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ADS7: Something in the Air – Politics of the Atmosphere

Tutors: Marco Ferrari & Elise Hunchuck with Jingru (Cyan) Cheng

Something in the Air

‘The sky starts at your feet. Think how brave you are to walk around’.
— Anne Herbert

Outside, all is darkness. As a matter of fact, the vast expanse beyond the cabin’s hull can only be imagined. The window blinds are shut, making it difficult to discern what time zone you are in. Maybe you fade into sleep, but only until the combined annoyance of your suddenly shaking seat and the rattling of overhead lockers wakes you up. You are in an air pocket. Seconds later, the two Rolls-Royce engines propelling you through the troposphere are directed to climb a few thousand metres in order to move out of the unpleasant turbulence. In this seemingly small manoeuvre, a few hundred kilograms of a highly–refined compound of hydrocarbons are released into the atmosphere, displacing energy collected from the sun millions of years ago, completing their ascent from the ground to the sky.

These mechanical and chemical interactions—invisible air masses colliding at different speeds, perceived through the vibrations of a metal frame, together with the carbon emissions produced to avoid their discomforting effects—are probably one of the most striking ways that we experience the atmosphere in the 21st century. The demand of undisturbed air travel across the globe appears to be possible, for now, only because of the resources extracted through a geography of land exploitation and accumulation, which began centuries ago. This contradiction represents one of the multitude of ways in which late–capitalism manifests itself. The atmosphere is the place where colonialism exerts its grip – globally and across time, saturating the air we breathe, hijacking the lives of future generations, offsetting the consequences of something many of us will not be asked, or made, to pay back.

The atmosphere-ocean environment of the planet—we call it Earth—has evolved slowly, carefully, over a period of 4 billion years. (Probably through the breathing of billions of fungi that terraformed it for all other living organisms). The atmosphere itself is a gas and aerosol envelope—we call it air—that surrounds Earth and it extends out from land, ocean, and ice towards space, held in place only by the gravitational pull of the planet. The atmosphere is most dense near the surface of the planet, where gravity pulls the gases and microscopic particles of dust and smoke and chemicals inward, settling on the surface and being absorbed by its organism-inhabitants. The lives of these inhabitants—you and others like and unlike you—are protected by the creation of pressure that allows water to exist in each of its three phases—solid, liquid and gas—on the surface of the earth. Together, these multiple states allow for the absorption of solar radiation, the needed warming of the surface of the planet by the retention of heat–we call this the greenhouse effect–and the reduction of changes in temperature between day and night through what is known as diurnal temperature variation.

In 2019/20, ADS7 will look at the atmosphere as our main field of investigation. The atmosphere is the domain in which the different vectors of the current climate crisis meet and conflicts around its policing have emerged. Our atmosphere contains multiple locations where these transformations can be observed and potential sites of intervention in which projects can be imagined. Far from being understood in its complexity, the atmosphere continues to elude our ability to model its dynamics, or compute future scenarios. In order to question our understanding of planetary-scale ecosystem, ADS7 will aim to produce alternative cartographies of the atmosphere and – in so doing – produce alternative blueprints for architectural mediation.

High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP), Gakona, Alaska. This high-power radio frequency transmitter was used between 1993-2014 to study the ionosphere and investigate its potential manipulation for military surveillance. Source: Homer News
High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP), Gakona, Alaska. This high-power radio frequency transmitter was used between 1993-2014 to study the ionosphere and investigate its potential manipulation for military surveillance. Source: Homer News

Make it Rain: Atmospheric Rivers, Sky River, White Water

As a point of departure, ADS7 will focus on a recent project supported by the Chinese government to manipulate the watershed of the Huang He (Yellow River) through weather modification. The studio will examine how state plans to govern waters and climate change are leading to the rise of a new planetary imaginary, which extends well-known concepts of land sovereignty into the domain of the atmosphere. In an era of increasing water scarcity, and where geopolitics is being shaped by the unpredictability of ecological processes, the traditional means of architectural and landscape representation can play a fundamental role in framing continental-scale territorial transformations as the primary tool for shaping global – and local – politics.

At the inaugural gathering of the 'Sky River Project' research network, held in Beijing in June 2018, professor Tiejian LI and postdoctoral researcher Jiaye LI from Tsinghua University presented a paper entitled ‘White Water: A New Concept of Atmospheric Water Resource’. This paper introduced a new definition of the water that circulates in the upper atmosphere – one that would induce a shift in the understanding of this element from being a natural occurrence to being an asset which can be secured through state infrastructure. According to their proposal, potential precipitation could be thought as a readily available – and therefore displaceable – water supply, managed through a distributed network of cloud-seeding devices and the tracking of weather patterns via sophisticated remote-sensing technologies.

In addition to being the latest incarnation of Chinese plans for weather engineering, the Sky River project also aims to mitigate the increasing drought conditions of the provinces north of the Himalayas by diverting atmospheric precipitation above the Tibetan Plateau – a vast mountainous region that sits at the centre of the Asian continent. Often called the Third Pole for the amount of water it stores in the form of glaciers and reservoirs of glacial meltwater, the Tibetan Plateau is already undergoing dramatic transformations as a consequence of human-induced global climate change. While being a remote area far away from the main centres of government and population, its geography directly affects the lifeline of billions of people that inhabit its downstream regions. Asia’s main rivers – the Yangtze, Yellow, Mekong and Brahmaputra rivers, among others – all originate here and flow across multiple countries.

The Sky River concept meddles with the idea of the watershed. This geographical abstraction has been used since the fifteenth–century as a way to make terrain legible to cartographers and an ‘objective’ method to determine boundaries between nation states. What happens when the concept of the drainage divide is detached from its physical ‘natural’ manifestation – such as a mountain range (a relatively stable feature of the world we inhabit) – to become a volatile element that can be artificially displaced, or materialised at will? What concept of territory does this entail? And what architecture is manifested at the ground level? How does its side–effects affect the planning of the urban areas and countryside that will be subjected to this unpredictable hydrological regime?

The idea that atmospheric water vapour can be thought as a river – thereby projecting a two- dimensional metaphor onto a three-dimensional cloud topography – extends the control of a cartographic imaginary that is worth exploring. It occupies a void in a domain that lacks a clear legal framework – a space mostly unregulated and without definite borders – while it wipes off the map local communities, which have been living in these areas prior to the advent of the state organisations conducting these experiments. The atmosphere becomes a space that can be mapped through scientific research, appropriated through technology and administered through both land and geospatial infrastructure. Ultimately, the exploitation of the atmosphere fosters change at the ground level. New lines on the land are drawn by changing the geography of the sky, in the form of displaced rainfall, floods or chemical alteration of the water-bearing stratum.

ADS7 will start the year by looking at the Sky River project in the context of twenty–first–century climate politics, which provides an entry point to understand the complex dynamics of continental-scale transformations. What is happening in the Tibetan Plateau seems to suggest a new model for the governance of the third dimension, one that can have widespread consequences in the understanding of future geopolitical scenarios. Especially when seen through the lens of the conflicts that are reigniting across borders as a consequence of water scarcity and which are often the heritage of a colonial past that failed to provide accurate maps of these regions, while imposing Western principles of national sovereignty.

ADS7 will map the geopolitical implications of this new concept of drainage divide – and other geographical imaginations – that reside in the cloud. The aim is to provide an extensive account of how nature is interpreted and represented through state-sponsored science, while also giving voice to the indigenous peoples who are living or have been displaced from our various sites of investigation, together with their alternative understandings of territory.

This curtain evidences secrets of the cloud forest and the disappearance of clouds. The forests of Wayqecha, Peru, rely on cloud moisture for sustenance, but climate change moves that cloud layer higher every passing year. Source: The Guardian
This curtain evidences secrets of the cloud forest and the disappearance of clouds. The forests of Wayqecha, Peru, rely on cloud moisture for sustenance, but climate change moves that cloud layer higher every passing year. Source: The Guardian

A New Cartographic Imaginary

'Before we existed, and after we have gone, the ocean will continue to whisper to the atmosphere.’ 
— Kate Marvel 

ADS7 will look at different sites of amplification around the world – from polar ice sheets and vanishing glaciers, to equatorial forests and their migrating cloud forests – where the material dynamics of the atmospheric system are accelerating ecological transformations. Exploring the political use of cartography and planning, the studio will outline ways in which vast areas of the planet are being transformed by the combined action of climate change, state planning and new forms of infrastructure. We will work closely with cartographic and statistical datasets, historical documentation, engage in conversations with scientists and members of environmental agencies, study the perspectives of indigenous communities and the work of activists and local researchers who document the impacts on the territories they inhabit. The studio will aim to produce new ways of visualising ecological processes both through mapping and detailed design outputs, all the while maintaining a speculative and rigorous approach.

Our developing understanding of the atmosphere and its dynamics will guide us as we  determine sites of intervention. How can the local be produced in continuity with the understanding of planetary systems? From the numerical modelling of climate predictions, to the analysis of underground traces of past climates (worlds), the atmosphere will be studied as an architectural domain where the issue of scale – in both time and space – will be central. ADS7 will map the main components of the atmosphere by questioning the very nature of the spatial structures and metaphors that are used to represent it; by considering the ways in which data is collected and modelled in order to visualise its multiple dimensions; and by analysing the infrastructure through which it is sensed and measured. The atmosphere will be studied as a physical and infrastructural space, both up, in the air, and down, into the ground. Observatories, sites of data collection, weather modification facilities and their operational networks will be investigated as tools to advance – or subvert – political and economic agendas.

The impact of atmospheric phenomena on human settlements and relationships will provide a necessary social dimension to our research. How might forms of cohabitation – between humans and between humans and non-humans – produce solutions to unprecedented changes in the climate? Creating solutions that overcome established patterns of territorial governance and replace traditional juridical understandings of sovereignty. The concepts of climate injustice, rights of nature and climate grief will be fundamental to our reading of current geopolitical landscapes. Nineteenth-century assumptions on the use of resources and organisation of territory will also be reimagined in order to design new cartographies of the future atmosphere. A diverse network of external contributors – artists, designers, researchers, scientists and theorists – will join the studio through lectures and external reviews, sharing ways in which this set of issues can be viewed in different ways.

Representation will be central to the development of our methodology and will be used as a primary form of enquiry. Drawings, maps and data visualisations will be combined and explored as tools to bridge the gap between the global understanding of climate dynamics and local manifestations of its effects. The climate crisis can also be considered an architectural problem in as much as it is a crisis of representation. In an era when geopolitics is being heavily shaped by the unpredictability of ecological processes, a new visual language is needed to visualise these patterns and their relationships. Architectural intervention – both at the micro-scale of a device and the macro-scale of an infrastructure – can no longer be thought without the complexity inherent to such an approach. 


Marco Ferrari an architect and co-founder of Studio Folder, an agency for visual and spatial research based in Milan, Italy. The studio develops projects for cultural institutions and private clients, working across the editorial, digital and exhibition domains, while pursuing autonomous research paths that explore the politics of representation and territory. Together with Andrea Bagnato and Elisa Pasqual, Marco co–authored A Moving Border. Alpine Cartographies of Climate Change (Columbia Books on Architecture and the City and ZKM Karlsruhe, Spring 2019), based on Studio Folder’s long-term project ‘Italian Limes’. Between 2011–13 he was the Creative Director of Domus magazine and, from 2007–11, a regular graphics editor for Abitare magazine. Since 2010, he has taught at ISIA Urbino and has previously taught at IUAV University, Venice, and Columbia GSAPP, New York.

Elise Hunchuck is a Berlin-based researcher, editor and educator trained in landscape architecture (MLA, Daniels, Toronto, CA) and philosophy and geography (University of Toronto, CA). Her research in Canada, Japan, northern Europe and Ukraine uses cartographic, photographic and text-based practices to document and explore material landscapes and the inherent relationships between resources, infrastructures, natural processes, human and other-than-human existences. By considering landscapes as political ecologies, her work develops an understanding of landscapes and environmental design as ongoing projects in the immediate present. She is a member of the editorial board of Scapegoat Journal, a 2019 Maaretta Jaukkuri Foundation Fellow and a Senior Research and Teaching Fellow at The Bartlett School of Architecture, London.

Jingru (Cyan) Cheng is a postdoctoral research associate in the RCA School of Architecture. Her research interests lie in the intersections between architecture, anthropology and sociology, with a particular focus on socio-spatial models in China. Cyan obtained both PhD by Design (2018) and M.Phil Projective Cities (2014) at the Architectural Association and was the co-director of AA Wuhan Visiting School 2016-17. Cyan’s research on ‘Care and Rebellion: The Dissolved Household in Contemporary Rural China’ received a RIBA President’s Awards for Research commendation (2018).  Cyan recently authored ‘乡’ (Chinese rurality) in AA Files 76 (2019), co-edited the special journal issue ‘Collective Forms in China’ for New Architecture (2018) and exhibited at Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism (2019) and Venice Architecture Biennale (2018).

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