Remembering Space Architect and “Design Outlaw” Constance Adams

Adams's work, including her projects for space habitats, broke the law of gravity.
Constance Adams

The architect Constance Adams, pictured in a zero-gravity chamber, developed human habitats for NASA and other organizations. Courtesy Constance Adams Archive


“You take gravity out of the equation and everything goes kablooey.”

This quote pretty much sums up my friend and classmate, space architect Constance Adams, who died of cancer on June 24. For over two decades, Constance worked on human habitats for NASA, Lockheed-Martin, and other organizations and agencies in the aerospace industry, developing designs for the International Space Station and the Virgin Galactic spaceport, among other projects. She was a pioneer in the field of sociokinetics, which explores the ways people interact with the built environment and with each other. For example, in her work for TransHab (“transit habitat”), she developed furnishings that accommodate or adapt to any size and shape of body.

That egalitarian approach was the foundation for all of Constance’s work: every environment everywhere must be welcoming for anyone and everyone. In this sense, she redefined the concept of “universal design” to apply to both terrestrial and extraterrestrial places, architectural and outer space both.

Constance was possibly the most brilliant among my brilliant classmates at the Yale School of Architecture (M.Arch, 1990). But she also was unsatisfied with the limitations of design education, which often prizes craft and production over intellectual curiosity, as if answers outweigh questions. The child of academics, Constance thrived on big, bold questions. She was hungry and tenacious enough not to let the confines of the profession stop her from forging her own path, and she had one of the most inspired careers of any architect.

After graduation, she worked in Japan for Kenzō Tange, who had recently won the Pritzker Prize, then in Germany for Josef Paul Kleihues, who had been a visiting professor while we were at Yale. For someone who grew up in Dallas, these were in themselves otherworldly experiences, in more ways than one. Among the hundred-or-so people in Tange’s office at the time, Constance was one of only two women—the other was a secretary. In Germany, there were more women, but they were “drafting, not designing,” as she put it.

By the time she got to NASA, she was accustomed to being the only woman in a room full of men, and now the stakes were higher. “This is not a field where it’s a question of taste,” she told Kira Gould and me for our book, Women in Green: Voices of Sustainable Design (2007). “It’s not about being pretty—it’s about solving a problem. If you don’t, people will die. So, I have very stringent standards. I’m pretty sure that if I were male, I’d get a lot of respect for that. Instead, I’m seen as too tough.”

I didn’t see her as “too” anything. She was full of joy, with a quick laugh that filled the room, and her sense of humor was delightfully strange. Among my favorite memories of her from grad school was at the end of our first semester, just before the holiday, when she assembled a handful of us to entertain our classmates by singing Christmas carols in the studio. It was about two in the morning on the last of three consecutive all-nighters, and her idea was to relieve the tension by delivering what I can only describe as a hip-hop/doo-wop/beatnik version of “White Christmas.” I don’t remember the project we lost sleep over, but I do remember that song.

For years, Constance and I stayed in touch but didn’t see much of each other. Then, in 2005, we were invited to give a talk together in a special session for the AIA national convention in Las Vegas. I’m not sure our hosts knew we were old friends, so it struck us as a funny coincidence. National Geographic had just named Constance among its Emerging Explorers—“uniquely gifted and inspiring adventurers, scientists, photographers and storytellers who are making a significant contribution to world knowledge through exploration.”

That same year, I was a runner-up in Metropolis’ Next Generation Design Prize program, so I assume our sponsors thought we’d give a joint talk about research and technology. Instead, we spoke about social equity in design. We called the session “Other Worlds.” I talked about the so-called “Third World,” drawing from an essay I had just published for Metropolis (“The Ethics of Brick,” June 2005) arguing that “sustainability” could never be realized until extreme poverty was eradicated. Constance gave a riveting presentation about global interdependence and “sustaining the mother(ship).” The two topics meshed surprisingly well, and we realized we should have been collaborating all along.

Soon after, I asked her to consult on the design of an education center. The team and I had been struggling to fit a closed-loop water system in the limited space we had, and Constance immediately fixed the problem by bringing in a compact bioregeneration system developed for the ISS and tested at the EU’s Antarctic station. She called it “a salt marsh in a milk crate.” Had the project been built, it would have been revolutionary.

That was Constance in a nutshell. While “green” architects think about using limited resources, a space architect has to survive without any resources. “If you don’t recycle your water and air, you’re screwed,” she told us for Women in Green. One of the defining aspects of architecture is that it sits on the earth; put it in space, everything about goes “kablooey.” By necessity, Constance’s work broke the law of gravity, which made her a bit of a design outlaw. She was a badass.  

Dwelling in off-world architecture made Constance more sensitive to our own world. “The whole planet is an integrated system for supporting life,” she told Kira and me. “Earth is the mother(ship), and we are her offspring.” But she also was certain that humanity will colonize other planets. “This will happen. It’s not a matter of if, just when—and how. We already have the ability to go to other planets and terraform them—remake them literally in the earth’s image—but will we do it responsibly? We are the means by which this planet will reproduce. We are the instruments of the next biological phase of the earth. Mother Earth is an empty nester.”

Now Constance herself has quit the earth. It’s the earth’s loss.  

Categories: Technology

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