We Should Build Arcologies on Mars and the Moon

by Kevin M. Cannon

Google Doc (for suggestions)

A version of this post is online as a Google Doc where suggestions are welcome and may be incorporated into the text.

We Should Build Arcologies on Mars and the Moon

What will motivate people to travel to Mars or the Moon, and how will that influence what the settlements look like?

If it’s a purely scientific outpost you probably end up with something that looks like McMurdo Station:

McMurdo has been variably described as “an ugly mining town”, or in more friendly terms, “a shithole”.

If it’s adventure tourism, you end up with Everest base camp:

Hopefully with more robust tents.

Heavy industry/mining outpost? An ugly mining town, this time by intention:

These all have several things in common: they’re sprawled out, consist of a mess of small isolated structures, are visually unappealing and uninspiring, inefficient, and are places that nobody would ever want to live long term by choice. While they may all represent valid and actual reasons people end up on the surface of Mars or the Moon, I don’t think they are aspirational reasons. The end goal should be to offer a nearly equal or even superior quality of life to that on Earth, otherwise very few people will want to move offworld (excitement will wear off pretty quick).

Now let’s look at the SpaceX Mars City render:

True, it’s just an artist’s concept and doesn’t reflect actual plans yet, but it’s not an encouraging start. The problem is that if you set out on the wrong foot like this, the only way to expand is to keep adding more and more sprawled out buildings horizontally. That’s exactly what happened with McMurdo: it grew rapidly using the “tack on more structures” approach, and was completely locked in to that framework during future expansion phases. OZ Architecture was contracted to design a renovation of McMurdo and came up with this stunning concept which vastly consolidates the sprawl:

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like the NSF is using much of this work in its actual planned renovation.

On Mars and the Moon, you can’t easily displace people to tear down a bunch of buildings in some grand restructuring effort 10 years after starting. The architecture is going to be fairly well set by the opening phases, until much much later in the future.

That’s why we should build arcologies.

Arcology is a portmanteau of “architecture” and “ecology”, and the concept was developed by Paolo Soleri. His book is a treat to flip through (the illustrations more-so than the text), and was recently released as a special 50th anniversary version.

The point of an arcology is to bring together all aspects of living (habitation, work, leisure, community centers, industry) into a consolidated, extremely densely populated structure making full use of 3D space. An arcology is the antithesis of the suburban sprawl and car-obsessed living that currently dominates the United States. They would be massive, stunning, inspirational wonders in the same vein as the great pyramids:

The presence of arcologies in space would drive people to buy passage just to see them, and their construction would employ thousands if not millions of people. Living and working inside an arcology, if properly executed, would offer tangible lifestyle improvements compared to many places on Earth at present.

Building an arcology would be challenging to say the least. On Earth it would probably be approached as a megaproject and tackled in a single extended phase of construction. On Mars or the Moon this isn’t feasible, because functional living space (pressurized, shielded) needs to be in place to house people, and supply chains need to start small and be ramped up over time. I think the only way to solve this is to find a way to construct arcologies using a modular approach. As much as possible, high-tech components would be pre-fabricated on Earth and landed, where they’d be combined with local dumb mass including regolith-based concrete and basalt fiber products. Exactly how that all works, I’ll leave to engineers and architects.

What should not be left to engineers is where a martian or lunar arcology is sited. Left to their own devices, engineers will work with the simple constraints available (access to X amount of water per day, proximity to Y amount of sunlight) and optimize on those alone, ignoring scientific treasures, and human values like scenery and landscape. An architectural wonder deserves more than a flat featureless plain as its backdrop.