His very height suggests he is closer to the universe than the rest of us. In addition to sustainable architecture on Planet Earth, the Czech architect Tomáš Rousek has been designing buildings that may one day be installed on the Moon or on Mars. He also collaborates with the US government agency NASA and has been involved in designing Mars city architecture with the visionary Elon Musk. “It is good to inspire society to see brighter tomorrows so that people have something to look forward to,” he said when being interviewed at the Space Industry conference in Bratislava.
Why did you turn to space architecture, has Planet Earth become too small for you?
I do both, space architecture takes up about a third of my time, the rest is spent on classical architecture. If you want to make a living as an architect, you have to do terrestrial architecture as well, because unlike space architecture, you don’t have to wait such a long time for your projects to be implemented and take on physical shape. However, I enjoy both variants. For me, focusing on the universe is an extension of my scope of business and an extra bonus that makes me fulfilled.
We will talk about space in a minute, but let’s stay on Earth for a little while. Among other things, you have been involved in sustainable architecture focusing on the interconnection between urban development and nature. What attracted you to this area and why is it important?
It seems to me that asphalt was poured everywhere in the 20th century, everything was built of concrete and at one point people pushed nature to the very edge of interest. Today we are fighting a lot of civilisation diseases, also caused by urban lifestyles which tend to be rather unhealthy. If one is to spend a lifetime in a badly constructed building, one’s health would clearly be affected, so I believe we need to improve the quality of life in this respect, we should achieve a symbiosis with nature. That’s why I enjoy working and dealing with emails and phone calls while taking a walk in a forest, in short, I like the connection between the modern world and the natural environment. Of course, not everyone can afford to leave the office and venture into the forest. However, filling offices with greenery or integrating greenery within facades may be a solution. This would also improve acoustics and air quality.
Have you completed any projects reflecting this concept?
Yes, several of my building concepts have been implemented. In London, for example, buildings with large vertical green walls have been constructed for several developers as well as for Transport for London, a local government body. We also worked on a project of new-generation vertical walls that can filter air while serving as an advertisement display. There are plenty of ideas in this respect and many projects have already been implemented.
And now let’s go up and above the surface of Planet Earth. Do you consider yourself a dreamer and a visionary?
Sure, one has dreams and believes things would be great if they become a reality. However, for every positive scenario, I can think of five scenarios where everything could go wrong. Anyway, it is a good thing to inspire society to see brighter tomorrows so that people have something to look forward to it. Were we only to watch TV news full of murders, wars and problems, we would be depressed every day. So pausing for a while and dreaming is a good thing. If we strive hard and nothing goes wrong, we can be on the Moon in a few years or build a green city on Mars.
How often do you hear that your work is pointless and yields no results?
Of course, I do hear such views from time to time, and only a tiny percentage of projects are implemented in the space industry. However, I know a number of projects that started with a mere vision, and eventually became real. This is what I like about my work and what motivates me to do more. It is not only about the implementation as such, but also about triggering a discussion about a topic, so that people can embrace the future and technical advancements get implemented into society more quickly.
Has any of your projects ventured into space yet?
Unfortunately not, and it won’t happen for quite some time yet, because I am now working on projects related to my long-term commitment. NASA is not building anything on the Moon yet, let alone on Mars. I mostly produce ideas that inspire someone else, who then takes the vision one step further. It works like open source, one approaches something that someone has already invented before, uses different combinations, adds new idea and moves on. It is not that I would be working on one specific project all the time, which would then be shaped exactly as I designed it and then be built on Mars. I would be happy if even a fraction of my ideas were reflected in a final result. This is how I sometimes think even within terrestrial designs. For example, when I invented the wave motif for the Olympic Aquatics Stadium in Rio. It was changed five times but the core remained more or less the same as we invented it during a lunch in London.
It is generally known that you have done work for NASA. Are you still doing anything for them? And how did they come across you?
From time to time I still do some work for NASA but at the moment I work more for European institutions, such as ESA or the European Commission. In order to get involved with NASA, one has to contact certain people and be very lucky. I had to approach them myself, they would have not contacted me themselves, one needs to be proactive. One of my university friends was earlier involved in designing Jet Propulsion Laboratory technologies for NASA, such as 3D printing technologies to be used on the Moon, and he gave me the contact details of specific people who led the research, so I contacted them and got involved. Success often depends on chance and personal contacts help a lot. Should anyone in the industry need a contact, I’d be happy to help. That’s how many people helped me when I didn’t know who to turn to.
Apparently, you offered to help the visionary Elon Musk to build a city of the future on Mars. Did he accept your help and did you mean your offer seriously?
Yes, we talked about it. He told me that first he has to work on the rockets that would take people to Mars, and only then can we think about building cities there. But he said that he liked my work and once they fine tune the rockets, we can talk about potential cooperation. These were rather theoretical discussion, we didn’t discuss anything specific.
What is the biggest difference between terrestrial and space architecture?
I think they are quite similar. Of course, there are more extreme conditions in space, and everything has to be considered up to the tiniest detail. Moreover, in the space sector, one can draw on the support of a lot of specialists as there are highly specific issues involved. However, this sometimes applies to terrestrial architecture also. Theoretically, any ordinary architect may devote himself to space architecture, although it is true that I myself have a Master’s degree in aerospace projects and space project management from the International Space University. As a result, I have learned a lot of things and met a lot of people whom I would otherwise not encountered.
How can you know for sure that your projects designed on Earth will work in space?
I’m not the only person involved, huge teams work on project implementation which costs hundreds of millions of dollars, so the functionality is not really something that would depend on me alone. I deal with space missions at the concept level, or, at the most, at prototyping level, when building specific systems. The architect is usually involved at the very beginning of the project and the rest needs to be further developed and processed by a whole army of engineers. For example, in London, I worked at AECOM, an engineering company with about 45,000 people and specialists for each part of a project – lights, transport, structures and so on. Put simply, these projects require team work, one person alone can’t create anything in the space industry.
When do you think the first person will land on Mars?
First of all, I think that there will be new projects regarding travelling to the Moon, and only if they are successful, will travelling to distant Mars unfold. Only then will it be possible to discuss specific dates. Arriving as far as Mars and constructing something there is much more complicated than staying on the Moon, from where one can return in a few days. And come to think of it, it seems funny that at first everyone was concerned about what sort of raw materials and resources could we deliver from the Moon, e.g. Helium-3. But now it seems that tourism is a far greater driver than mining, with a potential distinctive business element. Maybe one day the Moon will become a holiday destination for many of us.
And would you yourself ever want to embark on space travel?
As a tourist, definitely yes. For example, I would like to take a month trip to the Moon. As for Mars, I’m not so sure, because it’s a bit of a trap. Overall, it would be more comfortable for humans to build space hotels on the Moon and stay there for a few weeks. I personally would prefer being a tourist to being a guinea pig as an astronaut. But a journey into space itself must be an unforgettable experience.
In recent years, Czech companies have become important players in the space industry. What do you think of their achievements?
Their success is noticeable, one often hears about them abroad. But one thing that is truly great is that the Czech Republic launched the ESA BIC Prague and ESA BIC Brno incubators, which provide start-up support. This is really important because they foster a number of promising companies focusing on drone systems for carmakers, power engineering and software development. It seems to me that these projects significantly enhance the Czech Republic’s reputation, as is evident from increased interest in other European counties. To be honest, I’m not much involved in work in the Czech Republic. I mostly work with companies from other countries, such as Italy and Germany. We are currently working on a space greenhouse project with the German DLR Space Agency and other organisations in Europe.
You are a founder of XTEND, a London-based design company, and of a Czech company A-ETC. You currently live in London and spent part of your life in Switzerland. How do you manage it all?
To tell the truth, I don’t (laughs). Only today did I see that my inbox is full of new emails, there is always a lot to do. I tend to say that people are very impatient, everyone wants everything right away, which is not possible in the space industry. What I like about my work is that I don’t have to be in one place, I travel not only in Europe but around the world. When I come to think about it, at one point we had three apartments at the same time – one at the waterfront in London, one in Lausanne in Switzerland and one in Prague. It was great but the problem is that this sort of lifestyle is not sustainable in the long run. However, frequent travels around the globe support my inspiration.
Do you feel huge responsibility for what you are creating? In theory, your work may put astronauts’ lives at risk.
The responsibility is huge and you are fully aware of it in this type of work. It’s enough for me to see some sci-fi movies where most people die right at the beginning. Half of the film is about saving people in space, then suddenly an unexpected complication occurs and a struggle for survival begins. This really stresses me out (laughs). I’d be happier if the movies were more positive.
Speaking about space-themed movies, how close are they to reality?
Some things are just outright nonsense. For example, to cover a hole in a module with a piece of plastic foil really would not work, so a lot of things are not realistic. On the other hand, some things are quite an inspiration and are so well done that they seem plausible.
“To back up life elsewhere outside Planet Earth is a good thing for a number of reasons,” says architect Tomáš Rousek. He is mainly talked about in the context of space architecture, as his work has included projects for NASA. He graduated from the Faculty of Architecture of the Czech Technical University in Prague and has a degree from the International Space University ISU in Strasbourg, France. He designed for example a spaceship with artificial gravity, and has a vision to build a green city on Mars. He also focuses on sustainable architecture on earth, which he develops in his London-based company XTEND and Prague-based A-ETC. He got involved in space architecture thanks to the Futura Pragensis project, which he founded with his friends at university and within which he designed a vision of a New Prague on Mars.
Interviewed by: Martin Schwarz
Translation: Romana Moareš