Galina Balaschowa in the prototype of the Soyuz space capsule 19 designed by herself (1975). Photo © Archive Galina Balaschowa
Only the watercolors burned to nothing

Im Gespräch: Galina Balaschowa

Jun 29, 2015

Galina Balashova is a modest and most cordial person. At the guided tour of the exhibition “Galina Balashova. Architect of the Soviet Aerospace Program” at Deutsches Architekturmuseum in Frankfurt/Main arranged for the press she leaves the limelight to others: the interpreter, whom she insists be part of the group photo, curator Philipp Meuser, whom she asks to speak first, and when getting into the elevator she even insists the cabinetmaker who is still putting the finishing touches to the exhibition space step in first. Galina Balashova, now in her dotage at 84, is simply not used to the limelight – after all, during her career she tended to be active in the background: As an architect and design, and the only woman to be a member of the Soviet experimental engineering office, or OKB-1 for short, and the later aerospace corporation “RKK Energija”, she was in charge of shaping the face of the interior of the space vehicles.

Adeline Seidel: So how did you end up designing the interiors of space capsules?

Galina Balashova: It was pure luck. I had a job as Chief Architect at OKB-1 and was busy planning apartment blocks for the staff. One day, Konstantin Petrovich Feoktistov asked me to do a sketch for the interior of the “living module” for a space ship. The fact was that the Director of OKB-1, Sergei Pavlovich Korolyov, did not like what the engineers had proposed as he felt it was not homely enough. Actually, Feoktistov first asked artist Viktor Petrovich Dyumin, because he thought that this was a task for artists. Dyumin pointed out that designing interiors was something architects did. And so one weekend I found myself working away drawing a sketch.

What had the engineers envisaged as the living module?

Galina Balashova: (laughs) They’d simply drawn two red boxes in the plans. I do believe Korolyov really blew a gasket when he saw that: How were our cosmonauts jacks expected to last for long in space in a box?

What was needed to make sure the cosmonauts felt at home in the small capsules?

Galina Balashova: Cosmonauts feel at home if the design of the small room around them is harmonious. If it is sweet, functional and easy to use. The room needs to be outfitted just as if it were an apartment: With a bed, a table, chairs, a toilet, and a shower. Good architecture always depends on the same rules, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s about a house or a spaceship.

Which are?

Galina Balashova: I had good teachers at university: Michail Fyodorovich Olenev and Yuri Nikolayevich Sheverdyayev. In his very first lecture, Sheverdyayev told us that what would be most important for us would be to learn good taste. To find the right proportions in the balance of humans, space and architecture. And that you can always reconcile function and beauty – he’d cribbed the latter from Palladio.

So how do you go about designing a space that basically has no top and bottom?

Galina Balashova: Back then I drew up two proposals. In the one, we gave the space a floor and a ceiling. The floor was in green, the ceiling bright blue, and the walls/sides bright yellow. That was the case in the Soyuz space capsules, for example. The other idea was not to distinguish clearly between top and bottom but to structure the capsule by means of different volumes, as is the case here. (Balashova points to a sketch for the lunar orbital craft “LOK”).

Why did the Soyuz variant win the day?

Galina Balashova: Before our cosmonauts flew into space they trained in identical, true-to-scale models. Here on Earth gravity rules and we all found it easier to work in rooms that had a clearly defined top and bottom.

Did the cosmonauts express any wishes as regards the interior fittings?

Galina Balashova: The cosmonauts liked the interior design. Only once did one request brighter colors. He said it was a little too dark in the station – to save weight, only the bare minimum of lighting had been provided.

Did you comply with the request?

Galina Balashova: We installed more lamps. Another challenge was how to fasten documents and equipment in place: In Zero Gravity everything simply floats around otherwise. So we … (Balashova extracts an envelope with fabric samples from her handbag) … clad the inside surfaces and all objects with Velcro fasteners. The colored wall cladding, the floor and the ceiling – it was all made of Velcro. That way, you could attach objects simply anywhere, and just as easily detach them again. Only the chair and bed covers were made of normal fabric – the cosmonauts fastened themselves in place using belts. Their suits would have been damaged far too quickly under the permanent strain of Velcro fasteners.

In some of your drawings, there are pictures on the spaceship walls. Aren’t paintings not pretty superfluous in space travel, where every added gram and every extra centimeter of space counts?

Galina Balashova: (laughs) I simply had fun including those pictures in the drawings. Once my sketched drawings had been personally approved by Korolyov, who rubber-stamped them and signed them, they were forwarded to the engineers. The latter then set about constructing the interiors in line with my drawings. Down to the very last detail, meaning even the dials on the technical devices on the control sets. When I popped by to commission the final product they asked me where to procure the painting for the wall. When I replied that it was not needed I was reproached: “No, it’s been signed off and so we will build it exactly that way.” So I sat down one night and painted pictures for the space capsules. Usually watercolors depicting Russian countryside. They all burned to nothing on re-entry.

The spatial requirements and constraints are reminiscent of boat-building. Do you consult that segment when researching your designs?

Galina Balashova: I once wanted to view the interior of a submarine and traveled specially to St. Petersburg. But they didn’t want to let me in. I was only a woman, and from a completely different department. They said: If I came back and brought a cosmonaut along with me – they were the absolute super-heroes at the time, then o course they’d show me round the sub.

What was the nicest thing a cosmonaut said to you after returning to Earth?

Galina Balashova: After the Apollo-Soyuz program, our cosmonauts said the American astronauts really liked our interior design because it was so comfortable. The American section was evidently far more techy and less homely. That made me feel proud, as engineers don’t think of the architecture only of the technical side to things. (Balashova pauses and then explains impishly) You know, the best thing about my work was the freedom I had: No one told me I had to take this or that color, do that this way, and whatever. I was able to take the decision I thought were the right ones as nobody was in the slightest interested in what I did.

The exhibition:
Design for the Soviet Space Program.
The Architect Galina Balashova
Deutsches Architekturmuseum (D.A.M.), Frankfurt/Main
thru Nov. 15, 2015
Tues., Thurs.-Sun. 11 a.m. – 6 p.m., Wed. 11 a.m. – 8 p.m.

The monograph:
Philipp Meuser
Galina Balaschowa. Architektin des sowjetischen Raumfahrtprogramms
160 pages., 189 ills., soft cover,
Dom Publishers, Berlin 2014
EUR 28.00

Balaschowas first draft of a Soyuz capsule, which she draw on a weekend in 1963. Image © Archive Galina Balaschowa
Final design for the interior of the orbital module of the Soyuz (1964). Balaschowa was not only responsible for the interior design, but also for the design of technical equipment. Image © Archive Galina Balaschowa
First sketch for the lunar orbital spacecraft LOK (1966), where the interior should be structured by different volumes - and not by a "top" and "bottom", ie ceiling and floor. The draft was never build. Image © Archive Galina Balaschowa
Design of the cabin for the space station "Mir" (1980). The floor is decorated in green, the ceiling in blue and the walls in yellow.
Image © Archive Galina Balaschowa
Model of the "Mir", where the cosmonauts trained on Earth.
Photo © Archive Galina Balaschowa
The draft for the technical module of the space station "Mir" is Balaschowas favorite drawing, as she reveals to the press tour. Image © Archiv Galina Balaschowa
Architect, Industrial Designer and Graphic Designer in one Person: f.e. Balaschova was also responsible for the placement of the name on the space station "Mir".
Image © Archiv Galina Balaschowa