In Philippe Rahm’s Digestible Gulfstream (2008), two polite innocuous elements are separated by a distance of several metres. One sits just off the floor, a white rectanglar slab with a corner folded up. The other is suspended, with a corresponding corner folded down. The lower element is heated, while the other cooled. The effect produced is a loop of air cycling up from the ground, and descending as it cools. The space, which was installed at the 2008 Venice Biennale, is what Rahm describes as an “invisible landscape… a plastic, dynamic activation of forces and polarities that generate a landscape of heat… literally structured on a current of air, opening up a fluid, airy, atmospheric space” (AD 79, 2009: 33).
The space was inhabited by a languid, intermittently-dressed group, who could seek out the ideal climatic conditions for their current activities. But what are these activities? As it turns out: tinkering on a little keyboard, sleeping, playing cards, chatting in a little circle…
A group of drawings by illustrator Piero Macola for this project show it removed to a forest clearing. And here again, there is distinct air of laziness (perhaps chilling would be a thermally-appropriate term). The denizens of this clearing rub warming ointments onto each other’s backs, read, sleep, and bask in the sun. There’s a hint here of the old-fashioned futurism of thinking that with robots to do our jobs, we could all adopt Edenic lives of leisure (assuming the popularly-imagined version of the garden of Eden, where it was just a really nice park, not a space of inconceivable relationship with God).
Although Digestible Gulfstream may at first glance be one of those impossibly high-tech projects, it’s also worth observing that it maintains a streak of quite conventional primitivism. Joseph Rykwert’s On Adam’s House in Paradise traces the longstanding fascination architects have had with the idea of the first architecture. The idea that architecture occurs at precisely the moment when nature becomes culture has been persistent. The forest clearing becomes a site for this imagined transfer. Amongst the forest-clearing stories, Reyner Banham’s is my favourite:
“A savage tribe (of the sort that exists only in parables) arrives at an evening camp-site and finds it well-supplied with fallen timber. Two basic methods of exploiting the environmental potential of that timber exist: either it may be used to construct a wind-break or rain-shed—the structural solution—or it may be used to build a fire—the power-operated solution. An ideal tribe of noble rationalists would consider the amount of wood available, make an estimate of the probable weather for the night—wet, windy, or cold—and dispose of its timber resources accordingly. A real tribe, being the inheritors of ancient cultural predispositions would do nothing of the sort, of course, and would either make fire or build a shelter according to prescribed custom—and that… is what Western, civilised nations still do, in most cases.”
Enclosure or fire? As Luis Fernández-Galiano points out, “an entire theory of architecture is encapsulated in this simple question”. “Architecture,” he writes, “can be understood as a material organization that regulates and brings order to energy flows; and simultaneously and inseparably, as an energetic organization that stabilizes and maintains material forms”.
Banham goes on to talk mostly about work-spaces: hospitals, parking garages, offices, shops, banks. Energy is potential work (that’s its technical definition, anyway). But Rahm’s project seeks stasis (although the air is moving, it is in cyclical equilibrium). Of course Digestible Gulfstream is a prototype, a demonstration, so perhaps it isn’t to be taken too seriously. But I’d be interested to know how work fits into the picture.