The third brightest object in the night sky is not a far-off planet or a solar system but a building about the size of a football field. Designed and assembled by five space agencies representing 15 countries, the structure represents not only a triumph of engineering but also of politics, an unprecedented international effort in the name of science. Largely built over the course of some 30 separate missions beginning in 1998, it remains the closest humankind has ever come to creating a habitat in outer space. Crafted from pieces manufactured in Russia, the European Union, Japan, Canada and the United States — with a new pod currently in the works by a private company looking to stake its claim to the next phase of space exploration — the I.S.S. is a complex structure of cylinders and passageways fabricated from lightweight materials like Kevlar, titanium and aluminum, and assembled in space, where it orbits 250 miles above Earth’s surface. Floating in close orbit, its solar panels fanned out among pinpricks of alien light, the structure resembles a deep-sea creature or a tropical insect more than a building in the traditional sense. Initially conceived as a laboratory, manufacturing plant and servicing facility for off-planet exploration, among other uses, the I.S.S. today serves exclusively as a research laboratory. But the sheer ambition of the enterprise still inspires awe: It remains a powerful symbol of hope for a more peaceful, unified future, bright and distant as a star.
Dixon: You couldn’t really classify it as architecture in the conventional sense, but it’s possibly the future of the field. I think that we’ve got an overwhelming midcentury-modern bulk, and that’s what I find a bit frightening — that we can’t find more contemporary buildings that are revolutionary. Obviously, we can’t tell whether they’ll stand the test of time, but we can tell whether they’ve changed the conversation, right?
Soller: Do the rest of you think the International Space Station qualifies as architecture?
Delavan: It didn’t even occur to me to think of something like that, but it’s so different from everything else on the list and obviously an important collaboration and important in that it’s not fixed.
Selldorf: I am totally irrelevant in this conversation.
Soller: What do you mean?
Selldorf: I think very few things are architecture or, alternatively, I think everything is architecture.
Dixon: It’s architecture because people live in it for years, and — although I’m actually quite against the space race — I think we should be dealing with the planet first from a cooperative point of view. There is something symbolic about the space station in terms of getting people to [work together] from foreign nations, and there is also something really fascinating about it being made on Earth but architected in space. It’s more significant than almost any other building: It shows the imagination of the human race.
Photography Direction: Betsy Horan and Jamie Sims
Research Editor: Alexis Sottile
Copy Editors: Erin Sheehy and Diego Hadis
Production: Nancy Coleman and Kristina Samulewski