European Space Agency’s First Artist in Residence Is Building a Temple for the Moon

Abigail Cain
Aug 13, 2016 1:00PM

Jorge Mañes Rubio. Photo: Bret Hartman

From the moment he assumed the role of director general at the European Space Agency (ESA) last summer, it was clear Johann-Dietrich Woerner had a vision. He wanted to build a village on the moon.

Architecture firms such as London’s Foster + Partners jumped at the challenge, designing futuristic “lunar habitations” that look as though they’ve been plucked straight from a sci-fi film. Now, as the physical framework of this proposed civilization begins to take shape, Spanish artist Jorge Mañes Rubio is taking a decidedly different approach. “When somebody dies on the moon—because eventually it will happen—what kind of burial will they receive?” he asks. “What kind of sculpture or object are you going to make to remember them? And when somebody’s born for the first time outside of Earth, what kind of culture are you going to transmit to this person?”

As ESA’s first artist in residence, Rubio is currently utilizing the agency’s resources to examine the potential social and anthropological aspects of colonizing celestial bodies. Embedded with the Advanced Concepts Team—a small, multidisciplinary group of scientists and researchers considering ideas and technologies that are decades in the making—the Amsterdam-based artist has concentrated his energies thus far on a proposal for a lunar temple.

The project, titled Peak of Eternal Light, will incorporate cutting-edge building technologies developed specifically for interplanetary travel. To avoid the prohibitive cost of hauling building materials through space, scientists have developed a method of 3D printing that uses lunar regolith, the fine soil found on the moon. Complicating this process, however, is the fact that samples of lunar soil on Earth are few and far between. In order to gather enough of the material to conduct meaningful experiments, researchers across the globe have created more than 30 lunar regolith simulants as stand-ins. Rubio, in particular, will be using a recently developed synthetic lunar dirt called DNA-1, which can be manufactured at a fraction of the cost of NASA’s version. The artist plans to 3D print portions of the temple; other sections will incorporate an existing boulder, creating a cross between a building and a cave. 

Proposal for a Lunar Temple #1, Brutalist. Image courtesy of NASA/Eugene Cernan, Alex Hogrefe.


“The lunar temple, for me, is very appealing because it’s a chance to represent, if not religion, then maybe a primitive spiritual connection,” Rubio explains. “I get that connection when I experience art, when I walk into a James Turrell installation, for example.” The work will engage with a wide swath of architectural history, including the Pantheon, Mayan temples, and the Egyptian pyramids, the artist says. But when considering the possibilities on the moon, 18th-century French utopian architects like Étienne-Louis Boullée or Claude-Nicolas Ledoux have been the most influential. “Their projects were simply impossible to build,” Rubio says. “They were too massive, too complex, too heavy. But on the moon, with one-sixth of Earth’s gravity, I can think big and propose structures that would never be able to be built on our planet.”

He is also considering the sorts of rituals that might develop between lunar residents, ranging from burial masks to currency. “How are we going to trade?” Rubio muses. “I’m not necessarily thinking of banknotes, but of the seashells that Mesopotamia used.

“Of course, this is a lot of speculative fiction,” he continues, “but I’m continually referencing facts that are related to early civilizations because I think it’s a really good chance to revisit the past while also looking into the future. How do we move the infinite information from our planet onto the moon, instead of it just being a bunch of rich white people out there?”

UBE Country Club 64th hole, Ube City, Japan. From the Mission U-TOPIA series. The exact location where Akitoshi Fujiyama discovered the Moon Rock. 

This isn’t the first time the artist has dabbled in invented futures. For an exhibition in Japan last year, Rubio collaborated with UBE Industries, one of the country’s largest industrial companies, to tell the imagined life story of a man obsessed with going to the moon. Rubio’s narrative begins when Japanese engineer Akitoshi Fujiyama stumbles upon a lunar meteorite in the midst of a game of golf. He goes on to concoct a plan to finance his own moon mission, one that will allow him to harvest space rocks and later sell them on Earth.

What makes Rubio’s work so compelling is that, despite its speculative tendencies, it’s often not so far from reality. Although Fujiyama is a fictional character, his idea to exploit the moon’s natural resources is certainly not. Just this week, a California startup announced plans to helm the first commercial mining mission beyond the Earth’s orbit in 2020. And in a way, Rubio says, that blurred line between what’s real and what’s imagined is precisely the point of his project.

“I believe that by re-imagining this future colonization of the moon, we can build alternative worlds, and in this utopian process we will manage to see beyond our own limitations and articulate new social scenarios today,” he says. “My work speculates with this future, but at the same time aims for a better understanding of today. When people stop discerning the boundaries between what’s possible and what’s not, that’s when the journey begins.”

Abigail Cain
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019