Brutalism in Space

There was a lot of excitement about space this week with the launch of Falcon Heavy and the Starman in the sky. But for me, it started a bit earlier with the discovery of Frédéric Chaubin’s book CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed last weekend.

I grew up around many similar looking buildings in Moscow and now live next to some Brutalist masterpieces in Washington, D.C., but I always viewed them from an Earthly perspective. If anything, the raw, weathered concrete of these structures, their simple geometric building forms, sometimes recombined in whimsical arrangements evoked resemblance to the ruins of bygone civilizations. 

But after looking at Chaubin’s photographs, it dawned on me how Brutalism can be seen as a vision of the space and interplanetary future. After all, it came right at the heels of the Atomic Age and Space Age design. And These buildings exhibit many features of sci-fi and real space stations: massive scale, modularity in appearance, utilitarian design and use of durable materials. While Brutalist architecture often features plenty of pronounced angles, some buildings incorporate more rounded shapes, resembling flying saucers and other futuristic space structures. And some may, in fact, had a direct connection to space: I have read that Dulles Airport near Washington, D.C, was also envisioned as a future space port. 

So it may be an intesting project to try to capture the futuristic, intergalactic aspect of Brutalist architecture in Washington. Let us see where it takes me…

Space: The Final Frontier

I was fairly busy over the past few days, so I missed my self-imposed deadline of publishing a blog post on Monday. However, I feel compelled to write something after what has just happened today.

The photo below is of Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida that I have visited in December 2016. This one of the most important sites in the history of space exploration: from here, Apollo 11 and its crew boldly went where no man has gone before in 1969, followed by the first Space Shuttle mission in 1981. It is now leased by SpaceX, and today they made another historic launch from there with the Falcon Heavy and the Tesla Roadster.  After they have chased away the alligator in the picture.

I am really envious of the older generations who witnessed those space exploration milestones. I cannot imagine how exciting it was to see the black and white, low-resolution feed from the Moon, or to even hear about earlier launches on the radio. I remember listening to the live radio broadcast of Space Shuttle Discovery landing in 2005, the first Space Shuttle mission after the Columbia tragedy, and the first time I felt I am witnessing space history.

Unfortunately, I was not able to be at the Kennedy Space Center today and was not even able to tune in to the live cast of the Falcon Heavy Launch, but even watching it after the fact was amazing. If you have not watched it yet, I highly recommend that you do (the actual content starts at about 7:50 and T-60 before launch is at 28:53). My favorite parts were the two side boosters landing in sync and the surreal images of the “Starman” floating above the Earth in a Tesla Roadster.

By the way, there is still live feed going of the Starman and the final stage floating in space. It is absolutely captivating. 

And here is the soundtrack :-)

Reykjanes Peninsula

Iceland has become a popular layover destination for Transatlantic travelers in recent years. Many first-time visitors follow the famous “Golden Circle” itinerary, connecting Þingvellir National Park, the geysers at Geyser and Gullfoss waterfall.  

Iceland’s Golden Circle: Þingvellir

Iceland’s Golden Circle: Geysir

Iceland’s Golden Circle: Gullfoss

However, if you only have a few hours on your layover and you want a more low-key experience withou the crowds, you should consider exploring the Reykjanes Peninsula instead. Everything there is a very short drive from the airport, and there are some accommodations, too, so if you have an early morning flight, you can explore Reykjanes on your last day in Iceland and stay in Keflavík just minutes away from the airport. 

If you will be taking off or landing at Keflavík during daylight hours, make sure to get a window seat and keep your fingers crossed for clear weather. If you are not familiar with volcanic landscapes, like I was on my first visit to Iceland, you will be smitten by the stark beauty of Reykjanes before your airplane even touches down. The peninsula is essentially a giant lava field, and an overhead point of view is one of the best ways to appreciate its scale. The landscape looks alien, save for the airport and the minimalistic towns with an occasional touch of color. 

Reykjanes Peninsula, Iceland

Keflavík, Reykjanes Peninsula, Iceland

Keflavík, Reykjanes Peninsula, Iceland

On the ground, the landscape is no less alien. Photography work wonders here: if you can leave out the rare signs of human activity outside of your frame, you can easily take pictures of an alien planet in a galaxy far, far away. 

Reykjanes Peninsula, Iceland

Reykjanes Peninsula, Iceland

But these “signs of human activity” are interesting in their own right. If you head north from the airport on Rt. 45 towards Gardur and then head south on Rts. 44 and 425, you will encounter a few lighthouses, a picturesque historic church, a monument to a shipwreck and some foundations of Cold War era radar or similar military device.

Hvalsneskirkja Church, Reykjanes Peninsula, Iceland

Garðskagi Lighthouse, Reykjanes Peninsula, Iceland

Stafnesviti Lighthous, Reykjanes Peninsula, Iceland

In fact, the area immediately west of the airport was off limits until about a decade ago, after the airport ceased to be a military base. Because of that, this part of the peninsula looks completely desolate. Depending on the weather and the season, it may be just you, the rocks, the sea and some birds. This may be a good place to watch the aurora, too. 

Further south, past Hafnir, the sights get a bit more touristy. The Bridge Between the Continents is a classic tourist trap: it is not even close to the actin tectonic plates boundary. But it is free, and a great place to have fun with forced perspective and entertain your companions if they get bored waiting for you to taking pictures of the rocks. 

At the very Southwestern tip of Reykjanes lies its star attraction, the Gunnuhver Geothermal Area, and if you are short on time, head straight there and skip everything else. The main steam vent there is so powerful it roars like a jet engine. Not too long ago, the area became unstable: new vents emerged and others shifted, tearing the old boardwalks apart. You can still see evidence of destruction there, a testament to the power of the natural forces pent up underground. And a futuristic-looking geothermal plant nearby, surrounded by the odd-colored ground and steam vents, looks like a human outpost on a distant planet. Yet on the other side of the field, a lighthouse on a hill looks decidedly Earthly. 

Gunnuhver Geothermal Area, Reykjanes Peninsula, Iceland

Power Plant at  Gunnuhver Geothermal Area, Reykjanes Peninsula, Iceland

Reykjanesviti Lighthouse, Reykjanes Peninsula, Iceland

If you have a few more hours, you can drive through the Reykjanesfólkvangur National Park not too far away to enjoy the views of lake Kleifarvatn. The park has a geothermal area, too, called Krysuvik, but the activity there is more subdued compared to Gunnuhver. On the way, you can make a short detour to Hópsnesviti lighthouse near Grindavik and see several hulks of wrecked ships on the shore.

You may have noticed that I have yet not mentioned the most famous attraction of Reykjanes, the Blue Lagoon. For Iceland’s tourist industry, it has about the same significance as the Pyramids for Egypt or Eiffel Tower for Paris. Unfortunately, it suffers from many of the same problems: it is overpriced and overcrowded. They offer a discount 1-2 hours before closing and if you come at 8 am when it opens you may avoid the tour buses, but a better deal still is to photograph the milky pond next to the free parking lot and then soak in a hot tub at a pool in Grindavik, Keflavik or another nearby town for a fraction of the price and in the company of locals. 

I have created a map with the sights I mentioned here and featured in the galleries, plus a nice place to grab a bite in Keflavík. As with the map I shared before, all locations are approximate, but you should be able to find them easily enough in daylight.

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