IN THE EARLY 1980s, when I was a teenager living in Dhaka, Bangladesh, my friends and I would sometimes sneak out at night and take rickshaws to the National Assembly Building (Jatiyo Sangsad Bhaban). This self-consciously monumental exemplar of modernist architecture, designed by the American architect Louis Kahn in the early 1960s, always seemed unearthly to me, as if it were dislodged from time and space, and at once both ancient and futuristic. My friends and I would climb into the massive open geometric shapes carved into the exterior of the building — circles, triangles, and squares — and lie on them, smoke cigarettes, and stare out into the crevices of concrete and light. Because the building was surrounded by a reflective pool of water, you could lie on the inside of one of the circles and, looking askance, imagine yourself unmoored from the planet, floating inside a structure in the cosmos, without reference to up or down.
For a young boy growing up in a crowded postcolonial city offering little refuge from density, both O’Neill’s space settlement and Kahn’s Assembly Building represented a kind of modernist escape that I couldn’t fully articulate at the time. Both were aspirational, sleek, and committed to their aesthetic. But while the Assembly Building’s otherworldliness was compounded by its being in the middle of Dhaka, O’Neill’s was intensified by the fact that its futuristic gravity-free shapes floating in the cosmos accommodated living spaces within them, full of gentle suburbs, idyllic parks, and mall-like interiors populated by white, well-dressed people who seemed completely content. To me, this was as alien as the cosmos itself. In fact, O’Neill’s space stations united in my young mind the two TV shows that were my sole windows into American culture at the time, Little House on the Prairie and Dallas. These giant cities in space combined the green pastoral landscaping of the former and the cold sterile interiors of the latter. This was an America in space I recognized but could never inhabit.
Asif Siddiqi har skrivit en mycket läsvärd essä som kopplar att växa upp i Dhaka på 1980-talet med drömmar om rymdkolonier. Stilen men också ämnesvalet påminner, tycker jag, om Patrick McCrays bok The Visioneers: How a Group of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies, and a Limitless Future som jag gillar.
Siddiqi har en bok på gång med titeln Departure Gates: A Postcolonial History of Space on Earth – ser mycket fram mot den; rymdålderns historia är ju också en historia om högst konkreta platser på jorden.
En serie kortare artiklar om pandemier under rubriken ”Looking back” i det senaste numret av Isis som publicerades alldeles nyligen verkar lovande.