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Madhu Thangavelu  –  architect and engineer
Click for larger image " I tend to meditate upon natural and biological forms and processes to find inspiration and metaphors for my work."
How were you motivated to become an architect and engineer?
  By trial and error! I have had an intense desire to build things, all kinds of things, all my life. My father is a doctor and consultant to the World Health Organization, and a medical educator and my mother was an accomplished social worker and musician. All six children received training in the sciences and the arts. Dinner table discussions were peppered with both the scientific process of inquiry and a healthy dose of history, social science, philosophy, and fine art. My uncle (Group Capt. Dr. Suresh Baboo) was doing his M.D. then and living with us at the time in a large bungalow that was the principal's residence, and his imaginative storytelling and creative aeronautical and electronic projects competed for time with school homework. I majored in both biology and physical sciences at high school where my physics teacher Mr. Andrade and my biology teacher Mrs. Sharma took a liking to me and my curious mind and encouraged creative activities.

As a National Science Talent Search finalist, I built a liquid organic dye laser following directions from the Amateur Scientist section of the Scientific American magazine. I started to do Physics at the University and then decided to switch to engineering to make my tinkering hobbies "pay"! I sketched and painted and built radio controlled planes and did aerial photography from kites. I graduated with a bachelor's degree in Civil Engineering and then became very intrigued by architectural design and concepts creation.

As an apprentice in an architectural firm, I watched the skill with which architects manipulated complex, ever–changing design requirements to produce beautiful buildings, campuses, and their interiors and furniture, using imagery such as sketches, line drawings, paintings, and models of all kinds, all in order to appreciate the project better, well in advance of realization. The synthesis process is quite contemplative and visual, as opposed to abstract, structured and logical. So I chose to get some formal training in this field, studied architecture at the undergraduate level, and graduated with a Masters degree in Building Science from the University of Southern California, a unique program that allows creative blend of architectural synthesis and engineering analysis.

My masters thesis entitled MALEO: Modular Assembly in Low Earth Orbit – a Strategy for Lunar Base Build Up combined the skills of the engineer and the architect to produce an unconventional and economic way to assemble and operate a first lunar base. The picture above right shows a MALEO craft descending to the lunar surface. The project was conceived during the summer of 1988 when I was a student of the inaugural session of the International Space University held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. According to my thesis chairman, the MALEO thesis is still considered the best work done in that program. Soon after publication, the Dean of Engineering asked me to develop a program in this field of work that combines the methods of architecture and engineering for creating solutions to complex engineering projects and eventually led to the creation of the Space Exploration Architectures Concept Synthesis Studio that I conduct at USC.

  Click for larger image
What can you share about your creative process?
    Human beings are endowed with a very special gift: the ability to imagine and create beautiful things. For some it happens without effort and for others it needs awakening. Therefore some form of formal schooling is beneficial. Unlike modern science that follows a set of logical, structured, objective rules to discover the laws of nature and create technological artifacts, artists and architects gain insight about the nature of ill–structured problems and are able to propose solutions to "wicked" problems, often by introducing new parameters and seeing the problem in a new light that helps resolve it and create ingenious solutions that we call critical concepts.

Concept creation is an art and a science, and constant practice is the best method to being a creative architect. As it is hard or impossible to predict when a good idea might appear, the best method is to absorb the problem and meditate upon it, play with the issues that comprise the problem, and constantly juggle the various elements and look at it from different angles. Change the environment by altering or introducing new parameters. Take notes on solutions as they appear and list their merits and limitations. As the design process continues we end up with a group of promising ideas and by refining them further we arrive at some beautiful solutions to the intractable problem at hand.

Nature, it seems to me, is the best teacher about shapes and forms, and architecture is all about morphology for habitation. Nature also exhibits contrast and contradiction, that a good architect learns to live with, nay even apply skillfully to successful designs. I tend to meditate upon natural and biological forms and processes to find inspiration and metaphors for my work. Darwinian theory seems to work well even in the creation and refinement of architectural concepts. Designs are evolved over several cycles or iterations. The strong boned ones survive these iterations, even getting better while the weak ones are eliminated in the process. One of the prime functions of an architect is to provide abundant choice for the client, and this evolutionary method also helps create alternatives by producing hybrid concepts.

In order to be a good architect, it is important to become visual and graphic in the way you communicate your ideas. Learn to sketch and paint. Observe how objects look and feel in changing light and shade. Study different materials and their texture. Build models of all kinds of things from everything you can find lying around. Cartons, styrofoam cups, straws and toothpicks, wooden blocks, aluminum foil and cans, plastic bottles.....(hint)....the kitchen is the best place to start.....before you start to explore office supplies and finally go to the model shop and spend all your pocket money!

Finally, I often remind myself that there is no such thing as the "best" or the "only" design. Design is of the mind, first and foremost. So, if we apply hard enough, there is always a "better" design or an "excellent" design. This rule is the engine that drives the creative architect's mind, seeking ever more refined architectures to satisfy humanity.

What ideas do you have for a future human community on Mars?
  As is often suggested in the evolution of complex systems, an adaptable, step by step, incremental, open–ended architecture that employs a "learn as we go" philosophy may be something to consider in the evolution of this Mars 2030 colony.

I think that it is also a very good idea to learn as much as we can before we decide to settle on Mars. And that is exactly what the spacecraft from Earth are doing over there. Soon we will have all the information we need to be able to ponder what kind of materials we need to build for the Mars environment, including her climate and seasons, dust storms, radiation and terrain.

We might also want to consider how small communities look like and operate here on Earth. How small groups of dwellings have evolved to become nice towns and cities. An understanding of this evolutionary process will help us design the Mars community of 2030, to avoid the pitfalls of poor programming, inadequate space allocation, functional conflicts and congestion. It is quite possible that there are lessons to be learned from long–duration submarine missions, long stays in the polar caps and we will also glean precious information from Earth orbiting space stations.

I think that end–to–end, functional and operational simulations might hold the key to the design of efficient extraterrestrial communities. By building structures and testing them here on Earth and then possibly on orbit and then on the moon, we might evolve very interesting and useful structures and their supporting technologies, that are failure tolerant, able to better adapt to unseen changes, and protect and preserve the crew in case of emergency including rehearsing for evacuation of the facility and base if necessary.

We know that as we design long duration missions, human beings are the most fragile part of this hard, high technology endeavor. Accordingly, utmost care is needed in the design, operations and maintenance of these vehicles and facilities of the community that will allow maximum crew comfort and productivity. A deep understanding of crew behavior and psyche as well as proper psychological/physiological maintenance mechanisms are essential before we embark on such a mission.

Architects and engineers are in agreement (for once!) that the best and most economically sound communities on Mars may be built of materials that are available there, rather than haul them all the way from Earth that would otherwise make it very, very expensive. This is known as In Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) technology. So, maybe we should think of building structures out of Mars soil. On Earth we call structures built of soil, adobe. We could build the exterior shells of habitats and workshops and large meeting and social gathering places, agriculture and animal farms, all out of Martian adobe. Related structures like roads, spacecraft landing pads, hangars, tunnels and towers could also be built using this method.

In fact, we are so convinced about this technology of using locally available materials for building structures on Mars that we are already studying the activity here on Earth. What does it take to build structures on Mars wearing space suits and robot assistants? How long might it take to erect a habitat? What are the safety requirements? What are the limitations of this technology? In the picture top left, yours truly is walking past a structure that was built using this method at the California Institute of Earth, Art, and Architecture in beautiful Hesperia at the edge of the Mojave Desert in California.

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