General Essay on Air: probes into the atmospheric conditions of liberal democracy (Paulo Tavares)

General Essay on Air: probes into the atmospheric conditions of liberal democracy (Paulo Tavares)

a full version of the General Essay on Air can be found here

MODEL ATTACK (epilogue)

1. AIR
In principle, by its own nature, air is an element that avoids spatial description, visual representation, and ultimately, historicity. Its resistance to formalization puts air almost on the opposite side of architecture: air is shapeless, neglects order, and is inclined to invisibility. As architecture, air is a tangible material, but its volatile physics is refractory to traditional interpretations of tectonic art. Yet they share an essential spatial feature: the habitual experience of air, necessary to our living condition, likewise that of everyday spaces we inhabit, calls the immersion of the body, and similarly, it is so integral to our habits that tends to precipitate in unconscious forms of perception. Parallels are not merely phenomenological but properly political. For air is one of the most meaningful public spaces of the city, since it is vital and communally shared. If we shift the perspective therefore, looking form the point of view of air instead of focusing the built environment, a series of modes of visualizing and describing the urban are suspended. What was before not presented to knowledge now requires a cartographic description; the void becomes full of content and acquires the consistency of a space in itself. Integrated in the modes of seeing, conceiving, and governing the city, air becomes a matter of collective attention, visual elaboration, technological intervention and political action.

Between 2006 and 2009, a series of scientific experiments were conducted within the atmosphere of London under the “Strategy for Countering Chimical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Terrorism” implemented by the UK government after the terrorist attacks of 07/07 in 2005. The objective of those scientific trials was to infer about potential effects of hazardous materials released in the atmosphere of risky-prone urban zones. Some questions remain difficult to answer: how much material would be released? And what material specifically?  But it is possible to “simulate” an event through a series of complex spatial-scientific exercises, and try to understand how any material released would behave inside the urban fabric. The difficulties of identifying gas-dispersion patterns are directly related to the inconstant nature of the atmosphere itself, and also to the complicated interactions of the airflows with the urban design. Traditionally, information about air conditions and climate variations are obtained at geographical scales, though meteorological instruments usually situated in airports control towers or scientific stations. The problem is that the data recorded at this scale does not allow knowing what happens at street level. The city generates a type of “microclimate” of its own, constituting itself a coherent ecological entity, and therefore, it is necessary to conceive a model in which urban variables and airflows are part of an extended spatial field. Those scientific experiments advance an epistemic-technical construction according to which space is conceptualized as a hybrid milieu, an assemblage of natural rhythms and social designs. Inside this model, air becomes a turbulent urban agent, virtually incontrollable and hard to police.


Developed by state-sponsored scientific think-thanks and private techno-military consortiums, trials were carried out in poorly ventilated tubes of London Underground, at open-air congested urban intersections, and also under controlled atmospheric conditions, within the architecture of laboratorial chambers. From an environmental-technological standpoint, a chemical attack and a scientific trial are virtually the same thing, only differing in degree. Both operate the release of an alien element detachable from the normal conditions of the atmosphere. The noun “terror” in that case, appears attached to an immanent dimension of technology given by its intrinsic lethal-destructive potential. Following Sloterdijik, it is less about an identifiable enemy and more about a miltary-ecological modus operandi proper to techno-science, which ultimate negative consequences are manifested through atomic destructions, radioactive accidents, environmental disasters, and collective states of fear. Scientific experiments, however, are less violent and conducted under manageable psychological circumstances. During field trials, scientists equipped with small bottles filled with some kind of volatile liquid release a gas into the atmosphere. At specific points, they collect air samples to measure levels of concentration, trying to trace the patterns of dispersion of the element across the urban environment. This atmospheric-mapping procedure relies on a sophisticated network of sensors installed throughout the built fabric of London. Because those tiny electronic filters are hyper-sensible, it is possible to conduct open-air trials releasing only very small, non-harmful concentrations of a determined gas. Despite its low intensity, however, the operation through which knowledge about air is produced is similar to a violent act to which air is the medium, because it is the design and the rehearsal of a “non-harmful attack” that makes possible to estimate the potential spatial impacts of an exceptional situation. In other words, the knowledge produced about the behaviour of air corresponds to the techno-ecological power of intervening in the atmosphere.


At laboratorial scale, experiments are conducted inside artificially acclimatized architectures. Environmental machines like chemical-chambers or wind-tunnels provide a detached and controllable air-space, making effectively possible, albeit at reduced scale, to conceptualize a formal design of the atmosphere. Models are not much an abstraction of the real but artificial constructions that, despite being limited, enable certain elaboration of a given problem in reality. Inside a wind-tunnel, not all variables are totally incorporated, but the ones integrated into the atmospheric model are fully reproducible and can be precisely modulated. Therefore, the ecological indeterminacy is partially assimilated as a controllable, observable and calculable element inside the system. At real scale, being it an accident in a nuclear power plant, a bio-chemical attack, or a scientific experiment, each event is singular. When realized under controllable atmospheric conditions, however, the rehearsal ad infinitum of the event at accelerated rates provides a full range of probabilities against which worst-case scenarios can be identified and levels of security defined. Originally, architectural models started to be introduced inside wind-tunnels to test preventive designs against structural collapses due to overload generated by wind forces. Similar experiments are also used to optimize the design of industrial facilities such as nuclear power plants and chemical factories against potential leakages. More recently, they became operative in mitigation planning against atmospheric violence in urban environments. The techno-scientific procedure employed is based on the formal elaboration of an “accident/attack” in an atmospheric-urban model, allowing scientists and architects to forecast impacts and estimate risk. Digitally measured and calculated, the data generated through the model allows to infer on what would have happened, for example, if a dangerous gas was released at the corner of Merylebone Road with Gloucester Place in central London, on a sunny warm day, with north-winds coming 51 degrees to the right from the north-south axes of the street at 2 meters per second.

5. Cartography

In addition to the data collected for the elaboration of computing probabilistic models, experiments were carried out with lightning and video equipment. The recorded images show the patterns of air streams in interaction with the buildings. They recall the first photographic records of air-dynamics realized at the benign of the XX century by Etienne Jules Marey. But now, transported to urban dimensions, those images acquire the consistency of cartography, depicting in time and space the behaviour of airflows in relation to the city structure. The empirical questions of these visual trials are apparently very simple – in the case a hazardous is released in the atmosphere, how does it behave? Where it would blow? Which routes does it follow? How does the form of the urban fabric interfere in its mode of dispersion? And more importantly, what are the areas that are potentially safer and the ones that offer greater risk? Atmospheric mappings produced under controlled laboratorial conditions are necessary to inform risk-reduction designs and emergency-response planning. The air-dynamic cartographies constitute a set of tools based on which an “exceptional planning” is drafted out: public spaces are converted into isolated areas, streets are blocked and traffic diverted, underground stations are evacuated, air-conditioned office buildings become atmospheric shelters… That re-urban planning is always a potential, only actualized in extraordinary situations and for a short period of time. Yet it is no less sophisticated than an ordinary urban design, for it must be sufficiently elaborated to allow the fast and efficient reconfiguration of the urban dynamics.


When life appears as the object of the art of government, not only the body of the subject is inscribed inside its power-knowledge mechanisms. The dispositive is extended throughout the medium of which the lives of the individuals depend upon. A techno-military-ecological rationale operating at the bio-environmental level, and which implicit violent dimensions appears negatively in the form of a lethal ecology. Implied in this scheme, air appears as a central element of interventions, for it is the element which should be carefully regulated and protected in order to preserve the life of the population, as it was the material through which, in the paradigmatic “exceptional atmosphere” of the concentrations camp, was used as the medium of mass murder.

This entry was posted on Monday, December 13th, 2010 at 9:52 pm
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