Nicholas de Monchaux

Fashioning Apollo : Spacesuits, Cities, and How to Dress for Tomorrow

Date 3/14/11

Affiliation Architect, University of California, Berekely, Berekeley, CA


When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the lunar surface in July of 1969, they wore spacesuits made by Playtex: twenty-one layers of fabric, each with a distinct yet interrelated function, custom-sewn for them by seamstresses whose usual work was fashioning bras and girdles. This talk is the story of those spacesuits. It is a story of the Playtex Corporation’s triumph over the military-industrial complex—a victory of elegant softness over engineered hardness, of adaptation over cybernetics.

The lecture touches on, amongst other things, eighteenth-century androids, Christian Dior’s New Look, Atlas missiles, cybernetics and cyborgs, latex, JFK’s carefully cultivated image, the CBS lunar broadcast soundstage, NASA’s Mission Control, and the applications of Apollo-style engineering to city planning. The twenty-one-layer spacesuit, de Monchaux argues, offers an object lesson. It tells us about redundancy and interdependence and about the distinctions between natural and man-made complexity; it teaches us to know the virtues of adaptation and to see the future as a set of possibilities rather than a scripted scenario.


Nicholas de Monchaux is an architect and urbanist focused on issues of nature, technology, and the city. He received his B.A. in 1995, with distinction in Architecture, from Yale University, and his Professional Degree (M.Arch.) from Princeton University in 1999. He has worked as a designer in noted architectural practices, including Michael Hopkins & Partners in London, and, until 2001, Diller + Scofidio in New York. From 2001-2006 he was Assistant Professor of Architecture at the University of Virginia. Since 2006, he has been Assistant Professor of Architecture and Urban Design at Berkeley.

de Monchaux’s design work and criticism have been published widely, including in Architectural Design, Log, 306090, the New York Times, and The New York Times Magazine, and have been supported by the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts and the Macdowell Colony. His research in digital urbanism was a finalist in the 2009 WPA 2.0 competition, and has been exhibited at the National Building Museum and 2010 Biennial of the Americas in Denver, Colorado. Since 2002 he has been active as a visiting researcher at the Santa Fe Institute, and in 2005-2006, he was the Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Fellow at the Smithsonian Institution, National Air and Space Museum.

de Monchaux has received citations and honors from the International Union of Architects, Pamphlet Architecture, and the Van Alen Institute, who awarded him the 2000 John Dinkeloo Memorial Fellowship at the American Academy in Rome.

-- As of 3/14/11