PRINT May 2011


Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates, Union Carbide Corporation World Headquarters, 1976–82, Danbury, CT. Cafeteria interior.

IN 1976, THE PRESIDENT of Union Carbide attempted to reassure the company’s Manhattan employees about their imminent relocation to Danbury, Connecticut. In a human-relations spot, he described their two presumed concerns: “The first is, What will it be like to work in this new building? And the second is, What will it be like to live in the Danbury area?” Kevin Roche, who had been commissioned to design the company’s new headquarters, understood these twin considerations of work and life as one and the same. Corporate America’s favored architect, Roche wanted the offices of the world’s third-largest chemical company to feel like “your den at home.” As the traveling exhibition “Kevin Roche: Architecture as Environment,” currently on view at the Yale School of Architecture Gallery in New Haven, makes clear, the Union Carbide Corporation World Headquarters was designed as an extension of the suburban worker’s home. Employees, Roche described, “leave for work in the morning, walk through the kitchen, get into their car, drive into the building, get out and into their office.”

Slinking between the trees, the new modular office compound unzipped along its length to hold a four-story parking garage. Ten ramps sorted and directed more than three thousand commuters to interior parking spaces within a hundred feet of their individual workplaces. Since workers drove directly into the structure, they never had to set foot outside. They never encountered the building’s exterior form: fingered office pods, sprouting from a central spine. For the employees of Union Carbide, work life and home life formed a closed loop. But as the private sphere entered the office, the reverse was under way too. Not only did Union Carbide’s new building include a barbershop, general store, and medical center, but the company also assisted its relocated “Carbiders” with mortgages and provided information on area schools and recreation. In taking responsibility for its employees’ needs, the corporation was also extending control over their private lives.

It was a model that would resonate both in the twentieth century and in our own. The historian Lewis Mumford had already considered “the environment of work” in 1934, finding its purest expression in the mine. While in the mine, the human body performed in accordance with economic, rather than natural, laws. The day was segmented into three shifts to enable round-the-clock production. The most basic requirements for life—light and air, both of which were common property aboveground—were, belowground, the responsibility of the mine operator. Indeed, in the very years Mumford was writing, Union Carbide sent three thousand workers down a silica mine in West Virginia without masks or ventilators. As a result of the company’s lack of care for the basic physical well-being of its workers—its failure to ensure that they breathed clean air—at least 476 men died from silicosis complications in what was then the worst industrial disaster in the history of the United States.

Roche’s more benevolent conception of the “environment of work” at Union Carbide some forty years later also sought to minister to the needs of its workers’ bodies, although the company’s care for its employees in the Connecticut countryside went beyond securing the basic conditions for their survival. As in many US corporations, a concern with workers’ lives turned into the cultivation of employee lifestyle: a celebration of an image of corporate life. Roche’s attention to the scene of company dining (a “singles bar,” a mirrored cafeteria, a garden café) and to the custom furnishing of each office (workers could pick “all of the fabrics, chairs, wood finishes, artwork, pen and pencil sets, the wastepaper baskets, the ashtrays, everything”) reflected an increasingly elaborate intervention into previously private facets of the employee’s life. The structure of the Union Carbide building also embodied this shift: Corporate identity was no longer expressed via the facade, the emphatic dividing line between public and private. Rather, inside and outside collapsed into the continuous experience of highway, parking lot, and office—creating an endless interior. The emphasis on the movement and circulation of people encapsulated, and reconceived in architectural terms, the fluid exchange of public and private identity. Ultimately, Roche predicted the disappearance of the office building itself, with a company dispersed among a group of networked employees who would work from home. The end of the office would announce the complete loss of any distinction between work and private life.

A little more than a year after the bulk of its employees had moved into the Roche complex, and fifty years after the West Virginia incident, Union Carbide was the setting for another industrial accident. While the Danbury staff was enjoying a Sunday off, forty tons of methyl isocyanate gas leaked from a faulty storage tank at Union Carbide’s plant in Bhopal, India, in the middle of the night, poisoning five hundred thousand local residents, including many Union Carbide workers and their families, and killing thousands within the first few days. Those who ran from the cloud inhaled greater quantities of the toxic gas; many collapsed on the side of the road.

Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates, Union Carbide Corporation World Headquarters, 1976–82, Danbury, CT. Dining room interior.

At Bhopal, the environment of industrial work suddenly exceeded the boundaries of the plant to become the substrate of everyday life. When the divide between work and life—or between the mine and the exterior world—can no longer be determined, the dangers of the workplace also become a threat to private life. For the people of Bhopal, there was no escape. Even while, at Danbury, the office became enmeshed with the domestic sphere of the workers, in Bhopal, the poisonous space of the plant permeated the very air one breathed. The reciprocal introduction of life into work resulted not only in the “personalization” of the workplace but also, as architectural historian Reinhold Martin has written, in the biopolitical fashioning of the corporatized subject. For Martin, the brutal depersonalization of Union Carbide’s Bhopal workers “was not opposed to but constitutive of the well-adorned personhood cultivated in Danbury.” The expansion of the sphere of labor, which created the semblance of a sumptuous life in Danbury, was also responsible for the endangerment of the workers at Bhopal. The corporation arrogated the most basic provisions for life and effectively reduced the worker to a biological degree zero. The economic rationale that once sent thousands of workers down treacherous mines applied in Bhopal, too. But in Bhopal, the industrial accident was treated as if it were a natural disaster. As a result of this shift of responsibility, no one was held fully liable for the catastrophe, and the Bhopal blame game continues to this day.

Indeed, the current nuclear emergency in Japan demonstrates just how indistinct the artificial zone of the plant—the space of work—and the environmental surround can be. The partial meltdown at the Fukushima complex has become, in the ongoing news coverage of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, continuous with reports on the quake itself. Despite structural precautions—thick concrete walls and flood barriers—radioactive materials have already entered food and water supplies, marine ecosystems, and the atmosphere. With the boundary between inside and outside breached, nature itself becomes an extension of the interior of the plant, as human-produced radiation becomes an active agent within natural systems. As in Bhopal, the transformation of the atmosphere over a large area after the containment failures at Fukushima suggests not only that the workplace is permeable to the outside world but also that the outside world, like the enclosed space of the mine, is a finite entity subject to modification. The formerly infinite space of the air is revealed as a limited resource.

The metaphor of the greenhouse effect, too, points to this claustrophobic sense of the enclosure of the natural world: The entirety of the atmosphere becomes an interior space, coextensive with the interior space of the mine. What Mumford called “carboniferous capitalism” involved the literal linking of the dead space of the mine, and later the oil reserve, with the world of life above (the very process by which Carbide—formerly the Union Carbide and Carbon Corporation—profited, through its petrochemical division). And the burning of ancient fossil fuels links the subterranean with the aerial through a simple displacement: Petrified carbon is released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. The finitude of the atmosphere means that, as emission levels rise, the composition of the air becomes increasingly carbon-heavy, triggering wide-ranging meteorologic and environmental effects. Unlike the chemical cloud at Bhopal and the irradiated steam from Fukushima, carbon emissions cannot be attributed to a single corporation or industry. The assessment of atmospheric carbon in parts per million is now a figure of global significance—obliterating not only archaic architectural distinctions between inside and outside, public and private (as with Roche’s Danbury office), but national, regional, and ecological boundaries as well.

IT IS CLEAR IN HINDSIGHT that when Roche declared his Union Carbide headquarters to be the “most efficient building of this size and scale that’s been developed to date,” he already understood the necessary link between a building and factors extraneous to it, such as the conservation of natural resources. Likewise, when he spoke of creating an “environment” rather than designing a building, the term brought systems formerly peripheral to design—from electricity consumption and highway infrastructure to employee lifestyle—into the domain of architecture. The formerly distinct realms of building and environment have now merged on multiple fronts, with both productive results (calculations of energy efficiency) and disastrous consequences (the release of radiation into ecological systems at Fukushima). Today, human intervention in the landscape far exceeds the architectural boundary of a building footprint to operate even on a global scale. Architectural projects not only need to take environmental effects into account: These effects themselves become the stuff of design.

Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates, Union Carbide Corporation World Headquarters, 1976–82, Danbury, CT. Serving line area in the cafeteria interior.

A series of new research projects by Rem Koolhaas’s Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) is engaged in such thinking on an international level. Invited by the European Climate Foundation to prepare a “graphic narrative” for Roadmap 2050—a plan for a low-carbon European Union—OMA’s research branch, AMO, put together (with various collaborators) an alternative to the failed politics of the 2009 UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. The ensuing report’s “graphic narrative” is the means by which the architectural proposal—freighted with the disciplinary demand for representation—displays its fluid intersections with economics and environmental science.

The dissolution of structure and environment at Union Carbide reemerges, here, in the specter of global warming: an impending crisis that is not only natural (with the potential to wreak unimaginable environmental damage) but resolutely human-made (with perhaps graver consequences for the built environment, agriculture, and politics). It is also a crisis of the precarious divide between the natural and human worlds. AMO pushes the open-border economic paradigm of the EU to imagine an infrastructural intervention that willfully ignores the artifice of state lines. The European map is reconfigured according to a proposed continental energy grid, with resources shared across national borders and potentially across the Mediterranean—North Africa being tentatively outlined as a rich source of solar power. Dominant sources of energy production determine economic zones figured by geographic predisposition. Southern Europe becomes “Solaria,” the western Balkans double as “Biomassburg,” and the region around (and including) the North Sea becomes the “Isles of Wind.” In this scheme, the “windy north” and the “sunny south” exchange seasonal energy surpluses.

Seeking to comfort an anxious public, the project leader, Reinier de Graaf, assures us that, with the overhaul of the energy sector, “everything changes, and nothing changes at the same time.” AMO presents us with a typical London street scene. The only cues the image gives us that everything has changed are a series of callouts notifying us that buses now run on biofuel or that buildings are heated with geothermal energy, and a tracery of circuits etched into the roadbed—suggesting the harvesting of piezoelectric energy from traffic vibrations. Thermal mapping, in glowing greens and oranges, has been overlaid on the bodies of passersby, highlighting the untapped energy generated by the human body itself. Otherwise, life goes on as usual.

For all its progressive appraisals, then, AMO’s vision affirms a traditional distinction between architecture and infrastructure, whereby architecture assumes the responsibility for symbolic meaning and monumentality, and infrastructure—plumbing, air conditioning, electricity—performs behind the scenes. Whereas Union Carbide put infrastructure on display—the “act of arrival by automobile” and the integration of the highway ramp into the body of the building became an iconic architectural signature—architectural form almost disappears entirely in the Roadmap proposal. It is as if the ascendancy of infrastructure cast architecture aside. Infographics are all that remain of architecture’s capacity to make meaning. AMO’s photocollages only hint at an image of this new world. Wind turbines are Photoshopped into the background of generic landscapes. Identical solar panels indiscriminately adhere to Barcelona rooftops. Products of engineering, the facilities for renewable energy themselves appear resistant to architectural innovation. AMO takes the new global sense of our shared ecosystem as a site for design—but design devoid of monumentality: It is pure infrastructure. The strongest image to emerge from AMO’s research is a diagram of the power grid itself, envisioned as a constellation of points and lines, that replaces the ring of stars on the EU flag or, cast in polished bronze, stands as a monument in a public square.

AMO surely avoids more explicit architectural drawings in part as a way of leaving the details of the proposal open-ended. Roadmap 2050 is, after all, a set of general guidelines, a provocation, or a vision for the future. But the fear of pairing this infrastructural proposal with aesthetic concepts might emerge, in part, from a fear of “green” as the dominant representational model for sustainable architecture today. In a 2009 lecture, Koolhaas, referring to the recent explosion of green walls and roofs, summed up the prevailing attitude toward sustainable building: “Embarrassingly, we have been equating responsibility with literal greening.” The green roof is a superficial—and purely symbolic—gesture, while environmental issues such as climate change run much deeper than building facades. Referring to Renzo Piano’s grass-topped California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, with its cocooned winter gardens and marine exhibits, Koolhaas asked, rhetorically: “Do we need more aquariums?”

Bernard Tschumi Architects with Zach Colbert, Parque Atmósfera, 2010, Santiago, Chile. Rendering.

The presence of nature—a biodome, a fish tank—within a building is no longer unfamiliar today, when the distinctions between the built and natural worlds, city and country, are already subject to everyday displacements. As objects from the natural world—grass, trees, fish—have become materials for buildings, the architecturalization of nature has emerged at an even greater scale. Architects have returned nature to the site of the city with projects for elevated railway parks and waterfront revitalizations. Other interminglings are the result of economics: the reclamation of parts of Detroit by weeds, or the commercial plans for a zero-carbon city, built from scratch, in the Abu Dhabi desert.

THE INADEQUACY OF “GREEN” as an index of real environmental modification leaves architecture bereft of a language for a changing ecology. The traditional architectural task of the enunciation of the boundary between inside and outside, the human and the natural, either occurs as hackneyed signage at the traditional building boundary (the green wall) or relies on visibly transgressing an implicit boundary between the built and natural worlds. But now that this boundary is everywhere and nowhere, can architecture still make meaningful distinctions—and, moreover, can it make them visible? The air, as the substrate of the mixing of public and private, interior and exterior, human and natural, mine and life, would seem to offer an enlarged site for the articulation of these divides. It is even the primary medium at stake in global climate change—and yet it appears to escape representation.

In a recent proposal for Santiago, Chile, architect Bernard Tschumi uses the atmosphere itself as material for design. He sidesteps the perceived boundlessness of atmospheric phenomena by considering the local effects of urban air pollution, and confronts their invisibility by isolating the smog that is one of its few optical effects. Developed for SCL2110, a conference on architecture and performance in Santiago, the proposal—Parque Atmósfera—is essentially an urban-scale ventilation system. Like massive hvac elements, a series of large tunnels and towers use thermal convection to draw warm city air up into the atmosphere above Cerro San Cristóbal (the second-highest point in Santiago). By puncturing the “thermal inversion”—an abrupt change in air temperature at high altitudes, which traps pollutants in Santiago and other smog-prone cities—the artificial current would trigger violent storms. The resulting disruption of static layers of air would effectively disperse the smog. Tschumi’s proposal is an attempt to regulate the city’s atmosphere, geologically contained by the Andes to the east and the Chilean Coastal Range to the west, as if it were a building interior.

Despite their impressive size, the tensile structures of the towers (appended by movable sails to enhance the stack effect of rising warm air) appear fragile in comparison with the bulk of the hill. A line of pins tracing a spinelike ridge, these towers—and the ephemeral weather effects they produce—suggest a mutable monumentality appropriate to Tschumi’s event-based vision of the twenty-first-century city. Compared with AMO’s 2050 vision, where the systemic restructuring of the built environment apologizes for any inconvenience to daily life, Tschumi’s twenty-first-century city will produce new sensations, new temporal sensibilities—and a new, mutable architecture. In other words, a static architecture cannot compete with the dynamism of the environment—whether conceived of as natural or human-made—as the defining site of urban experience today.

Unlike Roadmap 2050, Tschumi’s proposal does not address the issues underlying air pollution. Its primary function is, in fact, symbolic. The disruption of Santiago’s weather patterns, literally an acceleration of climate change at a local scale, would permanently alter the ecology of San Cristóbal and the surrounding area. The project is conceived less as an environmental corrective or a conservation measure than as an attempt to provide Santiago with a new identity—even an urban-branding strategy enabling what Tschumi calls “a twenty-first-century lifestyle.” In its drive for monumentality, the proposal attempts to render the mutable boundary between natural and artificial effects visible, as architecture. In fact, mutability itself here becomes visible—as the very matter of a new architecture.

The ventilation tunnels would house diverse public programs, shopping areas, nightclubs, and museums, to create another city center that cuts through the hillside. The ridge of San Cristóbal currently separates the wealthiest parts of Santiago from some of its poorest. By providing circulation (of both people and air) through this natural barrier and displacing the center of the city from its wealthier districts to the hillside at its western periphery, Tschumi hopes to stitch together these economically asymmetrical areas to create a coherent whole. While Roche brought private and social life into the workplace, Tschumi attempts to create new sites for social experience. Public encounter becomes an aspect of the weather—and both become media for architecture.

Bernard Tschumi Architects with Zach Colbert, Parque Atmósfera, 2010, Santiago, Chile. Photograph including rendering of proposed towers.

In fact, Tschumi terms his proposal for Santiago a “social accelerator.” “Architecture cannot create a revolution,” he writes. “However, architecture possesses the ability to position technological and social change into situations people can understand, thus either accelerating or slowing such transformations.” The social experiences Tschumi seeks to accelerate, in particular the carnivalesque socioeconomic mixing programmed within the Parque Atmósfera’s interiors (going so far as to envisage raves inside convection tunnels), accords with the spectacular control of nature via the convection-generating towers.

Within Union Carbide, the violation of the boundary between outside and inside had resulted in the asymmetrical administration of corporate subjects: on the one hand, the cultivation of a highly visible lifestyle of the white-collar employee; on the other, the invisible, precarious life of the chemical-plant worker, subject to the violent statistics of risk assessment. Tschumi takes a different approach to this breakdown of boundaries, on a larger scale. The control of the weather points to geoengineering not only as an environmental or economic imperative (as with Roadmap 2050) but as a site for aesthetic and social experience; his project suggests that this boundary zone between the built and the natural is in fact constitutive of contemporary life. The air is well suited to be a medium of architecture not least because it offers the last illusion of common property.

At the same time, however, we should acknowledge that the air is no longer neutral. It has already been incrementally appropriated by private interests: in Danbury, where the endless interiors of the home and the office defined a space of corporate control, and in Bhopal and Fukushima, where corporate negligence resulted in its deadly modification. As philosopher Peter Sloterdijk writes in Terror from the Air (2002):

If, in their history to date, humans could step out at will under any given stretch of sky, in- or out-of-doors, and take for granted the unquestioned idea of the possibility of breathing in the surrounding atmosphere, then, as we see in retrospect, they enjoyed a privilege of naivety which was withdrawn with the caesura of the twentieth century.

But the air need not be only a site of “terror”—the chemical cloud at Bhopal or the spreading radiation at Fukushima. It can also be a site of new aesthetic excitations. The immersive effects of the atmosphere constitute a totalizing zone of aesthetic experience, a space of physical encounters that penetrates even the surface of the subject’s skin. An architecture of atmospherics, as in Tschumi’s proposal, suggests the obsolescence of the very boundaries of individual experience—and the advent of a technologically assisted nature in which the human body merges with the built environment. The maintenance of human life, the necessary delivery of oxygen to the bloodstream, becomes implicated with climate phenomena at a global scale through the medium of the air. Design’s primary responsibility is no longer drawing (or redrawing) the dividing line between nature and building, or even body and environment. It is, rather, to make evident the dissolution of these very boundaries.

Michael Wang is a New York–based critic and designer.