Exploring the foundations of human life
── Your job title as an “extreme field architect” is quite peculiar. Did you always want to become an architect?
Murakami No, not at all! [laughing] I wanted to become an archaeologist when I was a child. I was fascinated with humankind’s roots and ancient tools and lifestyles, and even though I was still a child I built arrowheads with obsidian and things like that. When time came to decide what to study at university, I thought, well, I like using tools, I like using my brain and I’m skilled with my hands, so architecture made sense to me. Then I began to became interested in the roots of architecture, the necessities for human life and so on, and that’s how, in the end, I became an architect who focuses on life in extreme environments.
── So your major was architecture?
Murakami Yes, but I wasn’t too cheerful about the prospect of planning and designing commercial buildings. By chance I read a magazine article about the “Biosphere 2” project, an experimental ecosystem site in Arizona, and I realized that this was what I wanted to do.
── An experimental ecosystem?
Murakami Put simply, it is a fully enclosed earth-like environment, with all the elements and bits found on earth inside it, that is used to experiment with long-term self-sufficient lifestyles. One thing they try to find out is what is required for humans to live on other planets. What I focus on is the emotional effects of life somewhere in space – the psychological effects and other things that can’t be solved by number-crunching or concentrating on technical gear alone. In order to learn more about this, I took part in Mars analog simulations and the 50th Japanese Antarctic Research Expedition to experience long-term life in extreme conditions for myself.
── So does “extreme field architect” eventually mean building houses for life in space?
Murakami In very simple terms, it means “not forgetting anything.”
── Not forgetting anything?
Murakami If you are going to move to an unknown place, you have a lot to prepare. Designing an appropriate house is only part of these preparations. If there are already people living in that place then you have a general idea of what will be necessary. But if it is a place that no one has ever been to, you’ll have to imagine what you may need, what you absolutely have to take with you and so on.
── It sounds a bit like the old “what items would you take to a lonely island.”
Murakami Yes, it’s not too different. In that situation everyone starts to think of the dangers and uncertainties that may await them and choose accordingly, but if they actually did go ahead and move to the island, they would learn that whatever they took with them won’t be used all that often. On the contrary, things that would make you wonder “why would I need that?” end up playing absolutely vital roles. Subjective parameters like personal fears or one’s perception of life and death play a huge influence in such preparations.
Murakami Let’s take Mars as an example. A round-trip should take about four years. Once you arrive and notice that there’s something you have forgotten, well, you won’t find a neighbor nearby to ask for a cup of salt. [laughing] In extreme environments, something as inconspicuous as a missing cup of salt may actually turn out deadly for the crew. I see it as my role to think very deeply about what is essential, from tiny things like salt to the largest tools, in order not to forget anything that could be needed in remote locations.
The Challenger disaster & new perspectives on life and death
── Have your childhood experience living in America had an influence on it as well?
Murakami Yes, shortly after I arrived in America – I was still in first year of elementary school then – the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster happened. The shuttle launched at a time when elementary students were able to watch it live on TV. We made decorations with flowers and candles in school the next day. However, having just arrived from Japan, it all looked like a huge birthday celebration to me. It seemed like praise to me rather than mourning. It left a deep and strange impression on me.
── For better or worse, they were seen as heroes.
Murakami Yes, that’s true. If I look back now, I realize that this strange feeling has had a huge influence on me. After all, life in extreme environments does go hand-in-hand with the possibility of death, and I notice that my way of thinking now has been greatly influenced by those differences in subjectivity, the differences between people’s perception of life and death that I experienced as a 7-year old through the space shuttle disaster.
── What’s the connection between the astronauts’ heroization and life in extreme environments?
Murakami In reality, long-term habitation in extreme environments has little to do with dramatic depictions from the movies. Of course, there are environments where there is always a possibility for dramatic situations, but it is of utmost importance to avoid causing anything extraordinary to occur. And if nothing happens, life is actually quite similar to the days in self-isolation that we all experienced due to the corona pandemic. Hero-like types with a strong will, on the other hand – people who can’t wait for problems that they can solve – tend to suffer from an excess of vigor and depression caused by savior complex.
── If all you expect is constant emergency, then you’ll be ill-prepared for ordinary routine.
Murakami People think everything in space depends on the most advanced technologies. But unless you consider, calmly and deeply, the human subjectivity that comes before the technology, then you’ll already be wrong regarding the conditions you may predict and whatever you assume will be necessary to deal with them. As a result you won’t have all the tools you need, and then even the latest technology may not be of much help. I have spent a thousand days in the last fifteen years in extreme environments, and with each day that passed I realized more and more that it isn’t insufficient technology that becomes the greatest pitfall but human subjectivity.
“I would hate being heroicized after I die”
── Speaking of life in space – you have taken part in “Mars160,” the Mars Society’s Twin Desert-Arctic Analog simulation, is that right?
Murakami Yes. In the future, it’s possible that humans may move to Mars and spend several years there. The Mars Analog simulation is an experimental project that tries to find out what may happen to these people, but in simulated conditions here on earth.
── Were you included as part of the crew due to your expertise and experience with life in extreme conditions?
Murakami Yes, I think that was a big reason. If you are going to select the first people to move to Mars, in general you wouldn’t look for heroes prepared to face danger. You would try to prevent any personal drama as much as possible. But even if you build a team whose individual strengths complement each other well, once it comes to living together as a team a lot of things may still go wrong.
── In sports, you won’t necessarily get a great team by signing only the greatest star players, right?
Murakami Based on my experience, ideally I should be completely redundant. Ideally, everything has been predicted perfectly well, nothing is forgotten, and any trouble is erased before it even has a chance to occur. As a result, nothing dramatic takes place at all and everyone’s final impression will be “that was much easier than expected” – that’s the ideal result.
── So instead of being able to pull off heroic acts in the event that anything happens, it is more important that nothing happens at all?
Murakami Yes, that’s right. And that’s not based on my being a stable, quiet person but on having witnessed many good and bad examples in the past. A large part of my experience comes from mistakes and failures and painful situations.
── I heard you actually came close to life-or-death situations.
Murakami On Shishapangma, a mountain in the Himalayas, I developed a severe case of mountain sickness, and as we were descending we ran into further trouble. Objectively, I came very close to death. One thing I noticed in that situation, however, was that I didn’t worry about possibly dying but that my death would have impacted a lot of people in various ways. I think I would hate being heroicized after my death, like after the space shuttle disaster.
── You wouldn’t want your story adapted into a movie?
Murakami Oh, please, no. I’m actually embarrassed even just talk about it. It’s so shameful I’d rather keep it hidden forever. [laughing] But even though it is embarrassing to me, there’s still a lot that can be learnt from it. Nothing that I do comes natural for me, but I get by with the knowledge that I have accumulated. And I believe my knowledge can be of help to many people precisely because it doesn’t rely on natural talent.
A human constant throughout all ages: architecture
── After “Mars160” you took the decommissioned icebreaker “Shirase” that had previously been used for antarctic expeditions and repurposed it into Japan’s first private closed-habitation experiment, “SHIRASE EXP.”
Murakami Mars analog simulations like the one I took part in are currently not possible in Japan, and the necessary know-how to support the crew experiencing Mars-like conditions isn’t taught here either. It’s a test to find out how far we can go with such an experiment in Japan, and to see how much ground we can gain.
── Would you say that Japan is behind when it comes to space exploration?
Murakami Everyone always imagines we need to follow NASA when it comes to space. In my opinion Japan is actually far ahead in some regards. Yes, we may be behind when it comes to the “hard” stuff. But I’m convinced that Japan has a lot of knowledge regarding the “soft” stuff, like how people live – only that this knowledge is slumbering in industries that have nothing to do with space. So, if you dare to question the idea that “aiming for space” means “following NASA”, we may end up finding ideas that play to the unique strengths of Japan.
── There are a lot of things that only become possible if you change your way of thinking. “Architecture in extreme environments,” for example.
Murakami Yes, that’s true. When you build a house in space, it’s not really possible to send skilled carpenters up there. The astronauts themselves need to build and finish the house, with limitations not found on earth and while wearing a spacesuit. If you keep that in mind, your whole design concepts changes. First of all, you have to approach the task from the question, “how will the house be built?”
── You can’t just go out into extreme regions to run experiments each time.
Murakami That’s why we hold workshops in which children can take part as well. “Build a dome using only materials and tools you find here” are the only directions we give them, and then they try to find ways to build a dome larger than themselves in a limited amount of time or with a limited number of people in their group. I do think it’s a great experience for the children as well, but in a way they’re taking part in an experiment for me, allowing me to explore new problems and solutions.
── No matter the place, the things people need to live and the problems that may occur are the same, is that true?
Murakami It all has little to do with the place, I think. In the end, it depends on the people. From an archaeological perspective, whether it’s people from ancient times or from today, or the people that may venture into space one day – as long as the human body or the size of the brain doesn’t change then there must be aspects of life that are the same for everyone. That’s what I am trying to learn more about. To me, this as “architecture” and “human life” in the truest sense.
── Right now, everyone in the world experiences great changes to their daily lives due to the coronavirus. A lot of unease comes from that.
Murakami In general superimposing actual events like the one right now onto what I have experienced in the mission is very rough and fruitless. But if there is something to be learned from all this, then it is the idea that we may be in the “puberty” of our lifestyles at the moment. Puberty is a condition in which the body, the vessel we inhabit, has entered an unstable state. As it matures every day and every hour, suddenly your own familiar self feels somewhat unsteady and strange. And when their vessel have come to feel unreliable, people tend to become unstable and aggressive.
── They’re not used yet to the new, unstable vessel.
Murakami That might be it, yes. But as long as you regard this state as extraordinary it will always feel like puberty. You can only get out of it once you calm down and overcome the extraordinary. On the other hand, if you think of this “puberty” of life as a sign that we will eventually get better at living, you’ll start to feel a little more hopeful.
SIGMA cameras & their influence on mental health
── Forgive the slight change in topic – I heard that you’ve been using SIGMA cameras for a long time.
Murakami The first SIGMA camera I used was the first-generation DP1. When I was selected for the Antarctic research team I had no experience with cameras but I felt the desire to take a camera with me and capture the changing colors in the Antarctic. That was around the same time the DP1 was released. I bought it after I heard that it can capture colors extremely beautifully. I’m not sure if “fortunately” would be the right word, but as I had never used a proper camera before I assumed the difficulties that came with using the DP1 were normal. [laughing] More than anything, it was the quality of the colors that the DP1 captured that made me fall in love with it. Also, I learned that cameras often break due to the cold temperatures and the mica-rich air in places like the Antarctic, so I bought one more camera, the SD14.
── Your first two cameras were the DP1 and the SD14?
Murakami There may be cameras that are easier to use, but I wanted to take these cameras with me to the South Pole. Though there may be difficult points about them, I think there’s a pay-off with SIGMA’s cameras if the user, well, is ready to invest some effort. For the “Mars160” experiment, I brought all four cameras of the dp Quattro series.
── The SIGMA dp Quattro series feature prime lenses – wasn’t it difficult to choose the right camera each time?
Murakami Hmm, maybe. In the end I think that’s actually why the cameras saved me.
── Saved you?
Murakami In general, humans have two different behavior patterns when they encounter something dangerous, a polar bear for example; fight the danger or flee from it. However, there’s a third option if you have a camera in your hands: “stay put”. Don’t fight, don’t run, just cower in place, look at reality through the viewfinder, and take a photo. This turned out to be very important to me. With SIGMA cameras in particular, I found that the time it took me to calm myself down and regain my presence and the time it took to measure the distance to the subject or wait for files to finish writing were very much in congruence with each other.
── You found yourself able to wait long enough to regain composure?
Murakami And furthermore, the dp series uses fixed focal length lenses, so running away and taking photos from afar is not an option. The fact that I was able to take good photographs is also a testament to myself that I was really there, as part of the team, without escaping.
── Does that mean the parts that are considered difficult to use about SIGMA cameras turned out to help you mentally?
Murakami Yes, I think so. Also, you can’t shoot every situation with only one dp Quattro camera, but you also can’t carry four of them around all the time. You’ll have to choose the one or two cameras that will be most suitable for whatever you want to do. There’s an obvious connection to the calm considerations before a mission, when you think about what you’ll need and what you’ll want to do.
── There’s also a connection to the “not forgetting anything” that you mentioned earlier.
Murakami And since it’s difficult to set up the camera – the exposure and so on – during a mission, you need to make predictions for the state of mind you may be in during the mission and configure the dp Quattro accordingly. During the mission, you’ll then actually take care to stay calm in order not to waver too far from your predicted mental state, and as a result you end up lowering the number of accidents during that mission. That’s how the SIGMA became an important companion for my mental health as well.
── Were you satisfied with the colors?
Murakami Of course. Photos taken with SIGMA cameras are not merely pictures. To me it’s almost as if they have something like an odor to them, something that makes me go “ah” that I can’t get from photos taken with other cameras. Sense of smell is actually quite important for life in extreme environments. When you spend each day with the same crew talking about the same things and doing the same routines, your senses become so dulled that it is difficult to feel “alive” from visual stimuli alone. But the moment you can smell the faintest odor in the air you’ll notice your senses and your memory spring to life. And if there’s anything that stimulates me like these faint floating odors did, it is the color gradations in SIGMA photos.
── The importance of photography takes on a different quality compared to normal life, doesn’t it?
Murakami Yes, very different, I think. In extreme conditions, very little is ever different. The truly scary changes take place at a slow pace, and many things are almost impossible to notice at all. In order to maintain the necessary sharpness of your sensibilities, you need to build a daily habit to rely on, similar to checking your compass when hiking in the mountains. For some people it may be writing a diary, or drawing into a sketchbook for others. For me, it was taking photographs.
Yusuke Murakami (b. 1978) is an architect who has explored life in extreme conditions, such as the Himalayas or Antarctica, in order to find ways of living in harsh environments. In 2008 he became a member of the winter crew of the 50th Japanese Antarctic Research Expedition and spent fifteen months living at Syowa Station. In 2013, Murakami was chosen as the executive officer for American research group The Mars Society’s “Mars160” project, completing a total of 160 days in simulated Mars conditions in the Wayne Desert in Utah and on Devon Island in the Arctic in 2017. In 2019, he utilized a decommissioned Antarctic exploration ship to realize “SHIRASE EXP”, the first closed-habitation experiment in Japan’s history.