"One of the pleasures of great works of architecture and engineering is that you can visit them," writes architect David Nixon. That's impossible for the International Space Station, which is basically the most expensive and least-visited house ever constructed. "It is all the more surprising, then, that so little has been published on it," Nixon continues in the foreword to his new book documenting the 40-year design process. "Not much more than a few paperback books, now out of date, and a pictorial reference guide from [NASA] are available for an achievement that is widely regarded as the engineering and construction masterpiece of modern times."
Indeed, straightforward information about its design and construction is surprisingly difficult to come by, and it's easy to understand why. As Nixon—who has spent his career as an architect designing for space programs, including the ISS—explains, the design was evolving right up until the final assembly just a few years ago. The shifting geopolitical climate, funding cuts, and legislative setbacks altered the construction plan over and over. It took thousands of on-the-ground engineers and hundreds of astronauts to finish it. It's no wonder there's no cohesive account of its design, especially one written from an architectural perspective.
So for the past seven years, Nixon has compiled the architectural history of the ISS, published next month under the title International Space Station Architecture Beyond Earth. The 250-page book documents the complex political and social currents that led to its creation, but the most unfathomable thing about its story is, by far, the fact that it was built at all. As Nixon puts it: "The International Space Station’s supreme achievement is its construction."