Since 1989, a small group of people have been living in a laboratory floating four hundred kilometers above earth’s surface. The knowledge gained from inhabiting the upper reaches of the atmosphere provides a learning experience that will ultimately make it possible for man to ascend from earth, embarking on interstellar journeys toward greener pastures on distant planets.
It could be said that this trajectory in human imagination is infinite. It began when hominids abandoned underground caves and went on to develop huts and castle towers, stairs and elevators, skyscrapers and space stations, propelling us further from the liminal lithosphere. This article examines the atmosphere, or Third Sphere, and calls on design disciplines to engage this space, as it is deeply interconnected with our well being. Indeed, modern humans are creatures of the air. The atoms in our body, the cells that make up our organs, our teeth, blood and skin, originated in the atmosphere.
Among these atoms is an unnatural element, which exists deep in all of our bones, embedded in the marrow. This radioactive isotope, called Strontium-90, is a byproduct of nuclear fission and was ejected into earth’s atmosphere in the course of open air atomic bomb tests. The churning of the atmosphere takes particles such as Strontium-90, or those arriving from outer space, and distributes them uniformly over land and sea, where they are then subducted into molten rock. These elements are ejected back to the atmosphere through volcanic eruptions, in a perpetual exchange between air, land and sea. Humanity is thus connected in a very physical sense by that which appears most immaterial: Air.
Before the atomic bomb, gunpowder was the main ingredient in the production of explosives. The best source for nitrates used in the manufacture of gunpowder was China Snow, a salty crystal that was harvested from walls adjacent to rotting rubbish. Farmers, too, needed this limited resource: for them this powder was important as a primary component in fertilizer. In the early 1900’s, Fritz Haber set about figuring out how to harvest nitrogen from the atmosphere, developing the Haber-Bosch process. Historians view this development as one of the most important in the success of human proliferation. It has been calculated that traditional organic farming methods are capable of supporting a maximum population of four billion. The current world population has surpassed seven billion – this surplus is enabled almost entirely by the Haber-Bosch process. The fertilizer generated from ammonia is estimated to be responsible for half of the protein within human beings.
This process became a profitable venture freeing Europe from the tyranny of South American guano traders, but was soon perverted into the production of explosives which fueled the war. The atmosphere can be doubly implicated for the destruction caused by aerial bombardment – it provided an efficient means of distribution, and supplied the key bomb making ingredient. It can therefore be argued that air had a direct role in blasting the cities of Europe to rubble during the war.
It wasn’t until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with the crystallization of the scientific method, that we began to understand the principles behind atmospheric dynamics. In 1813, the first of three editions of Thomas Forster’s book, Researches About Atmospheric Phaenomena was published, with descriptions of the basic cloud formations and the nephological principles that governed them. An annotated copy of this book was discovered in John Constables library, confirming that it influenced his paintings of clouds. Constable’s aesthetic approach to understanding the structure, formation and light quality of clouds, can be seen as a precursor to the graphic mapping upon which modern meteorology depends. John Ruskin combined a similar aesthetic approach with an analytical overlaying of perspectival grids and quasi-tessellations to better understand the structure of cloud formations.
The Enlightenment witnessed an important transition from a subjective or aesthetic approach to a more objective and rigorous methodology. Meteorological instruments such as the barometer were calibrated and deployed to gather a standardized tabulation of climatic data. For the first time comparable weather data were available for plotting, and in 1816 the first weather map appeared, drawn by Heinrich Wilhelm Brandes. Importantly, he viewed weather and atmospheric dynamics as a geographic and spatial phenomenon which his maps could instructively reveal, in contrast to other meteorologists who continued to focus on celestial influences, magnetism and insects. It was through mapping that meteorologists were able to apprehend the patterns of pressure systems that generated storms and begin to predict future weather events.
These maps were enabled by the synthesis of science, technology, bureaucracy and cartography. Science furnished the instruments necessary to take measurements as well as theories about atmospheric behavior. Technology supplied the telegraph which allowed for the rapid collection of perishable data, as well as an efficient dissemination of forecasts. The cooperative meteorological network established in the nineteenth century was a precursor to a global information infrastructure. John Ruskin captured the mood when in 1839 he wrote that meteorology “desires to have at its command, at stated periods, perfect systems of methodical and simultaneous observations... to know, at any given instant, the state of the atmosphere on every point on its surface.”
Meteorology has its roots in the military. The United States National Weather Bureau was simply a reformulation of the Army Signal Corps in civilian garb. Early attempts at weather modification had their origin as artillery armaments – in late nineteenth century Europe, large canons were deployed to effectively blast hail out of clouds in an effort to safeguard crops from destructive ice balls. These cannons were nine meter tall, vertical muzzle-loading mortars that looked like giant trumpets. Thousands of these ten ton hail cannons were installed throughout the countryside.
The militarization of the atmosphere continued during the Vietnam War. In 1974, officials from the U.S. Department of Defense briefed members of Congress about a secret weaponized weather program. The briefing described a campaign run in North Vietnam and Laos, employing cloud seeding to augment the monsoon season: “The program was to increase rainfall sufficiently in carefully selected target areas to [...] cause landslides [...], and to wash out river crossings.” One of the officers involved in the operation recalled a particular bridge along the Ho Chi Minh Trail that the Army had tried unsuccessfully to take down with conventional munitions. The Weather Reconnaissance Squadron was able to strategically seed clouds which caused a torrent of rain that finally washed the bridge away. The Army had learned how to militarize and manipulate the atmosphere, and use it to tangibly affect conditions on the ground.
During the 1960’s architects engaged the atmosphere by proposing schemes to inhabit the air. In reaction to the aggressive growth of cities, they responded with mega-structures that delaminated from the earth’s surface, creating new horizontal datums. Projects by Yona Friedman, Superstudio, and Constant’s New Babylon, envisioned an a-geographic metropolis, an urban system that could be extended indefinitely, cloaking the planet in an idealized utopia. Ron Herron’s Walking City introduced a radical portability, underlining the fact that cities, or even nations, are merely cultural constructions, and as such not subject to the limits of a specific geographic place. The city as a socially constructed, power-object was suddenly infused with its own agency, freed to roam about at will. In Japan, the Metabolists’ visions of mega-cities expanded to occupy sea and sky in response to rapid population growth, centralization and lack of available land. Their architecture and cities were envisioned to simulate cycles of natural organisms and metamorphose according to change in social and economic contexts.
These visions represent the first phase of the colonization of the atmosphere, which found its ultimate expression in Buckminster Fuller’s Cloud Nine project. Fuller envisioned cities as giant geodesic spheres filled with air that when heated by the sun would float among the clouds. Nomadism is implicit in the project, because the atmosphere recognizes no boundaries – the weather above one nation is coupled with the weather above others. Fuller’s proposal is perhaps best understood in the context of the discourse that envisions a collapse of the geographically bound nation-state.
In this supraglobal context it may be productive to ask, what are the limits of our discipline? How should we define landscape? Is it just the leftover green space inscribed within endless seas of concrete? Does our purview extend to the dynamic and benthic world of the oceans? We are making the claim that for designers to remain relevant they must engage not only the solid lithosphere and fluid hydrosphere, but also the vaporous Third Sphere, the atmosphere, as a medium for intervention.
Project Team: Ostap Rudakevych, Masayuki Sono