"It's truly exquisite; nothing less than a breathtaking meld of form and function that rivals the best of the Old Masters. Any artist would envy its achievement, set as it is against a natural yet demanding canvas of surpassing beauty. And how fitting it is that once again, the Italians are at the vanguard of this new discipline of space habitat design!"
It's plenty overwrought praise from Zoe Cesare, but there was no doubt among contemporary critics that Alto Firenze was one of the architectural jewels of the 30s. The station represented the flowering of space habitat design, and such was its influence on the way we live and work in space that we now talk about the pre- and post-AF periods. The fact that Alto Firenze remains largely intact to this day is another minor miracle, one that has transformed it into a historical artifact of immeasurable value — but perhaps I'm getting ahead of myself.
Alto Firenze was initially conceived in the late 20s as a space habitat for 100 people in low Earth orbit. Unlike other space hotels and state-constructed research stations, Alto Firenze was designed to take a step beyond the 20th-century utilitarian style. No ugly white boxes and greebles were welcome here; instead, the station incorporated a level of elegance and fashion that saw fittings and module fabrication directed by experienced architect-engineers in Turin.
The Alto consortium began in-orbit assembly in 2032, taking advantage of a glut of cheap launch capacity produced by fierce competition between Space-X and Siemens-Foxconn. Six connected inflatable modules formed the core of the station, heavily modified from BA-3704 plans. Each module had a pressurised volume of 3,700 cubic metres and was capable of housing 25 people not only in comfort but also in style. It was furnished with lounges, sleeping pods, bathrooms, observation areas, and dedicated dining rooms designed by the noted Group of Five from Florence.
By the time main assembly was completed four years later, Alto Firenze's original business plan, which saw it as a combination hotel and luxury resort, had become slightly outdated. The sheer number of competing hotels in low Earth orbit — 14 by this point, with another 20 in construction — had cut projected profits substantially. The Alto consortium decided to keep two modules as a hotel for tourists making the trip up on the new Space-X Hawks; convert three modules into a conference centre; and use the final module as the first orbital art gallery and museum. Two members of the Group of Five shuttled up to the station to personally oversee the installation of their spectacular Orrery Chandelier in the museum, along with the detailed fractal layering that enveloped the rest of the station.
While the consortium's decision struck most observers as being dangerously optimistic, it's worth bearing in mind that the semi-permanent orbital population was now well over 5,000 and growing rapidly. Compared to the expense of shuttling up and down Earth's steep gravity well, the amount of energy required for interstation transit was negligible, as was the cost of the vehicles, which didn't ever need to enter the atmosphere.
The consortium bet correctly: the natural human desire for company and exploration saw Alto Firenze defy its critics and flourish as a popular meeting place, hosting zero-G exhibitions and artworks and numerous orbital conferences and committee meetings in the late 30s and early 40s. Its success, along with the burgeoning orbital population, saw many more general-purpose stations being constructed; the EDX campuses and the famous Heinlein and Robinson distributed venture complexes were all assembled in the mid-40s with Falcon Superheavy workhorse rockets and newer laser-launchers. In fact, the original planning conference for Robinson's governance system was held at Alto Firenze.
But everything passes, and Alto Firenze began to slip from fashion in the late 40s. Larger, more advanced, and more architecturally adventurous habitats were being constructed, often from captured asteroids or lunar ejecta. Even with a series of extra luxury modules added, the station slipped further and further from the public eye.
Finally, in 2051, Alto Firenze was purchased by the Reynolds mining corporation for use as their headquarters and boosted to an L5 orbit in 2052 — mere months before the Cascade. As such, Alto Firenze is the only surviving example of early 21st-century low orbit habitats, the rest having been destroyed, de-orbited, or broken up for salvage.
Today, the station has been preserved as a museum and returned to its original orbit. Floating through the opulence and comfort of Alto Firenze almost feels like stepping back in time to the High Frontier. It was when the 'hypercapitalist summer' turned to autumn, and the first shoots of what was to come next were appearing all over the world — and off it.