A Swim through Atmospheres

A little over a decade ago, I had first watched Pixar’s beloved Finding Nemo… There, I traveled with Marlin across the great ocean, through the jellyfish zone and the East Australian Current (EAC) in search of Nemo, his son, a clownfish with a lucky fin. Along the way, we swam along with loggerhead sea turtles who were heading to their nesting ground along the Australian coast.

As an architect navigating through the waters with Marlin, I found the spatial construct of the ocean fascinating! There were thousands of zones under the surface of the water, yet I did not see any demising walls between them. It was as if they knew the territories even though everything was very fluid. As we descend into deeper waters, I began to realize the change in temperature and pressure of the water – everything was spatially organized and understood simply by these two factors.

When we look at “vernacular” on-land structures, many of the driving factors had always revolved around temperature and humidity. From the 1300 BC, the Egyptians devised the wind catcher and wind towers in order to create a natural flow of cooled air to cool the interior spaces. What made it more ingenious was how it operated in conjunction with an underground water system, qanat, (primarily intended for delivering water) by using the existing flowing water to help cool the incoming warm air. Architecture followed climate.

The invention of the hypocaust, by Sergius Orata (1 B.C.), later introduced a way to heat an enclosed interior space. By a simple operating furnace and a series of pedestals under the floor and hollow walls, the heat was able to literally travel through the building and heat each space through effective conduction (surprisingly similar to the contemporary radiant flooring).

However, since the birth of the modern HVAC, buildings seem to have lost their sensitivity to climate. Any building or structure (as long as it is enclosed with four walls, a floor, and a roof) can now be moderated to any temperature desired – take a typical refrigerator for instance!

But when I look back at the journey through the Great Pacific Ocean, I see something that is more complex and rich than any space governed by four walls can ever be. To create spatial differences, walls/barriers are not always the answer.

There is one person, whom I’d like to meet and discuss with about his “discovery of the atmospheric dimension of architecture.”[1] Philippe Rahm, a trained architect and artist, has spent the last two decades exploring the driving role of temperature and humidity in space. In his earlier project Domestic Astronomy (2009), Rahm demonstrates a dwelling space that, rather than organized by a regimented army march between the dedicated hallway between “bedroom” and “living room” or “bathroom,” is defined by the natural movement of air and water molecules. Through understanding the basic concept that hot air rises, the bathtub – the place where one is naked and would be comfortable with the extra heat—is placed at the upper portion of the space where heat would naturally collect. It seems natural does it? Yet, why is this considered radical?

Domestic Astronomy, Philippe Rahm

Space is no longer governed by walls.

As a similar predecessor of the Domestic Astronomy, DS+R’s Blur Building (2002) had also tested the limits of physical boundaries. Confinement of space is not governed by partitions, but rather by water vapor. The extent of space goes only to the perceivable density of the vapors.

So “Now what?”[2]

Soon, kinetic architectural floors and movable walls will be things of the past. They do not have the agility to reconfigure at the rate of activity change. They were the offspring of the industrial era. The future lies between soft barriers. Like the Pacific, territories morph instantly through pressure and temperature. These soft factors become the catalyst of movement that allows architecture to compete in the race for space in this digital era.

[1] Stalder, Laurent. Interview with Philippe Rahm. Archithese 2 (2010): 88-93. Web. 4 Mar. 2016.

[2] Finding Nemo. Directed by Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich. Pixar. 2003.

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