Climatic Media: Transpacific Experiments in Atmospheric Control
Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2022
256 pp., illus. 15 b/w. Paper, $25.95
It is rare that architecture gets to play a starring role in the convergences between digital media, technology, and artificial weather. Even rarer so with an emphasis on East Asia. Yuriko Furuhata’s recent book Climatic Media: Transpacific Experiments in Atmosphere Control demonstrates the opposite: that the built environment speaks volumes about the emergence of cybernetic models and their influence on the atmosphere as an object of environmental control.
As an architectural historian, it is not unexpected that Cold War ideologies on both sides of the Pacific Ocean gave birth to ideas around climatic media. While there have been plenty of studies devoted to the North American and European contributions to Cold War science, Furuhata’s refreshing approach to the remixing of these disciplines forms a non-linear genealogy that emphasizes Japanese contributions taking the reader on a number of deep-rooted historical journeys. The staging of Expo ’70 in Osaka emerges as a central theme for this book that delves into computer simulations, futurology, and mathematical projections. Yet, most of these architectural interpretations of Expo ’70 have neglected the role of the atmosphere. It is this particular invisible/visible set of elements – fog, indoor air, and snow – that Furuhata devotes the most attention. Indoor atmosphere develops as its own type of climate resulting from systems of mechanized heating, ventilation, and air conditioning. These elements born from meteorology and the natural environment are contextualized among scientific innovations and political events in Japan that have allowed them to influence the built environment. She writes that the historicity behind notions of climate is fundamentally geopolitical where “it has been mobilized in direct support of imperial and settler colonial projects” (15).
Piecing together disparate moments of time across the Pacific, Furuhata connects architecture, atmospheric science, digital computing, and environmental art through what she calls “thermostatic desire” or a “technophilic desire to posit the atmosphere itself as an object of calibration, control, and engineering” (2). Each of the chapters employ a media ecology approach that explains given examples and considers the failures of infrastructure that accompany them. By broadening what is considered climatic media, Furuhata brings elements such as fog and snow into dialogue with chemical elements like silver iodide and phosphorus. As Furuhata has written elsewhere, even Eastern practices of feng shui acknowledge environmental elements facilitated as flowing breezes through “dragon gates” in order to shape the appearances of skyscrapers (Furuhata, 2019). She challenges the Eurocentric nature of Peter Sloterdijk’s proposition that modernity represents the age of globalized air conditioning. She reveals key connections and theoretical concepts that underpinned how Japanese scientists and bureaucrats strategized to expand the Japanese empire’s “living sphere” that promoted the organic unity of greater East Asia.
For architects, some of the book’s protagonists and design propositions are relatively familiar. She examines Kenzo Tange’s A Plan for Tokyo (1960), Tange and Frei Otto’s Arctic City (1971), and Kurokawa Kishō’s Nakagin Capsule Tower (1972). Though some of her conclusions regarding territorial expansion and the scalability of such enclosures are not surprising, whether related to greenhouses or space habitats, the threads that the author traces make the interdisciplinary journeys worthwhile. Furuhata is at her best when she meditates on the hidden connections between Amazon’s greenhouses and the everyday thermostats in our homes, or Ukichiro Nakaya’s creation of the first artificial snowflake at the Low Temperature Science Laboratory.
The chapters provide lively narratives in their own right. Metabolist architects, for instance, are featured in the fourth chapter. She expands upon the definition of metabolism to explore the “smooth circulation of energy, transportation, and information through the urban infrastructures” to the “pathways that circulate oxygen, blood, nutrients.”(109) Furuhata employs Kurokawa Kishō as a central historical actor to weave together capsule architecture and contemporary critiques of petrochemicals and geoengineering. Metabolism’s capsules strike a particular ecological dilemma given their reliance on plastics. She employs Marx to focus on the political economy of production and the ecological footprint of the Metabolist architects. Furuhata concentrates on the Chisso Corporation’s nitrogen based fertilisers that were spreading Minamata disease among the public, a form of methylmercury poisoning resulting from industrial pollution (116). Metabolist architects were deeply implicated in the industry of plastics manufacturing and the resulting effects of environmental pollution. As part of the “substrata of advanced capitalism,” capsule architecture derived from plastics remains closely connected to the climatic challenges of environmental waste. In fact, the oil economy that financed Kurokawa and other Metabolists’ projects embraced domestic comfort and convenience through the dual logic of security and survival through containment (117).
The 1973 oil crisis halted the flow of oil into Japan, marking the decline of domestic financing for the Tange Lab and Metabolist built projects. Despite this crisis, Kenzo Tange continued to design a monumental stadium in Riyadh and temporary accommodations for pilgrims visiting Mecca. Kurokawa’s capsules later appeared in Iraq (1972). Such entanglements with the fossil fuels and petroleum industry point to the architectural experiments by the Metabolists as being contradictory. Their very existence colored by architects’ ecological interests and hope for the sustainable development of cities were closely tied to an economic dependency on fossil fuels and petrochemical industries, whose effects undermine the very idea of sustainability.
The inevitable rise of surveillance systems and smart urbanism feature in the fifth chapter that introduces tear gas as an elemental component of climatic media. Norbert Weiner’s connections to Japanese cyberneticians and architects foreground how tear gas was “not only immersive but communicative” (137). Police use of tear gas in Japan as a form of urban governance responded to moments of crisis in civic order. Furuhata reads the correspondence between Ikehara Shikao and Weiner to supplement scholarship by Peter Galison and others who have addressed cybernetic logic and wartime geopolitics. Furuhata articulates how Tange Lab architects positioned the city as a self-regulating cybernetic organisation. Optimization and organisation underlying Arata Isozaki’s Festival Plaza for Expo ’70 allowed two giant robots with control rooms to modulate ambient components of the exposition through manual operators of lighting, sound, and screens. Tear gas and networked surveillance, for Furuhata, form two ends of the spectrum of atmospheric control. Expo ’70 paved the way for what we know now as smart urbanism and cloud-based security systems.
These are just two of the well-researched journeys that readers will encounter in this book. Navigating the rich content of chapters can be tricky for readers not familiar with these Japanese architects or the prevailing ideologies behind Cold War science. In constructing the genealogy of this book, Furuhata shifts between these networks of historical actors and related concepts around climatic media. Despite this minor drawback with the book’s overall structure, the author makes a remarkable contribution to the histories of climate in East Asia —where architecture, weather, and digital computing are reinforced as mutually interdependent discourses that continue to evolve and transform how we think about climate control.
Yuriko Furuhata, “Of Dragons and Geoengineering: Rethinking Elemental Media,” in States of Media+Environment, vol. 1, issue 1 (2019), online.