Intuitively, urban air is the negative of the city in three dimensions.
That which is above the sky-line.
But the air is city.
It is architecture, bodies, environment, soil, memory, affect, queer ecologies.
As Nerea Calvillo points out in the opening of her book, Aeropolis – Queering Air in Toxicpolluted Worlds (Columbia Books on Architecture and the City, 2023), our relationship with air is more than chemical: it connects humans and nonhumans, natural and artificial environments, and is the fulcrum for managing these relationships. Therefore, it is necessary to change strategy to achieve a new and balanced world-making action that considers all the involved actors; it is essential to change how we look at air and interact with it. Queer and feminist theories offer modes to resist forms of exclusion and inequity, productively reframing social and environmental discourse in this time of neoliberal accumulation and consequent inequality. In this interview, architect and educator Nerea Calvillo speaks to Valerio Franzone.
Development at Eephant and Castle, London. ©Nerea Calvillo
KOOZ Aeropolis merges the noun air, the matter we are immersed in, with polis, the ancient Greek city-state, one of the earliest models of democracy and political participation. Is this a way to reimagine relationships, the natural and the built environment, and participation?
NEREA CALVILLOThe term Aeropolis came about when I was trying to identify the different social and technical elements related to the air in Madrid. I started studying the different types of sensors, emissions reports, and the spectrum of local administrations, regulations, citizen organisations, masterplans, technologies, indices… Gradually, I began to specify different aspects of Madrid’s air; its complexity and entanglement with every element of the city slowly emerged. So, to move away from a flattening approach where the air is something out there more or less homogeneously polluted, what if we think about air as a city? As architects, we have tools to name and analyse urban systems. Therefore, to find more speculative connections through air, I might ask: what would the market of Madrid’s air be? This might open up a new strand of research.
To move away from a flattening approach where the air is something out there more or less homogeneously polluted, what if we think about air as a city?
But it was my friend Uriel Fogue who used the term Aeropolis to describe the city of the air for the first time, and it suddenly stuck. Because as you mention, it refers to the ancient Greek polis, a physical organisation and a space of politics. And it was important to reiterate that air is also political. Having said this, I don’t mean that the air works like a city or any other urban configuration. In fact, the idea applies to any territorial organisation.
The point of the term Aeropolis is to notionally describe the aerial socio-technical assemblages of a specific city (that in the book I refer to as the city’s aeropolis) and to serve as a heuristic to identify these assemblages and imagine new ones (which I have called Aeropolis, with capital A). And lastly, there is Aeropolis, the book.
KOOZ Focusing on air means paying attention to its transformational and multiscalar nature, its political agency and its interactions between the human and non-human. You do that by mixing technoscience, environmentalism, queer theory, colonial studies, and feminist perspectives; by decentring humans and instead placing “inhabitants and metabolizers” — heterogeneous elements that constitute air — at the centre of your discourse. How does this critical analysis help understand the social, technical, and geopolitical processes composing the air?
NCWhen I started researching air, I couldn’t find enough analytical tools in architecture, so I started looking around. I was reading feminist and queer theory out of personal interest, but I started realising that they were very useful aids to reflect on the politics of knowledge (for instance: why are only some chemicals being studied and not others? What are the air quality indexes communicating? How did they come about?), as well as generating reflection on the unequal distribution of pollution itself. Other fields became extremely useful too. Technoscience studies’ socio-technical assemblages and the politics of nature; new material studies provide explorations of material agency; environmentalism conceptualises modes of intervention… Each field provides distinct theoretical, analytical, and practical tools to think about air differently: from air as ventilation to air to the element that feeds and enables life; from everyday practices to global geopolitics or structural socio-economic issues. From air as something that needs to be filtered, to air as a carrier of song, virus, extraction, colonialism, death, smell…
KOOZ I wonder if the transparency of the air, often perceived as a lack of materiality, leads us not to respect its essence and composition. Its toxic-polluted state reflects and develops geographies of economic, social, and racial discrimination, a structure of which violence is the base and the consequence of capitalism and colonialism, a tool for biopolitical control. Can you talk about the air’s invisibility and in-visibility, and what would be the effects of de-in-visibilise it?
NCWhen I was an architecture student, air was often a synonym for space or a void. Later on, when I was researching its complex materiality, I guessed that the reason for this was its invisibility. However, feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray made a fundamental contribution: this invisibility is physical and philosophical: it would follow that what can’t be seen doesn’t exist. So, I refer to the in-visibility of air to keep this double meaning or this tension between material and cultural forms of visibility and amnesia.
I argue that we cannot take air for granted anymore. Because air contributes to millions of deaths a year. Because as history has shown, air has been used as a free and limitless dump site for industrial production waste.
I argue that we cannot take air for granted anymore. Because air contributes to millions of deaths a year. Because as history has shown, air has been used as a free and limitless dump site for industrial production waste. Because everything, and everyone, pollutes air — although at different scales and levels of responsibility. Because this pervasive air pollution — and its inverse, access to clean air — is distributed unevenly and disproportionately — with the poor, the racialized, the displaced, the gendered bearing the brunt of its negative effects. Because the COVID-19 pandemic has made tangible how air interconnects bodies, transmits viruses or volatile compounds; and can be the means of contagion or the delimiter of a safe space. Because air has been specifically designed to kill through gas bombs. Because air allows for the possibility to breathe. For all these reasons, air must be culturally de-in-visibilised.
Fluff. ©Nerea Calvillo
KOOZ To quote you, the book is “concerned with the airs just above the ground—the troposphere,” namely the “airs of capitalist, colonial, and neoliberal accumulation... the polluted airs. The ones that contribute to producing chemically-altered lives and beings… that cause slow violence and slow death.” This sounds like a manifesto for activism. What is the operative realm of your book to build an alternative ecological and political framework?
NCThe book aims to contribute to a framework (built by many other people from the areas of knowledge from which the book draws) to imagine, design and build ecological present/futures for good and just lives. Or, in your words, to contribute to alternative ecological and political frameworks. And it does so (hopefully) by paying attention to air as embodied breath and as commons.
One of the challenges is that despite its complexity, air is legally accounted for only through scientific data, which is used for data-based managerial approaches to establish thresholds, acceptable limits and other instruments to sustain the status-quo.
One of the challenges is that despite its complexity, air is legally accounted for only through scientific data, which is used for data-based managerial approaches to establish thresholds, acceptable limits and other instruments to sustain the status-quo (or how much we can still pollute without creating excessive harm). But this understanding of air is reductive at many levels. Firstly, if there is no data, air pollution cannot be proven, and therefore, responsibilities get diluted (although data does not necessarily lead to change). Secondly, such measures only consider a few “pollutants” — but air is also made of sands that nurture the soils of faraway regions, of pollen that reproduces all sorts of plant species and bacteria that may strengthen human immune systems, among many other elements needed for the functioning of ecosystems. And thirdly, air is 100% contextual, therefore, thresholds are only one form of addressing their interactions with humans, plants, animals, buildings, rocks… In fact, everything is in and traversed through air. This has become pretty evident through the Covid-19 pandemic, but it’s still hard to imagine the amount of different things we inhale each time we take, and all the other things that we exhale three seconds later. In each breath.
Instead of air as data or as the matter we breathe, what if we think of it as an atmospheric infrastructure that sustains our breath? Air as a common infrastructure that sustains life.
Two years of particles on a window. London, 2018–2020. ©Nerea Calvillo
Instead of air as data or as the matter we breathe, what if we think of it as an atmospheric infrastructure that sustains our breath? Air as a common infrastructure that sustains life. I take feminist cultural theorist Laurent Berlant’s approach to the commons, reorienting the term away from managing an object, resource, or action and toward living in and with the contradictions of what she calls “troubled times.” Berlant takes the problematic context of our worlds as the point of departure and provides a framework to imagine the interventions that would be desirable, possible, and needed to establish better forms of life. From this perspective, what could an infrastructure of a global commons — an infrastructure of an infrastructure, so to speak — mean or look like? And what about those related to toxicpolluted air?
What could an infrastructure of a global commons — an infrastructure of an infrastructure, so to speak — mean or look like? And what about those related to toxicpolluted air?
In the book, I reflect on a few projects to try to imagine what these ideas mean in practice, more as experiments than solutions. This bridge between conceptualisations and interventions interests me, as each can feed back to the other in a productive way.
KOOZ Air doesn’t respect borders, but neighbourhoods have different atmospheres, and national governments have different pollution standards. Your book introduces the difficulties of mapping the air, which is something always in transformation, and expressing a relational character by reacting and interacting with other beings. How can air be mapped, considering its unstable nature? How would you frame this issue within critical cartography practices to obtain representations and design tools for social equality and environmental justice?
NCYour question is on point, and there is no easy answer. I’ve explored different visualisation strategies throughout the years and realised that any map or visualisation is a storytelling device. The storyteller chooses which protagonist in the data set is relevant, how to create a narrative out of information or data, and how to do these things to engage with their audiences. But which stories should be told that will move us in some way?
To shift from a notion of maps as tools of knowledge, towards sensing air as affect (and since the prefix atmo- or “atmos” in Greek, refers to vapour or steam, as well as to inspire, to blow or to spiritually arouse), I have called these air quality visualisations atmographies. To map not only what is there but also what things could become, as a critical and political proposition.
Any map or visualisation is a storytelling device. The storyteller chooses which protagonist in the data set is relevant, how to create a narrative out of information or data, and how to do these things to engage with their audiences.
However, critical cartography scholars have also demonstrated that cartographies or representations are unnecessary to achieve social equality and environmental justice. If we know that an area is polluted, do the limits of this pollution matter? For instance, air quality models can generate fine-resolution predictions of the flow of certain gases across a street. This might be relevant to address a specific problem in that street, but it’s not going to address the sources of pollution, the consequences of it and so forth. So, to respond to your question: I’d consider, together with the people who live in or with that air, if a representation is needed, what for, who is going to design it, what counts as data… to, at least try, to avoid detrimental effects in the process.
KOOZ There are historical examples of ‘designed air’ in architectural history: we could mention Archizoom’s No Stop City, an introverted and environmentally-controlled architecture or Diller + Scofidio’s Blur Building, an architecture in a gaseous state, a symbol of political or ludic revolt—which are both about subverting the system, and being open to unexpected relationships and reactions. You are a designer and an educator: how does one design and teach uncertainty and mutation?
NCMany of Aeropolis’ ideas have emerged through reflecting on the design process of spatial design commissions (developed through the practice C+arquitectas and the Madrid-based project In The Air), where we worked with air as a design material. For instance, in the book, I expand on the design and construction of the Polivagina and Sticky Airs, both exhibition designs for a music festival in Spain. To resolve a difficult brief, in the first year, we used helium balloons, and in the following, we used different types of smoke and air circulation; the air functions as a material. In Aeropolis (the book), I describe designing with air and designing theair itself. Through these processes, we realised that our previous and more traditional professional experience wasn’t very useful: as opposed to steel, bricks, or mortar, air is unstable, volatile, and uncontrollable. It cannot be studied from books or drawn with standard architectural design software. So we had to experiment, engage with our bodies, and learn from them how to lift, isolate visually, distribute human flows, or display artistic installations with/in air. We also figured out that air’s materiality conditions how we build and relate to each other, and we had to learn new methods on the spot. Beautiful transformations took place: non-normative bodies gained relevance, design details were achieved through distributed testing groups, and all forms of participation were needed. The process became as material, social, and political as the output and revealed transformative opportunities that emerged when paying attention to it.
Air’s materiality conditions how we build and relate to each other, and we had to learn new methods on the spot. Beautiful transformations took place.
These reflections have strongly influenced how I teach and the briefs I propose to work with students. In class, every project is an ongoing and always-in-the-making process, which requires flexibility to implement changes and to accept others’ decisions and contributions; design tools that facilitate testing and thinking about processes over time; challenging ‘standard’ solutions; imagining other possible futures; suspending judgement and not taking anything for granted. To do so, we work with weeds or on landfills, for bats, or with sludge; to explode or to draw; to breathe or to redistribute, between people, infrastructures, memories, soils, myths, regulations, gas companies, nights…
Nerea Calvillo (she/her) is an architect-scholar, based at the research Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies (University of Warwick, UK), director of spatial design office C+ arquitectas and funder of In the Air, an ongoing collaborative project to sense air(pollution). She works at the intersection between spatial design, feminist technoscience, queer and environmental studies, and her current research is on toxic politics, pollen, atmospheres and queer urban political ecologies. Her work has been exhibited at the Venice Architecture Biennale, Royal Academy of Arts, Canadian Centre for Architecture or the Shanghai Biennale; and published in Social Studies of Science, Journal of Extreme Events or Public Culture. She is author of Aeropolis: Queering air in Toxicpolluted worlds.
Valerio Franzone is the Managing Editor at KoozArch. He is a Ph.D. Architect (Università IUAV di Venezia), and his work focuses on the relationships between architecture, humanity, and nature. A founding partner of 2A+P and 2A+P Architettura, he later established Valerio Franzone Architect. His projects have been awarded in various international competitions, and shown in several exhibitions as the 7th, 11th, and 14th International Architecture Exhibition - La Biennale di Venezia. His projects and texts appear in international magazines such as Domus, A10, Abitare, Volume, and AD Architectural Design.