"The control room is a highly charged mythic space"

It’s not just space missions that generate these images. To rest easy we need to believe that somewhere in the system there is a room full of people who know what they’re doing. Call it the myth of competence – a fundamental, but not often remarked, part of the psychology of the modern age. He is contributing editor at   Icon magazine   and a freelance design journalist. Technical mastery plants its feet on fawn carpet tiles. And Hollywood loves a good control room celebration; at times you sense the filmmakers really want to have balloons and confetti fall from the ceiling, but dull old Verity restrains them. The story – which may be hideously complex – is immediately put in simple human terms. We are embedded in a technological civilisation and our survival depends on a number of hugely complicated infrastructural systems: power, water, gas, transport, food logistics, information networks. It matters because the control room is a highly charged mythic space – even when the public is not allowed to gawp inside, perhaps even more so. It takes light 28 minutes to reach the comet 67p – far too great a lag to steer a landing directly. Strangelove, but mostly the aesthetic is out-of-town office park with just a dash of private screening cinema. It is a theatre of the 21st-century subconscious, part of the dreamworld of modernism. Hollywood loves a good control room celebrationIn September the Indian Space Research Organisation’s Mangalyaan mission went into orbit around Mars; the pictures from the ISRO control room in Bangalore were a delight, especially as the high number of female scientists present offered a welcome contrast with the often very male and pale impression we get of European and American missions. Feel the emotional crackle in the journalistic metaphor of the “nerve centre”. Last Wednesday those screens showed an astonishing triumph of technical skill and international cooperation: the Philae lander touching down, with a bit of a bounce, on the comet 67p/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the climax of the Rosetta spacecraft’s decade-long journey towards this hurtling snowball. Will Wiles   is the author of two novels with architectural themes: Care of Wooden Floors, in which a man is driven mad by a minimalist apartment, and The Way Inn, a horror story set in an anonymous chain hotel. This is similar to the stifling propriety of the Victorian drawing room, and one is left wondering what repressed passions and terrors are kept at bay behind all those neutral acoustic panels. But they are also venues for high emotion, and semi-public spaces, on view to the waiting, taxpaying world. All the action takes place on screens, which is to say it isn’t really action at all. Technical mastery plants its feet on fawn carpet tilesThis makes the control room an interesting space – partly because it’s such an uninteresting space. Perhaps the underlying horror of it all is that there is nothing in the room to be controlled, it is all elsewhere. The unbelievable fact about Philae’s landing is that it was programmed in advance. One of the most memorable news photographs of recent years was President Obama in the White House situation room, waiting for news of the mission to kill Osama Bin Laden. Opinion: when the team behind the Rosetta space mission landed Philae on a moving comet last week, they celebrated in a grey control room – the kind of uniquely bland space that has been the backdrop to some of the 21st century’s most iconic moments, says Will Wiles. Their design matters. It’s easy to see why these images are favoured by the evening news. An eruption of human joy, it’s immediately legible, as opposed to a torrent of data or a wavering signal or a high-contrast black-and-white photograph or a jerky snatch of video, which might need interpretation or take a little more effort to understand. And the flipside of the high-fives and mega-grins of success is the equally familiar “Failure” tableau: thousand-yard stares, heads in hands, tears, consoling arms around shoulders, the other kind of hugs. And we’ve been treated to a few of these happy images lately. Perhaps that is why the decor is kept so muted: to stress that everything is normal here, everything is as planned and unexceptional, and we can safely look away. (China appears to be cagey about footage of its technicians celebrating.) The backdrop was the same: screens, grey walls, office chairs, suspended ceiling tiles. A few months ago, reviewing Command and Control by Eric Schlosser – a fascinating history of the United States’ nuclear arsenal – I argued that the post-Second World War era had given rise to a new kind of drama, the Breakdown Tragedy, in which the ultra-capable technical personnel we completely depend upon find themselves overwhelmed by disaster. The first is the “Before” shot: shirtsleeves rolled up, tense and focused, all eyes in a single direction, deep seriousness etched on every face, ostensibly unemotional but crackling with suppressed feeling and anxiety.

Updated: 22.11.2014 — 00:54