O2: An Investigation into the Architectural Agency of Air
Miyake Jima, an island off the East coast of Japan, was home to 3,600 residents until 2000 when an escalation in volcanic activity caused noxious gas to burst from the crater, sending twenty thousand tonnes of sulphur dioxide into the air each day. The noxious gasses forced a mass evacuation, leaving the island uninhabitable for five years. Since 2005, two thousand eight hundred residents have returned to the island but are at constant risk of gas eruptions. Residents’ solution is to don gas masks when the sulphur dioxide levels become too high; however this does not ameliorate an ever-present, and real, danger from the air. In this research, Miyake Jima Island is employed as a testing ground to explore how air can influence architecture. Miyake’s problematic atmosphere is used as a starting point for a series of experiments that interrogate air’s architectural agency. Design experiments explore the problem of noxious air across a range of scales, from the human body to the scale of landscape. These experiments have a twinned focus: combining scientific and aesthetic understandings of air, design explorations are informed by a rich mix of chemical and material dynamics, human dynamics, and intuition. The results of these experiments give insights into two research objectives: to understand air as an aesthetic and conceptual driver in architecture, and, to propose architectural solutions to Miyake’s ever-present threat of noxious air. The research draws on the work of Jane Bennett (2010) and N Katherine Hayles (2014), in the areas of New Materialism and OOI (Object-Oriented Inquiry), to develop a methodology of designing and physical modelling where material agency takes precedence. This is addressed through design research, by way of design experiments at three scales: an installation, at human scale, focusing on “making air visible”; an Air Safety Pod, at “mid” scale; and an Air Crisis Centre. The Crisis centre is at landscape scale and designed to accommodate the island’s population in the event of a sulphurous air event. Critical analysis of site, theoretical contexts, and case studies are undertaken to aid the explorations. The thesis connects with key thinkers on the aesthetics and science of air, such as Sean Lally, Malte Wagner, Jonathan Hill and architect Phillip Rahm. This context is supported by specifically chosen case studies that relate to and support each scale of experiment. The residents of Miyake Jima have shown resilience to continue living on the island, and this research contributes to helping them create a sustainable future. In doing so, the design research explores how air can be powerful in shaping architecture: how air, the primary component of architectural space, can influence architecture.