Gas

Poison_gas_attack

Early in the third volume of his Spheres trilogyFoams, Sloterdijk says that to understand the twentieth century, you need to understand terrorism, industrial design and the concept of the environment. These three things come together in a crucial scene early in the century: at 6pm on April 22, 1915, near Ypres, 150 tonnes of chlorine gas were released into a north-north-easterly breeze by a newly formed German gas regiment. The efficacy of this attack is still debated: the Germans claimed that 5 000 had died, and many more had been injured, while French officals insisted that while 625 had been injured, only three had died. Gas warfare was to become a major element of the battlefields of World War I. A range of toxic gases were employed on both sides of the trenches. For Sloterdijk, this event marks a crucial innovation; instead of attacking the bodies of its enemies, the war machine could now attack their environment, their very conditions of life. The weaponisation of the landscape (see previously: The Diffused Fortress) had given way to the weaponisation of the atmosphere.

The decisive element was rather that the techniques of Modernity pierced, by means of gaseous terrorism, the horizon of a non-objective design – which imposed the explicitation of latent themes like the physical qualities of the air, artifical atmospheric supplements, and other factors of climate creation in sites of human occupation. Humanism and terrorism are chained to one another by progressivist explicitation. [dodgy translation via French mine]

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Explicitation is Sloterdijk’s term for the process by which something becomes a subject of intention or operation (well, it has a more nuanced sense than that, I think, but I’m still working it out, and that will do for now). He follows the way that this explicitation of the atmospheric conditions of life leads on to later examples of gas chambers used to exterminate humans, either one at a time, as in the USA, or en masse, as in Germany. The explicitation of the atmospheric conditions of life can also be traced in the development of air-conditioning. Reyner Banham’s Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment (see previously: Chilling) gives an historical account of the modern development of architecture as the maintenance of a certain climatic condition. (There is also a good chapter ‘Air Conditioning’ by Sze Tsung Leong in The Harvard Design Guide to Shopping ). The implication is that architecture is a form of life-support system.

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Diller+Scofidio’s Blur building (2002) explicitated architectural atmosphere in a new way. The solid matter of architecture is diminished to an apparatus for generating an atmospheric state. The project marks the end of a period of emphasis on how architecture produces meaning or content, and inaugurates an era of affect: the question is longer ‘what does it signify?’ but ‘what effects does it produce?’ In the context of Sloterdijk’s observations on the explicitation of the atmosphere brought about by gas warfare, interest in a dematerialised architecture of atmospheric effect takes on a troubling cast. Sloterdijk does not propose that atmospheric design be rejected as tainted by its military origins. But he does require us to recognise that humanist and terrorist aims are not separated by much. The apparently humanist idea of constructing sensory experience rather than abstract form is not at all far from the terroristic idea of using the environment as a means of manipulating another’s body.

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