The air above us – the atmosphere of our planet – is usually taken for granted as a boundless and free space – after all, we often speak of it as ‘open air’; yet, the knowledge that this air is inexorably warming (and that we are responsible for this) challenges such an assumption. As Steven Connor has argued, ‘open air’ is an illusion: rather, air is fundamentally unstable, ‘characterised by turbid swirls, gusts and clusterings, grots, hotspots, pockets and epochs, sudden saltations and sluggish dissipations’. That the air’s turbulence is intensifying as it warms only reinforces its state of permanent crisis. No wonder that architecture and cities have remained firmly rooted to the ground, their foundations sunk deep to hold them to what is presumed to be static.
Yet, even as we find comfort in being rooted in the ground, we nevertheless dream of flying in the air. Such dreams are part of the history of visionary architecture and urbanism, particularly in periods of crisis when the earth seemed like becoming a hostile environment. Thus, the first hot-air balloons developed by the Mongolfier brothers in 1783 came at a time when France was about to convulse in revolution; the Futurist Depero Fortunato’s proposal for an Aerial City just before Europe was ravaged by the Second World War; the experiments with pneumatic buildings by the Utopie group in France and Archigram in Britain came out of the cultural upheavals of the 1960s. For some, crisis may provoke a desire to burrow; for others, to escape into the air.
Overcoming what seems like the inexorable force of gravity has been central to dreams of flying cities, whether in serious proposals like Georgii Krutikov’s ‘City of the Future’, presented to his architectural tutors in Russia in 1928, in which he outlined a socialist city that would levitate by harnessing atomic energy; or more fanciful imaginings, perhaps most notably in James Blish’s Cities in Flight (1950-1962) series of novels in which whole cities, powered by antigravity devices called spindizzies, literally take off into outer space for a nomadic interstellar life. Yet, despite visionaries like Buckminster Fuller and Shoji Sadao demonstrating that mile-wide floating geodesic orbs (their 1960 Cloud Nine project) might actually be possible (kept airborne by the difference in air temperature inside the spheres), no city has yet lifted off, discounting the fictional Cloud City in The Empire Strikes Back (1980) or steampunk Columbia in Bioshock: Infinite (2013).
Today, as cities are growing exponentially (at least, in the developing world) and many are becoming increasingly vulnerable to the likely effects of climate change (amongst other threats), the dream of flying cities has been resurrected in the work of the artist/architect Tómas Saraceno, born in Argentina and currently based in Berlin. Saraceno’s ongoing series of works Cloud Cities and Air-Port City explore how the built environment might become what the artist terms ‘aerosolar’. Far from utopian imaginings, Saraceno’s inflatable/flying structures are worked out in practise, as seen in his early installation Observatory: Air-Port City at the Hayward Gallery in 2008, in which visitors could enter a huge inflatable sphere and, when viewed from below, seemingly walk (or in my case crawl) on air. His more recent works – such as the large-scale Cloud Cities installation in Berlin in 2011 and In Orbit Dusseldorf in 2013 – offer prototypes for what could become airborne cities. Whether comprised of solar-powered balloons or inflatable spheres using cutting edge lightweight materials like Aerogel, tensile cables and netting, geodesic domes modelled on Fuller’s, or agglomerations of polyhedra that are based on scientific experiments developing optimal packing structures, Saraceno’s proposals are always grounded in practise, even as the Cloud Cities themselves remain as drawings or other imagined renderings.
Why is Saraceno inviting cities – and their inhabitants – to become aerosolar? At the heart of his call is the argument that ‘less weight equals less energy consumption’ – that an aerial lifestyle will engender a new ‘ecology of mind, a social ecology and environmental ecology’ that will revolutionise how we engage with an environment that remains stubbornly resistant to inhabitation. Saraceno believes that by living in the air (and by participating in the construction of cities in the air), we will transcend human egoism and social divisions and increase our capability to share and care more. These aims may seem impossibly utopian but, as the sociologist Bruno Latour has argued, our current condition demands such a transformation: ‘no visual representation of humans as … separated from the rest of their support systems, makes any sense today’ because we know that everything in our globalised world is always interconnected. And we also know – to our cost – that the air above our heads is part of this web of connections. Saraceno’s dream of flying cities shows how those connections can be both lived and transformed into architectures that take as little as they can from an increasingly vulnerable – and turbulent – atmosphere.