difference in atmospheric pressure between the inside and outside of buildings.
An overturning of design and building stereotypes that imposes that injection of engineering visionary with which sooner or later we will have to measure ourselves even here, on Earth: Mars is not that far away, if we look at the effects of climate change, and planning for a dimension 401 million kilometers away (or 56, depending on whether we consider the maximum or minimum distance from the Earth) actually means dealing with emergencies around the corner, thinking about the resilience of the future.
“All the towns in the settlement,” Muñoz explains, “each have between 200,000 and 250,000 inhabitants. One, Abalos City , is located at the North Pole in order to exploit the access to the ice; another, Marineris City, is located in the largest valley in the solar system.
For these Martian cities we have tried to define structures that guarantee an adequate habitat for humans and other biological forms.
Nüwa, the capital, stands on the side of a hill with abundant water supply, in Tempe Mensa.
The slope allows for the creation of a vertical city embedded in the rock, protected from radiation and exposed to indirect sunlight. The macro-buildings, dug into the height, are modular and house homes and workplaces, connected by a network of tunnels and lifts similar to enormous skyscrapers”.
It is not the first time that design and architecture have landed on Mars. In 2019, the Moving to Mars exhibition had combined speculative aspects and futuristic scenarios at the Design Museum of London showing, for example, the life-size prototypes of 3D printed robots designed to build anti-radiation shelters with regolith, the set of sediments, dust and fragments of heterogeneous materials that make up the outermost layer of the red planet's surface.
An empathetic and synesthetic set-up simulated the gnarled surface of Mars on the floor, pumping its smell similar to that of dry must into the air, something reminiscent of aged chamois.
With their project, the Abiboo studio and SONet go beyond pure research to respond to the challenging brief of the Mars Society which imagined implanting a colony of one million human beings capable of sustaining themselves on the red planet by itself, with the possibility of returning to Earth (to replenish food, belongings and loved ones) one month every two years.
Thirty professionals and scientists from different disciplines took part in the design experiment, each of whom contributed with his or her amount of knowledge and points of view, crossing and verifying proposals and outputs with each other .
"We had to think in a truly disruptive and unconventional way", says Muñoz: "Innovation is not about giving new answers to old questions, but asking completely new questions. Everything on Earth that we take for granted on Mars comes into question and ends up overturned, to then become, brought back to our planet, a valuable contribution to the ongoing environmental and social challenges".
Designing on Mars means for example, reinventing our diet and food production, based on hydroponic crops and algae: "While on Earth we have six thousand square meters for per capita , on the red planet we can reach a maximum of one hundred square meters each.
We will have to learn to communicate with robots and trust artificial intelligence much more than we do now on Earth.
We will only be able to build with local materials and resources, truly at zero km. We will develop an attitude that, brought back to Earth, will be good for our planet.”
But the real paradigm shift, for Muñoz, will be that of sociability: "On Mars we will live in houses of a maximum of 25 square meters: we will spend most of our time in open common spaces full of greenery and gardens, we will develop a sense of community and belonging that perhaps we have lost here and that we are looking for in certain new generation colivings.
Perhaps we will also gain in spirituality, we will learn to better share the sense of what surrounds us and to live close to our neighbour".
It's called Mars, but, Muñoz says, it's the most powerfule room for innovation that the Earth already has at its disposal now, 401 million kilometers away.