The deserts of the United Arab Emirates bear more than a little resemblance to the barren wastelands of Mars. Besides the red sand, there are no rivers or flowing water, little to no arable land, and harsh temperatures. Cities like Dubai and Abu Dhabi are forced to import the key ingredients to sustain human life–which makes the U.A.E. the perfect place to study how to settle Mars.
That’s exactly what the U.A.E. government is now doing. A few years ago, the country announced an initiative to build a human colony on Mars by 2117. And as part of that process, Dubai is building a prototype Martian settlement on its outskirts. Called the Mars Science City, the complex will serve as a test bed for the materials and techniques that could feasibly be used to build on the red planet in the future. These buildings, in turn, will house a research institution dedicated to finding ways of growing food on Mars and building robots that could build shelter, along with a museum that will be open to the public.
Designing this Martian simulation will be Copenhagen- and New York-based Bjarke Ingels Group, which today is releasing its full plan for the development. The firm’s founder, Bjarke Ingels, spoke exclusively to Co.Design about designing Martian architecture on Earth–and how research into sustaining human life on the red planet could ultimately benefit everyone on our own.
A Martian Architecture
The buildings Ingels is designing in the U.A.E. are meant to act as prototypes for the country’s actual Mars colony. So BIG’s design process had to begin with Mars. It’s an incredibly difficult environment to design for: The only water is frozen, and the atmosphere is almost entirely carbon dioxide, making it impossible for humans to breathe outside of pressurized environments. In fact, there’s almost no pressure at all, and the planet’s gravity is less than half of Earth’s. With so little atmosphere, solar radiation presents a real danger for humans. Unsurprisingly, there aren’t many architectural solutions to these problems found on Earth.
“When you go to Mars, you shouldn’t try to bring the skyscrapers and shopping malls that we have here on Earth,” Ingels says. “We should try to become Martians.”
Ingels likens colonizing Mars to early expeditions to the polar regions of Earth. Some of the most richly funded European explorers who tried to bring their way of life with them by using horses and ships floundered in the extreme cold. But the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, who was the first to reach the South Pole and the first to travel through the Northwest Passage, instead adapted successfully to the environment by studying the ways of the local people, which led him to use dog sleds and kayaks.
Ingels believes that trying to export terrestrial architecture to Mars is to go the way of the Europeans who perished trying to reach some of the most extreme places on Earth. Instead, he wants to create a vernacular architecture specific to Mars. Think of it as Martian Regionalism.
“If you’re living in the north of Sweden or in New Mexico, you end up trying to live in the same way even though it’s completely different landscapes and completely different climates,” Ingels says. “When you go to vernacular settlements across the world, the charm and character and soul that comes from using local available ingredients, it’s not only what makes these environments more endearing and characteristic but also more sustainable.”
Ingels looked for inspiration in desert architecture in Tunisia and Arizona’s famous Mesa Verde Cliff Dwellings, where homes are built into the rock. Underground homes keep extreme hot and cold at bay, and on Mars, they would provide something even more critical: Protection from solar radiation. Ingels’s plan for the colony does include some above-ground structures, and these would be 3D-printed with Martian sand–known as regolith–using robotics. To pressurize the structures, an inflatable dome made of ultralight plastic would be added after printing was finished. Together, these three elements would provide a habitable environment–and sufficient protection from radiation and meteors.
What about quality of life? While living underground may provide protection from radiation, the designers were concerned about the impact on inhabitants. BIG even carried out a study on how much time people in Western countries typically spend outside–on average, 7.6% of the day. Natural light is a critical part of human life, even on Mars. So Ingels proposed something novel, realizing that liquid is an effective way of blocking radiation: Giant pools that could act like skylights for the dwelling below.
“Suddenly sleeping underground sounds amazing,” Ingels says. “Certain things that would make very little sense on Earth–but only be cool–suddenly could make a lot of sense on Mars because of the extra protection you get from the water.”
Over the next three or four years, BIG is planning to build the Mars Science City using these ideas as guiding principles. The Science City will be composed of interlocking geodesic domes made of ultralight plastic and secured deep in the desert sand. Inside each dome, visitors and resident researchers will be able to walk through open spaces carved out between round, red buildings. The structures housed within these domes will be 3D-printed with sand from the area, just as they would be on Mars, and the development will also test out the feasibility of creating underground spaces.
When completed, the Mars Science City will be the only complex of this size and scale that is built to the specifications of the Martian environment.
Becoming Better Earthlings
Unlike some Mars-inspired habitats on Earth, the U.A.E.’s city isn’t meant to simulate what it might be like to truly live on Mars–at least not yet. Instead, the complex will be primarily a center for research and education. The U.A.E.’s space agency will take up permanent residence there, and the institution plans to bring in external scientists from partner organizations.
“A vital part of this is to invite researchers from all over the world that want to study the conditions,” says Jakob Lange, the head of BIG Ideas who oversaw the project with Ingels. “In that sense the U.A.E. is a very good location for this because you have this very non-fertile ground, so you can really test very Mars-like scenarios.”
There’s an educational component as well. A large amphitheater is built for presentations and lectures, and a museum will host a permanent collection as well as space for temporary installations. According to Saeed Al Gergawi, the program director of the U.A.E.’s Mars 2117 project, one goal of the development is to inspire the region’s youth and encourage them to study science and engineering.
The research that takes place inside the complex will be heavily focused on developing technology that will make it possible to sustain life on Mars. Many of the scientists installed in the city will focus their energies on how to produce food on Mars through techniques like aeroponics, hydroponics, and aquaponics. Meanwhile, the building itself will operate on an entirely independent electrical grid, and all of its water will be recycled, just like it would need to be on the red planet.
These principles of sustainability and self-sufficiency also have implications for life here on Earth–especially in the U.A.E. According to Al Gergawi, sustainable sources of food, water, and energy are a big priority for the country. “With that in mind, the Mars Science City will operate with the philosophy that, by tackling those challenges in the harsh environments of Mars and the vacuum of space, we will be able to find solutions to those challenges on Earth,” Al Gergawi tells Co.Design in an email.
Al Gergawi says that the initiative is also an attempt for the country to move away from an oil-based economy. The hope is to create a research hub that will elevate the country’s standing in the knowledge economy–and ostensibly make it more of a world leader in science and technology.
Ingels thinks the process of developing sustainable tech for Mars will benefit the Earth, too. “I think all the things that will eventually enable us to have a self-sustainable human habitat on Mars, and off-world in general, those same techniques and technologies and principles are the same ones that will enable us to become great custodians of this ecosystem we currently benefit from,” Ingels says. “It’s all about resource efficiency, it’s all about circular economy, it’s all about making as much with as little as possible.”
BIG is now working with the Emirati government to bring the first of five architectural domes to life. Ingels says the construction of the interconnected domes will be done in phases over the next several years. For the first dome, they’ll use technology that’s available today for the membrane and the 3D-printed structures. For each subsequent phase, he plans to use the latest materials and 3D printing techniques. “It will be just like when you walk around in a historical city,” Ingels says. “Here’s the old neighborhood where all houses are made of brick and here it’s glass and stone and here it’s concrete.”
The domes of Mars Science City could house about 1,000 people if they were built on Mars. But ultimately, the U.A.E. wants to build a whole city for 600,000. Ingels’s architectural framework is designed to be scalable, both on Earth and beyond: While interlocking domes form villages, donut-shaped toruses made of the same inflatable membrane could one day form cities.
As for Ingels, he’s decided that one day he’ll be on a rocket to Mars. “I’m definitely going to take my own medicine,” he says.