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“Is SAGA just a Space Architecture Studio?”: meeting the “Circadian Light Panel” designers’ vision.

When Sebastian Aristotelis co-founded SAGA with Karl-Johan Sørensen, their thoughts on the role of Architecture in Space were clear. They continued on the path of making Space accessible for architects and designers, but with a clever focus on why and how Space results in innovative drivers for re-thinking the practice, with positive impacts on society. In this perspective, SAGA is not just a Space Architecture Studio, but a contemporary Architecture practice looking at the future. A fascinating stage of this path is represented by the “Circadian Light Panel,” a perfect example of a transversal adoption of a design thought for Space and Earth. It is a lighting system designed by SAGA to help astronauts obtain a natural circadian rhythm. It will be loaded onto the cargo bay of a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft to be delivered at the International Space Station. 

Circadian Light is a lamp designed for the small Crew Quarter on the Station. It uses seven different types of LEDs to emit a carefully customized light spectrum to artificially stimulate a circadian rhythm as close to the astronaut’s natural rhythm.

The lamp has three faces that emit light at different angles each. Each of these faces emits different wavelengths to promote alertness or induce sleepiness. Unlike current light systems onboard the ISS, which have some manually operated kelvin and brightness controls, SAGA’s light panel is programmed to adjust the light to fit the astronaut’s planned sleep schedule.  We interviewed Sebastian Aristotelis, talking about how they started, how they see architecture, and an outline of the future. And the answers have been inspiring, telling a story of pioneering and intelligent approaches.

What is the story of SAGA?

We started SAGA four and a half years ago because we needed to see a place doing the kind of work we wanted to do, especially not in Denmark but neither in Europe. We were seeking something combining computational architecture and Space architecture and a more evolutionary approach to what humans need. And then, we went to ISU, where we participated in a concept competition for a habitat on Mars. It was a big international competition. There were 200 teams;

We were students then, and I lived in Australia. Karl-Johan, one of the three co-founders, was living in Denmark. It was a very intense period. He was sleeping when I was at work in the daytime, and then we would switch. I was living in a dorm room. I was working in my bunk bed on my laptop. But somehow we won the competition. It was significant for us because it was the first time we got some confidence. So, to do this kind of thing, you need to be stupid. And we may be ridiculous as well, like naive. But you also need to have some confidence because becoming a space architect is not easy. However, thanks to the win of that competition, we could get a scholarship for ISU.

We were talking with Denmark’s most prominent architecture firm about employment and helping them set up a space architecture department. They were excited about it, but they were very slow. During ISU, we talked with some people there that had been in the space industry for a long time. And we spoke with some older people who were about to start their startups at 40. And they said it’s much more difficult now at 40 than when you are 24 or 25. When you are young, you have so little responsibility that you can make mistakes, which doesn’t cost that much.

Talking about this was encouraging. We said, “Okay, that sounds good.” This gave us getting some extra confidence there. When we returned at the end of ISU, we just decided, “Okay, let’s try it out,” we said. For eight months, we were just two people in my apartment. One intern and Karl were sleeping on the couch. You know, it’s a typical startup founder story. It was not a beautiful first year. It was bizarre. And yeah, now we are like 15, 18 people, having found a business model that works, and we are growing every year.

It is a very inspirational story. Your passion makes SAGA a unicum in the Architecture Studio landscape. What is design for you?

It’s a very good question. For the last couple of years, I’ve tried writing a guide for the best creative process. I have never shown it to anyone and will not share it for the next ten years. But it’s just for me to figure out “what is design?” And it is. I still don’t have the answer. I think the best design is the least amount of design and the least amount of human interpretation. Design has to do with humans. We are very focused on things that humans interact with, whether or not its products or light panels or habitats, or significant architecture. Whenever there’s a human involved in it, I think it is a great design. What a human does need. “How is the human body shaped? What are the biological activities of a human?” So we try to make something that fits that. So, we try to steal as much as we can from nature and try to come up with as little as possible ourselves. And like, for example, for the light panel.

“The light panel” is your latest “Circadian Light Panel” project that will be sent on ISS in the next expedition. A product that encourages and materializes several concepts related to the importance of considering Space design, even for Earth applications. What about it?

We needed to solve the moon’s problem, specifically for our Lunar Analog Habitat: LUNARK, which we tested in the Arctic.

The light panel is an advanced technology regarding the LEDs and light spectrum. And it’s based on many scientific studies of how humans sleep and how we activate their circadian rhythm. But at the same time, the entire concept of daylight. It is to copy to steal the skyline from nature and not to try to reimagine it too much. Humans have evolved on Earth for hundreds or thousands of years under this type of light. The light hasn’t changed in all of human history. So maybe we should just take that light and put it inside a space station.

You told us about your starting point and approach to Space, but what do you think about space architecture? In the contemporary architecture practice, can Space be an improvement for the Earth practice?

If we talk about architecture, first of all, Most humans now live in the city. And all cities are built around architecture. A thousand years ago, it was not so much the case. One or two hundred years ago, probably a hundred years ago, Still, most people were not living in the cities. But now, architecture is the entire world around us. From the moment I wake up to the moment I go to bed unless I’ve been to the forest, I’m in the city. And so, I think architecture is fundamental.

I’m not going to try to be too clever on that. It is imperative. And I think if you are in doubt again, just look at nature and what humans need. At least, that’s if I’m ever in doubt. If I don’t know what to do and what to design, I just try to think about nature and evolution, and humans. And in terms of space architecture, it’s the same thing we do. People would like to put SAGA in a box: people would like to say SAGA is a Space architect. They only care about Space. But that’s not true: we use space architecture to understand humans’ needs.

Let’s say I design a house in Copenhagen: everybody has an opinion about what a home in Copenhagen should look like. If I want to make a door, I have an extensive catalog. I have a thousand doors I can choose between, but they all look the same. They are all about two meters tall. They are all about 80cm wide. They all have a handle around the middle at waist level. They are all very similar, the same with windows. In the last couple hundred years and especially after the Industrial Revolution, all the products and the way we design stuff are similar. And that’s one thing. The other thing is there are also traditions that may not make sense anymore. And then there are also styles and styles, which can be very bad. I’m a huge sci-fi fan. I can appreciate a style, but I think a style can be a big handicap, sometimes because the style is trendy for ten years and then it’s not trendy for another ten years. When I look around at a lot of the other architecture studios in Copenhagen, it seems like a lot of there’s a particular style that they all follow, and I would like SAGA never to have a style, and I think not to have a style then becomes a style.

When I think about the outer space design, there’s no catalog of windows. There are no traditions, and there are no opinions. There are no reference projects. So, we must start entirely from scratch. And making innovation in Space is easier than making innovation with earth architecture because, on earth architecture, there’s so much competition about tradition and older projects and all these things. So, if we make an innovation for space architecture and that innovation is based on what humans need, there’s no noise. When we decided on the lamp for Space, for example, it was very obvious what a human needs because it’s like starting with a blank canvas. “Okay, let’s make the best light for a human in Space.” We realize and have made it, and it’s about to fly. And then what we realize is. I could use the same light, change it just a little bit and then put it in my home in Denmark. We just use it to accelerate innovation, but then we want to bring it back to Earth if that makes sense.

Is Space a leap for more sustainable architecture?

I think we have to be careful. Space architecture can lead to more sustainable architecture on Earth, but you must do it consciously. It will not happen automatically if that makes sense. So You have to be precise about what you’re trying to do and how you bring back that innovation to Earth.

Few examples: solar panels got hugely innovative and accelerated quickly because of space travel. It is one of the few ways we can harvest electricity in Space, and there is a financial interest in space missions, or at least they used to be. Now they are starting to be again. And that accelerated the innovation. And now, solar panels are an incredible innovation here on Earth. And we could go through many. I think NASA has 28,000 patents or something. And a lot of them are beneficial for Earth. Fuel cells, again, that’s energy storage that has a huge potential for solving climate change here on Earth. But that was developed for the Apollo mission. It’s almost everywhere: you look in Space, it’s like, okay, that, that is an excellent idea that we can use to solve climate change on Earth. And it is a little bit like that with architecture. For example, I’ve lived in our analog habitat in the Arctic for two months, right? So, I lived with my co-founder for 61 days inside a 4.5m² space habitat. And so, I know from experience that living in a very small space is possible. Living and building small is one of the most sustainable things you could do. And, of course, now my apartment in Copenhagen is almost too big; I have a room that I never go into, and it just seems so stupid. Yeah, so I think a lot of those because Space is so difficult to live in and so expensive and so dangerous, a lot of the solutions that we make, we can take and then put it into Earth.

One of the disrupting technologies in your industry and the future of construction, overall, is 3D Printing. Is it something you implemented? Do you have reflections on that?

Manufacturing innovations are exciting. We live in a time where 3D Printing will probably be the big innovation of this decade, the last decade, and the next decade. And if we lived 50 years ago, it would be something else. And if we live 50 years in the future, it will be something else. So I’m fascinated by 3D Printing because it makes some shapes, forms, and designs possible that would not be possible before. I think some people are just fascinated by that in a weird way; some are just fascinated by the technology so much that they almost don’t care what they make with the technology. They just want to use the technology. And I think in the very beginning, it was like that for me. But now I’m only interested in it because it makes possible some of the things I want to create like any other tool. And I think it is a tool; we use it a lot. There hasn’t been a single project where we haven’t used 3D Printing for the small development conceptual form given on the small printers. And recently, in the last two years, we have started 3D Printing large-scale objects. So, we 3D print using concrete, and we also 3D print using polymers and plastics. And I think we will probably also do a project where we 3D print using metal.

With the future of 3D modeling. So maybe six years ago, I realized that. The future of architecture is not going to. Okay, So okay, how am I going to say this? So, um, uh, 30 years ago, we started using more and more computers in architecture to do 3D drawings. And now at now here at the studio, we use 3D. And I think in 30 years, we’ll see algorithmic tools will generate architecture. In five years, maybe not. But in 30 years, it will 100% be AI-generated. And but let’s say that you are generating the architecture with algorithms.

Would you like to give some “keywords” about the future of architecture?

The future of architecture is going to be generated, first of all. And then, the other thing is it will be much more informed than it is now because, let’s say a human, a human brain can hold maybe seven pieces of information at a given time. But a building is much more complex than seven pieces of information. You need to know the heat gain of a building. You need to know the energy use and the thermal insulation. You need to know how the window openings affect the indoor climate. There are all these physical things that you need to know. Of course, it must also be nice, comfortable, and needs beautiful colors. But from a climatic point of view, there’s so much information that you need to have in your head. And a human is limited.

I wish it was happening sooner than later. But something that we work with. But I’m not even. I’m not even.

We are curious and fascinated about how you lived two months of isolation.

The expedition was 100 days. “Two people. 100 days”. It took 30 days to set up camp. Then, we lived inside the habitat for two months. And you have to keep in mind it was 1000km north of the Arctic Circle, right by the ice cap of northern Greenland. And so we didn’t see sunlight for thirty days of the mission. There were good times and bad times. The best time was when we arrived and set up the habitat. We had been working on it for two years, 24/7. And we look at the habitat, and we are finally there. That was one of the best moments in my life. Then we didn’t see humans, you know, for two months.

Another incredible moment was when we met a human. For just a few seconds! We got a text message from one of our partners that they had hired a helicopter to fly in to drop off a package. Lego company was one of the partners in the project. And they had paid for a helicopter to fly in to drop off some Lego robots. So we could study with the Lego robots in the Arctic and some students in Denmark. But that was the first time in two months that we saw people. And so I remember the helicopter landing; it was dark (we had just started in the dark period). And the helicopter pilot ran out. So, when he arrived, the engine was running, and he just gave me the package, And I was so happy to see someone. So, I was just trying to make a conversation with him. And he was like, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, but I have to go again!” And I was like, “No, no!”.

There were bad things too. It was tedious and tricky because you are alone and helpless. I think that the most challenging thing was maybe being alone. But, of course, I could talk about it for a long time. We also met a polar bear, which was a very scary moment. Yeah. So there was a lot of, uh, there was a lot of ups and downs. There’s no one you can ask for help.

It’s the usual moment for a message to our community. The SIDI network sees entrepreneurs working for innovation but also designers and architects. They want to push the boundaries of the disciplines. Do you have a message for them, inspiring them to start a path of studies and business?

For sure. First of all: if you are lucky enough to know what you find fascinating and you are passionate about, not everybody knows it yet, but if you are lucky enough to know that, then that is the guiding thing that you should follow. Because whatever you do, if you are passionate about it, you become good at it. And that is always of value to somebody. And if it’s valuable to somebody, you can make a living doing it and enjoy it yourself.

The other thing is people worry a lot about picking an education. But even with whatever education you have, you can still become specialized in a niche within that. I went to an art academy to study architecture. There was nothing in my educational courses that should make me good at what I’m doing today. And it is like that for everybody here in the studio. Among the guys that are developing all the electronics for our light panel, one of them is a front-end developer. He’s making, and he got educated to create websites. It’s not. Building the hardware, the PCBs, and the firmware for all of that is not something they even closely learn. But somehow, it is fascinating enough that I can find a track. So, I would not worry too much about what education to pick, but I would just trust that you will find something within that that you find interesting.  

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