This is the amazing story of how a century old Constructivist sculpture became a NASA landing vehicle. This summer, NASA will unveil the latest prototype of a moon landing craft designed on tensegrity principles.The structure of the craft is formed with six separate compressive struts held in space with tensile cables and, in principle, it appears similar to a 1920 sculpture by Latvian constructivist, Karlis Johansons.
The similarity is not coincidental: a direct line of intellectual heritage can be traced back almost a century to the Obmokhu exhibition, Moscow, where Johansons and 4 other young constructivists exhibited in 1921.
Presently, NASA researchers Vytas SunSpiral and Adrian Agogino are developing the lander as a deformable volume, capable of being dropped without air-bags onto low-gravity moons. Inspiration came to Sunspiral when he observed the compression of his child’s tensegrity toy as it fell to the ground.
The original “Skwish” tensegrity toy has acheived over 3 million sales since it’s creation by Tom Flemons in 1981. His company, Intension Designs, subsequently marketed many tensegrity applications. The Intension Design website acknowledges tensegrity was created by Buckminster Fuller and Kenneth Snelson.
Fuller had coined the term “tensegrity” to classify structure with a continuous tensional weave and he developed and published the idea. Previously, in 1949, Fuller and his Black Mountain College students had created an icosahedron tensegrity structure, similar to the lander construction.
One year earlier, Snelson, a student of Fuller’s, had completed “X-piece”, the first tensegrity structure in USA.
In 1948, when Fuller arrived at Black Mountain College, former Bauhaus masters, Josef and Anni Albers were amongst the senior staff there. Since the founding of the college in 1933, they had continued the Bauhaus pedagogical culture.
Xanti Schawinsky’s 1945 cover for the college Chess magazine shows a structure with a tensile weave. Between 1936 until 1938, former Bauhaus student, Schawinsky was also a tutor at the college.
Moholy-Nagy was the foundation course leader at the Bauhaus from 1923 to 1928. He helped connect the Bauhaus with the artist-engineer ideas of Constructivism.
Johannes Zabel provided an early example of student work under Moholy-Nagy, with “a study in balance”, 1923, created just two years after Johansons exhibited the world’s first tensegrity structures.
The clearest evidence that the Bauhaus taught constructivist tensegrity can be found in Moholy-Nagy’s book, “Von Material zu Architecture”, published in 1929.
Moholy Nagy included photographs of the Obmuchu exhibition, including a close-up of one of Johansons’ spatial constructions.
A century apart, blue sky thinking by a revolutionary artist has today found a practical application in space exploration.