By Grace Mitchell Tada, Assoc. ASLA
According to Klaus K. Loenhart, editor of Breathe: Investigations into Our Atmospherically Entangled Future, most of us have forgotten about air.
In the middle of a global pandemic, fault of a respiratory virus circulating through the air; amid the recent global surge of record-setting wildfires that have sullied air near to them and far; given the blankets of smog that smother places like Delhi, Riyadh, and Beijing, that claim of forgetting air seems unlikely.
Yet, assert many authors in Breathe, we’ve forgotten our one-ness with the air—how all of us are, effectively, “being-in-the-air.” It’s a forgetting inherent in Western metaphysics, from the Enlightenment to Heidegger to the Anthropocene, an outgrowth of the lineage that holds humans as separate from nature. But it is impossible to isolate ourselves from air, Loenhart argues. Simply breathing “means immersing ourselves in a reality that flows through humans just as much as the air and atmosphere of the planet.”
Loenhart invites us to remember both our place literally in air and the agency of it. In twelve essays, contributing authors reflect upon our relationship with the atmosphere: how it can be reformed to match this moment of climatic change, how to coalesce social and cultural understandings of atmosphere with the scientific, how to live more collaboratively within the planet. The overarching gesture of the volume invokes humankind to reframe how we live on earth by creating new interrelationships with “our planetary whole.” And that is where design comes in.
Throughout the volume’s three sections, authors use the words “air,” “atmosphere,” and sometimes “climate” in one sense interchangeably, but also with intention. For instance, literature scholar Eva Horn employs air because of its “rich ontological, social, cultural, and anthropological and aesthetic implications” that the word atmosphere doesn’t include. The variance of vocabulary supports the book’s claim of the ubiquity of air throughout our lives, from the scientific to the spiritual to the aesthetic.
Essays in the book’s first section underline humankind’s intertwining with our atmosphere, and the significance of that relationship. “Through our breath,” writes culture and media scholar Heather Davis, “we become the universe, we begin to understand our connections to the universe.” Yet as much as it unites, Davis reminds us too that the atmosphere reflects “the differential condition under which our lives are prolonged or foreshortened, depending on whether our bodies are valued or not.” Environmental racism or the murders of Eric Garner and George Floyd are a few tragic testaments of that reality.
Horn also emphasizes our relationship with air as based in cultural and social fact. Limiting our understanding of air to scientific knowledge—like atmospheric or climate science—restricts our human experience. She advocates embracing “historically outdated, indigenous, tacit, or imaginative and fictional forms” of knowledge. Doing so can facilitate our understanding of existing in air, “going beyond the divide between organism and environment towards a consciousness of our exchanges with it—the ways we breathe it, feel it on our skins, sweat and shiver, notice the smells and changes of the seasons.”
In the second group of essays, authors write about atmospheric and climatic forces in society. Urban researcher Jean-Paul Thibaud recognizes air as manifesting in four different ways: weather; “sub-nature,” like unpleasant urban byproducts including smoke, smog, or industrial debris; “commodity,” manifesting in aestheticized urban spaces like artificial climate; and ambience.
Some of these manifestations are, according to philosopher Gernot Böhme, examples of design: constructed spatial atmospheres. To illustrate his point, he cites C. C. L. Hirschfeld’s nineteenth-century tome, Theory of Garden Art, which explains how to produce landscapes that “attune” visitors to respond in a certain way or that can appropriately match their mood. Böhme writes that employing landscape architecture in this fashion demonstrates Hirschfeld’s astute understanding of the “phenomenological experiences of nature,” and how they impart a “specific spatial atmosphere.”
This power to make atmospheres, says Böhme, is critical: “it touches human sensibilities, it affects the temper, it manipulates the mood, it evokes emotions.” It’s so important, in fact, that he argues humans have not only a “basic aesthetic need to live in an environment where I feel well but also a basic need…to atmospherically co-determine my surroundings through my presence and be substantially entangled with them.”
In the volume’s final section, Loenhart brings together authors, many of whom are designers, envisioning a world expressing a new relationship with air. It is the design disciplines, writes Leonhart, that must articulate “a drawing together of all existence in the atmosphere.”
One way to do this starts with plants, “the life-giving entanglement of the lithosphere and the atmosphere,” in Loenhart’s words. Landscape architect Rosetta Sarah Elkin advocates increased attention to plant life, asserting that looking to plants and their relationships with other life forms, can exemplify “the potential of working together.” This awareness could, in turn, amend our relationship with plants to be more inclusive, less utilitarian, more communal—not “exempting” our human selves from nature. Elkin, too, advocates uniting science and common knowledge and practices—enabling reciprocal, collective ways to interpret and describe plant life.
This section is likely to be of most interest to readers eager to envision what exactly. the “new imaginary” Loenhart talks of could look like. Within this collection of cerebral essays, a reader may wish for more models of this atmosphere-based world, but the breathe! pavilion offers a vivid example of how we could design for it. The project appeared at the EXPO 2015 in Milan, and Loenhart himself took part in creating it. The 560-square-meter planted forest amplified the inherent cooling effect of trees and plants and highlighted the “biometeorological entanglements” between light, humidity, sound, wind, temperature, and odor. The resultant atmospheric landscape transported visitors into a calm space, cognitively removed from the hectic EXPO. Fittingly atmospheric, evocative photographs of the pavilion illustrate the book.
Loenhart explains the pavilion invited visitors to see themselves as connected to the “planetary interior,” a vantage from which “the bodily-sensory experience of synergy in the atmospheric naturally activates deeper meanings of our being-in-the-world.”
And it’s from here, Loenhart imagines, that we can rethink how we are living in the world, conceiving of new, collaborate relationships with the planetary whole. Given our current reality, we will only be increasingly in need of new habits, negotiations, and systems that allow us to continue living within our world. For anyone striving to design for our changing planet, especially those dissatisfied with the status quo and in search new inspirations and considerations, this book could be a welcome prompt.
Grace Mitchell Tada, Associate ASLA, is with Hood Design Studio and PGAdesign and co-editor of the book Black Landscapes Matter.