Return to Earth

Lydia Kallipoliti

is an architect and a writer. She holds architecture degrees from AUTh in Greece, MIT and Princeton University. Currently, she is an assistant professor adjunct at the Cooper Union in New York. Kallipoliti is the editor of “EcoRedux: Design Remedies for a Dying Planet,” a special issue of Architectural Design (AD) magazine. Her design and theoretical work has been published and exhibited internationally.
Feedback Man, Lydia Kallipoliti, Log 13/14, Fall 2008, 115–118.
Feedback Man, Lydia Kallipoliti, Log 13/14, Fall 2008, 115–118.

Dear Lydia,

In Log 13/14 “Feedback Man,” you described the recirculatory systems in NASA’s 1960 Living Pod, and the effect of this and similar programs on architecture, stating that while the “Vitruvian Man and the Modular indicate a passage from the cosmos to modernist abstract space … Feedback Man speaks of an insular, closed, techno-world that requires more information than form and geometry to be envisioned.” These relationships address feedback systems in the space of outer space, yet some of the side effects of the space program led to studies of earth-bound feedback systems, which themselves affected the course of architecture.

We invite you to elaborate on these earth-bound space programs and their architectural consequences.



Architectural Design (AD) magazine publishes an issue on Autonomous Houses. At the bottom corner of the cover, a label warns readers: “Autonomous Property. KEEP OUT.” By this time, the theme appears logical, if not trite. Following the oil crisis and a decade of dense environmental debates, the terms self-sufficiency, self-reliance, life-support, and living autonomy are part of a pervasive lexicon for alternative technologies, described by AD as an “architectural prevailing cult project” that has preoccupied the British avant-garde scene for a decade. (Cliff Harper, Autonomous Houses, Architectural Design, July 1972, Wiley-Blackwell/UK.)


AD’s July issue invites architects to Design for Survival. The cover features a water flow that detours from one tap to another and suggests that household effluent streams recirculate endlessly. This water feedback showcases an unprecedented fascination with the ecological household as a self-sufficient, autonomous, and regenerative unit, capable of harnessing its waste and providing its own energy. Backed up by lists of environmental statistics, the issue urges readers to consider that we no longer have a choice about the way we live and the space we live in. Rather, it is a question of survival. At this moment, the household is understood as a synecdoche for the earth as a whole. (Adrian George, Designing for Survival, Architectural Design, January 1976, Wiley-Blackwell/UK.)


Progressive Architecture advertises its forthcoming issue in October, with a wounded Earth that calls for help from “architects and air breathers”: Needed—Life Support Systems for a Dying Planet. The issue suggests learning from the research of the space industry and presents a series of housing schemes as life support systems. Materials and devices used in spaceships are recommended for direct transference to domestic contexts promising high levels of energy renewal. At this moment, the byproduct devices of the space program are promoted in the building industry as salvation mechanisms; they are to battle the blatant environmental crisis of a closed planet that has just been revealed to the eyes of the world as a single image. (Courtesy of Architect/Hanley Wood.)


NASA creates a promotional educational motion picture for television titled Living in Space: The Case for Regeneration. At this moment, outer space is the ultimate frontier in the context of the space race and the tension of the cold war. They key, however, to the colonization of this territory can no longer be found in the invention of rockets, but within the management and reinvention of human physiology. To transport man into outer space, he would require an artificial environmental Earth bubble. Recycling, rebreathing, restoration, and other words indicating the regeneration of human output into viable input, are essential mechanisms that warranty the travel of the living organism into nonliving conditions. (Stills from “Living in Space: The Case for Regeneration,” motion picture no. 255-HQ-131A, National Archives. Courtesy of NASA.)

In the four preceding snapshots, we see how the concept of total circular resource regeneration migrates from one context to the other: from military research and the experiments of NASA’s space program, to the housing industry, to a counter-cultural practice for autonomous living in the city, and finally to the nostalgia of the homesteading movement and the perception of housing communities as self-reliant ecosystems. What remains constant, however, is the emergence of a new environmental consensus in the form of a synthetic naturalism, where the laws of nature and metabolism are displaced from the domain of the wilderness to the domain of cities and buildings. Previous concepts of nature’s immaculate preservation and conservation separate from the urban milieu gave rise to a novel naturalism of “artificial ecology,” where the functions of operations in nature were copied as precise analogies in man-made systems. Distinctly different from the first environmental era, which rallied for the fresh spirit of the wilderness and the preservation of unindustrialized lands, the rise of modern environmentalism in the 1960s and 1970s called for the replication of natural ecosystems anew in synthetic environments.

The design of a house as a synthetic ecology suggested that a dwelling could reproduce a natural ecosystem; a system of mechanized interrelated parts as a model of a piece of nature. As John McHale argued that the “closed system” ecology of the space capsule was a micro-miniaturized version of our planetary vehicle,[1] the house was meant to embody a microcosm of the earth as a whole. This shift was very much related to the ecologist’s appropriation of a scientific language and a set of tools used by cyberneticians in the postwar period.[2] By diagramming the flow of energy in the natural world as input and output, circuits in a feedback loop, cyberneticians provided ecologists with new research techniques and a new biologically informed (but also computational) theory of inhabiting the world. At the same time, the space program played a fundamental role in this reformation of the building industry, effectively adopting, rationalizing, and simulating nature’s operations. The smart organization of material flows in spaceships was an issue of survival; life was dependent on the cycling of provisions. The potential for convergence of all waste into useful materials became eminently important as a means of sustaining life within the enclosed space of the spacecraft. In essence, the projection of humanity in outer space was less about the conquering of a new physical and technological frontier and more about the reflection of primordial habitation principles on Earth, as well as the conception of a new type of a recirculatory house, a cybernetic laboratory.

Closed recirculatory systems illustrate, beyond just a cultural fascination with the space program, emerging architectural concerns related to habitation: first, a new integrated structure where the human physiology of ingestion and excretion becomes a combustion device, part of the system that is inhabited. Second, closed recirculatory systems, as organizational divisions of closed loop cycles, are recursive models that generate complex behaviors. Closed recirculatory systems demonstrate an ontological problem of creating an autonomous personal space or a protective environmental enclosure around the human. This spatial paradigm, similar to the bubble space of the astronaut’s suit, can be described as an “ego-sphere”[3] that, according to the German philosopher Peter Sloterdjik, alludes to a novel territorial paradigm of the 20th century: modern individualism. Humans may claim their own space around the immediate proximity of their physical bodies and become their own planets.

“Down to Earth”: Grumman Integrated Household

In the late 1960s, as the image of the whole earth and the effects of the space program impacted cultural imagination, it was suggested that spacecraft hardware could be directly employed in the building industry, yielding ecological benefits and rendering the house a “life-support system.” The house was promoted as a performative machine, capable of providing its own energy and food. This relocation of services resulted in an unprecedented systematization of the household, but more prominently this directive was delivered as NASA’s gift to the optimization of architectural design. As one can witness in the “EcoTech” section of AD, NASA’s integrated utility systems allegedly granted to the building sector the scientific credibility that it so unfavorably lacked: “NASA’s contribution to the solution of national problem of natural resources and pollution abatement as related to housing is included in a design of a 500 apartment complex to be built in Houston, Texas.”[4]

At the time, Grumman Corporation was a leading firm associated with space research, primarily specializing in bioastronautics, human performance, life-support systems and the habitability of future space stations. Grumman was highly invested in the development of technologies that would make the dream of the space station a reality. However, they were equally interested in “projecting” their inventions for outer space down to earth. This was evidenced by a string of advertisements between 1964 and 1967, in which the company announced that their “plans for outer space are down to earth.” Certain experiments in spacecraft life-support systems had not been successful in zero-gravity conditions, mainly due to difficulties of directing bacteria and microzoa flow for anaerobic digestion in waste consumption. However, there were not the same difficulties when used for terrestrial applications.

The corporation consulted with several architectural firms in the late 1960s to design a modular housing unit, a waste disposal system, a sewage system (as in the astronaut’s lavatory), and an energy efficiency system for homes that incorporated solar cells for the civil consumer market. These applications, transferred from technologies used in life-support systems for spacecrafts, sold a considerable number of units in the United States under the label Grumman’s Integrated Household System. Moreover, Grumman’s way of connecting different apparatuses into an integrated building circuit was promoted as an ecological remedy to environmental problems.[5] In 1969, Grumman offered their research program on domestic space and life-support systems to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, an organization charged with the development of improved housing system concepts for large-volume production and the construction of 1,400,000 new dwellings.[6] Yet, offsetting NASA’s specific techniques to the building industry resulted in a new kind of fixation with biological substances and physiological flows in the design of the household.

Using NASA’s conversion diagrams for spaceships as a starting point, every solid and liquid waste stream was segmented and decomposed to its utter constituents in a tenuous plan to produce drinkable water from collected droplets and oxygen from carbon dioxide. All human waste was to be chemically treated and dissolved into base data that could potentially be reconstructed in new combinations. This approach, labeled as “atomic recycling,” operated on the same premises of noiseless conversions that garbage housing projects did. However, atomic recycling carried this initial hypothesis further, through endless segmentations of matter, going down many scales, in the hope of refiguring substance at an atomic level or at the very least that all solid waste could be decomposed to a powderlike material state.

Advertisement of Grumman Corporation in the International Science and Technology journal.
Advertisement of Grumman Corporation in the International Science and Technology journal.

Such “wish-fulfillments” are fundamental to recycling diagrams, if we may borrow Freud’s terminology. Even in NASA’s most pragmatic graphs for the operations of spaceships, desire plays a key role in the completion of the diagram, by filling in the blanks and legitimizing fuzzy conversions. To understand this claim, we may take as an example the General Dynamics Life Support System, an iconic graph for the regeneration of water and air in a space capsule, which carries out a three-step mission: to segment all human input and output in constituent component parts; to map relationships between parts and visually extrapolate a reciprocal organization; and finally, to redirect all human output back into human input.

What the diagram fails to explain adequately is the nature of the material conversions that are necessary to chemically resynthesize materials from one state to another. One has to keep in mind that the proposed conversions do not merely involve phase changes, such as solid to liquid to gas, but also impossible responsibilities, such as turning feces into food, and this is precisely where wish fulfillment comes in. Operating under the assumption that a coherent, systemic, organization can be implemented to any material system, the two recycling diagrams contain several “black holes”—fuzzy conversions that could only be accomplished miraculously. In the iconic graph, these “black holes” are visualized as conversion “bubble-like” machines that contain stools and complicated interior mechanisms. They are extra devices added to the system, designed to mediate flows and assume the responsibility to transmute substances, using any technique possible, such as drying, rotating, dehumidifying, electrifying, filtering, oxidizing, and so on.

Under the pseudonym Ruppert Spade, Martin Pawley, in his 1970 article, “Trick Recyclist,”[7] wrote about the unelaborated nature of closed systems’ recycling and self-sufficiency. Pawley described the experiments of Mr. Edward Burton, who, between 1960 and 1966, had taken out several patents relating to a Biological Waste Treatments System, with a view to adapting his waste recycling system for use undersea or in space.[8] To develop his inventions, Burton was in touch with the Grumann Corporation in the early 1960s, and translated the industry’s smart technologies into home-made reprocessing systems, managing the dubious accomplishment of adequately nourishing a duck, 15 goldfish, an apple tree sapling, an apricot tree plantlet, and a small rhododendron plant, singularly from household effluent.[9] With a number of tricky conversions and crafty oxidizing and permeation devices, Burton’s system eventually became commercially available in the United States in the early 1970s, promising to grow tomatoes from household effluent.

What we are less aware of is what happened in due course to Burton’s flora and fauna after running his Biological Waste Treatments System for extensive periods of time. Recycling systems, especially the aspiring noiseless ones, are absolutely closed systems that redirect all input into output; and as such they are more than likely to exhibit unpredictable behaviors, including the production of new substances that are not calculated to be dealt with by the internal organization of the system. Closed autopoietic systems derail from an original systematized scheme that is designed to run invariant perpetually. Instead, prolific new subsystems feed the original system with new input, constantly changing its internal organization. Pawley’s stark criticism on the feasibility of regenerative systems is in resonance with his own frustration on “garbage housing,”[10] which conceptually fulfils a circular system on a planetary scale, feeding the industrial by-products back into the cycle of production as new building materials. It seems that the architect’s desire to close the circle is eminent. However, noiseless recycling is an impossible enterprise in time, or an “ecotopia”; and if portrayed as a realistic task, it undoubtedly needed to combine high-tech devices with some “wishful thinking.”

From Shit to Food: Graham Caine’s Eco-House

One of the earliest ecological houses, the Eco-House, was built in Eltham, South London in 1972, as a laboratory and living experiment by Graham Caine, a member of the anarchist group Street Farmers, originally formed by Peter Crump and Bruce Haggart. The Eco-House was a fully functional integrated system that converted human waste to methane for cooking, as well as maintained a hydroponic greenhouse with radishes, tomatoes, and even bananas. Caine, then a 26-year-old fourth-year student at the Architectural Association of London, designed and built the Eco-House as an “inhabitable housing laboratory” that would grow vegetables out of household effluents and fertilize the land with reprocessed organic waste. With a ₤2,000 fund from Alvin Boyarski, the chairman of the AA, and scavenged materials, Caine settled in the house in December 1972. After having lived in the house for two years with his family, Caine was asked to destroy it in 1975. By that time, the Eco-House had received wide attention from the British press and architectural magazines, as well as considerable attention in television. It was the main subject of a television show titled Clearings of a Concrete Jungle in BBC’s Open Programme for Television in June 1973. The broadcast was featured in the London Radio Times with the promotional line: “Spring is here and the time is ripe for planting in the streets.” Other titles in the British press included: “The House that Grows” and “A New Way of Living” in the London Garden News, “Living off the Sun in South London” in The Observer, and “A Revolutionary Structure” in Oz magazine.[11]

Eco House in AD. Courtesy of Grahame Caine.
Eco House in AD. Courtesy of Grahame Caine.

Throughout the process, Caine used himself and his family as guinea pigs in order to test the function of several components of the house. He experimented with his waste, his cooking habits, his use of water, monitoring closely every activity of daily practice until the day the house was demolished in 1974. Caine was undoubtedly the steward of the house; he alone knew how to feed the house with the right nutrients—how to chop wood, grow plants, irrigate the greenhouse, and supply the engines. The architect, therefore, was an indispensable biological part of the house, connected to it in a diagram where excretion becomes a vital constituent of the system’s sustenance. In many respects, the house was more grown than constructed. It needed attention from its caretaker, and without human presence its living biotechnical systems would degenerate and die. Describing his house as a life-support system, Caine satirically commented that the architect may now relate to his own shit.[12]

In the unpublished addendum to the periodical Street Farmer 2, the Eco-House is referenced as a “spaceship” on earth. However, self-sufficiency was understood by Caine and the Street Farmers, as a political statement against consumerism and capitalism. The Eco-House embodied for its builders a grain of resistance against the state’s networks of centralized control. According to Caine, capitalism could be illustrated in a linear scheme, while the recycling of organic matter, the collection of rainwater and sunshine that in its turn produces food, gas, and heating, represents an alternative political reality of cyclical behaviors where material can be used and reused perpetually.[13]

In many ways, this detachment from the main urban supply networks depicts a collective repudiation for the urban condition, which is portrayed by both the counterculture and the space program as a catastrophic environment that restrains the imagination and the freedom of the individual. In this sense, the Eco-House becomes an island, uprooted from its urban context, like its own planet, but very much in exchange with physiological parameters: temperature, water, light, humidity, and so forth calculated in numeric data. We may perceive this detachment, outlined as an ecological and political imperative, as a fundamental reorientation of the house in relationship to its urban condition.

Weaving Caine’s political assertions to the premises of NASA’s by-products for the building indsutry, it is striking to observe how the same cybernetic prescription of a system migrates from the military complex to a countercultural political theory. On the one hand, NASA’s scenario for self-sufficiency comprises a project of technological supremacy and regards mostly the invention of hardware in order to conquer a new frontier, now visible and detectable to our eyes; the colonial modality is evident in this aspiration to master the new land, or space, even if out of oxygen. On the other hand, the equipped interior of the Eco-House is portrayed as the fantasy of an “exterior” to the political reality. The interior, armed with digesters, becomes a strategy of political autonomy to withdraw from the tentacles of society and the state’s organizational infrastructure, away from the authoritative networks to which people must yield. The Grumman Integrated Household and the Eco-House, despite representing two very different political realities and existential problems, come to be expressed by the same strategy for self-reliance.

Despite all odds, the ongoing experiment of the enclosed space was ceremoniously revived in the massive Biosphere 2 project in Arizona, which was completed and sealed in 1991. Not surprisingly, fresh air had to be injected and food introduced to ensure the health of the sealed subjects. But even beyond ecological tourist attractions, the spaceship lives on in the thousands of sick buildings of corporate America. Sealed, heavily air-conditioned buildings usually generate problematic airborne conditions, resulting from a building’s lack of exchange with its surrounding environment. In most sick buildings, there cannot be an identifiable cause for illness, as a causal effect of a specific deficiency. A 1984 World Health Organization Committee report suggested that up to 30 percent of new and remodeled buildings worldwide may be the subject of excessive complaints related to indoor air quality and suffer from what is known as the sick building syndrome, a term describing situations in which building occupants experience acute health and comfort effects linked to the time spent in a building.

Recycling waste, either organic or inorganic, was fundamental to the rising discourse of ecological design. The real question submitted with this study is how biological and environmental processes invade the domestic realm and the practice of everyday life; how the division and distribution of organic, growing matter is vital for the sustenance of the house’s health. It is finally critical to observe that in the rise of postwar ecological design theories, recycling was more than a technical task; it was a psychosocial position for the migration of life via the phase change of material substances. From this viewpoint, matter does not come to an end, it is not wasted; instead it changes its state. Recycling, therefore, is not just about the formation of new materials, but also about the transference and migration of properties from one substance to another, and all of the intermediate stages of a productive cycle.

In a recent NASA conference in Washington, DC, in October 2007, a common consensus surfaced in honor of the 50 years celebration of outer space research. Officers and researchers claimed that the space program’s greater accomplishments were not what they were intended to be; not the conquering of the new frontier, and the actual moon-landing; but the space program’s side effects: such were the photographs of the Earth. Likewise, this successful derailment, an incidental by-product shaped as a discipline undergoes a transformation, may suggest an alternative reading of architectural history, not by offering actual objects and a new paradigm, but by suggesting new tools and new modes of practice. The objects may be fictional, impossible, or in the best-case scenario, ephemeral, but architecture is mostly a project of the imagination. The objects can be ephemeral, but the tools and modalities of design creativity that they produce are not.


1. John McHale, “Outer Space,” in Architectural Design, vol. 37 (February 1967): 67. See also John McHale, The Future of the Future (New York: George Brazilier, 1969).
2. See Peder Anker, “The Ecological Colonization of Space,” Environmental History 10, no. 2 (2005): 239–268. See also Peder Anker, “The Closed World of Ecological Architecture,” The Journal of Architecture 10, no. 5 (2005): 527–552.
3. The term egosphere was coined by Peter Sloterdijk in his article “Cell Block, Egospheres, Self-Container,” in Log 10 (Summer/Fall 2007).
4. “NASA integrated utility system,” in the “Eco-Tech” section of Architectural Design, vol. 43 (February 1973): 74.
5. See Anker, “The Closed World of Ecological Architecture,” 539.
6. See Ruppert Spade, “Trick Recyclist” in the “Cosmorama” section of Architectural Design, vol. 40 (March 1970): 111–112.
7. Spade, “Trick Recyclist,” 112.
8. Ibid.
9. Ibid.
10. See Martin Pawley, “Garbage Housing,” in Architectural Design, vol. 41, no. 2 (1971): 86–95; Martin Pawley, “Chile and the Cornell Programme,” in Architectural Design, vol. 43, no. 12 (1973): 777–784; Martin Pawley, “Garbage Housing,” in Architectural Design, vol. 43, no. 12 (1973): 647–776. See also Martin Pawley, Garbage Housing (London, UK: Architectural Press, 1975).
11. The Eco-House was published in the following publications: Glenn Barker, “A New Way of Living,” in Garden News, no. 780 (June 15, 1973); Grahame Caine, “A Revolutionary Structure,” in Oz (November 1972): 12–13. Supplemented by Mike Moore’s diagrams based on Grahame Caine’s originals; Gerald Leach (Science Correspondent), “Living off the Sun in South London,” in The Observer (August 27, 1972); Grahame Caine, “The Eco-House,” in Bruce Haggart, Peter Crump (eds.), Street Farmer, no. 1 & no. 2 (London, 1971–1972); Grahame Caine, “The Ecological House,” in Architectural Design (March 1972): 140–141; Grahame Caine, “Street Farmhouse,” in Stefan Szcelkun (ed.), Survival Scrapbook, vol. 5: Energy (Bristol, UK: Unicorn Bookshop Press, 1975); Grahame Caine, “The Eco-House,” in Mother Earth News (March/April 1973); Grahame Caine, Bruce Haggart, and Peter Crump, “Some Proposals on the Reservicing of an Urban Terraced House,” in John Prenis (ed.), Domeletter, no. 4 (Philadelphia, PA: Self-published, 1972). See the archives of the Architectural Association, London; Eve Williams, “The House that Grows” (based on an interview with Grahame Caine), in Garden News, no. 722 (London, May 5, 1972): 13; Glen Barker, “A New Way of Living,” in Garden News, no. 780 (London, June 15, 1973): 3.
12. Grahame Caine, “A Revolutionary Structure,” in Oz (November 1972): 12–13. Supplemented by Mike Moore’s diagrams based on Grahame Caine’s originals.
13. Author’s personal interview with Graham Caine in Ronda, Spain (January 8th, 2008).


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