Nicholas de Monchaux
Nicholas de Monchaux is an architect and urbanist, whose work examines the intersection of nature, technology, and the city. He is the author of Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo: an Architectural history of the Apollo 11 Spacesuit. He has worked as a designer for Michael Hopkins & Partners in London, and Diller, Scofidio + Renfro in New York. He is currently Assistant Professor of Architecture and Urban Design at UC Berkeley. de Monchaux received his B.A. with distinction in Architecture from Yale, and his Professional Degree (M.Arch.) from Princeton.
by Susan Miller
In twenty-one chapters, Nicholas de Monchaux’s book Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo recounts the development and history of the Apollo spacesuit, the survival gear worn by the first humans to walk on the moon in 1969. Twenty-one is symbolic in that it is the number of layers in the spacesuit that was designed by Platex, the women’s bra company. De Monchaux’s VCS Forum presentation of Fashioning Apollo also pursued a format mirroring the twenty-one segmented construction of the book and the suit. His talk covered a number of interrelated topics including a history of the spacesuit; the beginnings of human pursuit and perils of space travel; Cold War politics and the American-Soviet Space Race; the relationship between mid-20th century haute-couture and military engineering technologies and design; and the conquest of Platex company’s usual and soft body-sensitive design over hard suit competitors.
How a women’s undergarment manufacturer landed the NASA contract, defying myths and fantasies about space suit design and beating out more masculinized models, is both the entry and end point for de Monchaux’s elaborately researched project. He concludes that there is a lesson in the functional layers of Apollo spacesuit. While the hard suit proposals were simple, unified solutions to the complex problem of putting the very vulnerable human body in outer space, it was the flexible and multilayered engineering of Platex’s space suit design that best protected the Apollo astronauts. In considering solutions to survival “on our own enduring spaceship” planet Earth, de Monchaux suggests it is useful to consider the metaphor of the twenty-one layers of the Apollo space suit.
In listening to de Monchaux’s multilayered presentation, I was struck by the fragility of human body. As a follower of science fiction books and film, I never really internalized the vulnerability of the human body in space. We are not designed to survive very far off the surface of planet Earth, and in science fiction all kinds of protective, life-saving gear and modes of transport are invented to keep humans safe. (It’s part of the tech-shtick that makes sci-fi entrancing.) Most of us will never experience space travel, yet the fantasy of extraterrestrial travel remains compelling. Listening to de Monchaux, I became aware of the disconnect between my own mind and my body, and the dangerous seduction of science fiction in the face of the reality of human travel in space.
Fashioning Apollo is as much a history of myths and the mythologies about space as it is about a protective garment. Science fiction and military engineering concepts informed the very masculine hard suit design. Feminine bra and girdle technology was applied to the winning Platex model. The hard head of rationale male design was trumped by a company in the business of feminine, form fitting bodily comfort. De Monchaux illustrates that the Apollo spacesuit was an unconventional design, stealth in its delicacy, contradicting sci-fi visions of armor-clad space suit. The history of the Apollo Space Suit is a lesson in human assumptions about design, technology, and space travel.