What Is the Urban?

Registers of a World Interior

Albert Pope

Albert Pope is the Gus Sessions Wortham Professor of Architecture at Rice University and director of the school’s Present/Future program. His work centers on the broad implications of post-war urban development. Current research considers the urban implications of climate change. 

Professor Pope is the recipient of numerous grants from agencies including the National Endowment for the Arts and Shell Center for Sustainability. He holds degrees from Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) and Princeton University, and has taught at SCI-Arc and Yale University. His influential 1996 book Ladders, a study of the postwar American City, was recently reissued on Princeton Architectural Press (2015). Airquake


Airquake: the explication of air, climate, and atmospheric situations calls into question the basic presumption of beings concerning their primary media of existence, and convicts it of naïveté. 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 the possibility of breathing in the surrounding atmosphere, then, as we see in retrospect, they enjoy a privilege of naïveté which was withdrawn with the caesura of the 20th century. Anyone who lives after this caesura and moves within a culture zone in step with modernity is already bound, whether in rudimentary or elaborated forms, to a formal concern for climate and atmosphere design. To show one's willingness to participate in modernity one is compelled to let oneself be seized by its power of explication over what once discretely underlay everything, that which encompassed and enveloped to form an environment. - Peter Sloterdijk, Terror From the Air.

Can "explication," as defined above by Peter Sloterdijk, ever become a force sufficient to overcome political inertia? Can a set of ontological rights — such as breathing — actually challenge or even displace economic hegemony? On 21 October, 2013, the city of Harbin China (pop. 11million) had to close all businesses and schools and suspend public transportation, including the airport, for lack of breathable air. Looking at photos of that day in Harbin (visibility was reduced to 10 meters), one might well ask at what point does brute survival overtake the price of doing business.

Our individual and collective existence depends on functions that largely occur in the background of our routine awareness. The background status of these functions do not suggest their unimportance, indeed, the opposite is more likely to be true. These background functions constitute our life-world — the "primary media of our existence." They exist in the background not because they are unimportant but because, historically, they have simply taken care of themselves. In the modern world, however, Sloterdijk suggests that such assumptions are naive, if not lethal. Throughout the twentieth century, these functions have come under attack by the development of increasingly potent technologies, threatening human existence at the most fundamental level. To use Sloterdijk's celebrated
example, the mustard gas attacks of the First World War first brought the air that we breathe out of the background becoming the object of an explicit (environmental) discourse. This wholly new, wholly modernist discourse ultimately gave rise to both the science and the industry of "air conditioning."

For Sloterdijk, this movement from background to foreground is not limited to the explication of the air, toxic or otherwise, but is wholly characteristic of the modern project. He repositions or revalues the modern project as the explication of modern techniques, accepting their existence while revealing their threats to the life-world. In this light, the function of modernism is not to propagate, but to mitigate the effects of modernization upon the life-world. Explication, like the unbreathable air of Harbin China, brings the elements of our life-world out of a background of neglect and foregrounds them as the ontological preconditions of human existence.

Central to these elements of the life-world are, of course, the objects of the built environment. Their present uncertainty, as well as the prospects of the newly foregrounded objects of explication, force us to redirect the discourse of architecture and urbanism. The spectacular objects that drive discourse today — extravagant museums, opera houses, stadia — exist in Harbin and other major Chinese cities. They do so, however, to little effect — little at least in regards to the legacy of modern architecture and urbanism. As reformulated by Sloterdijk, explication grants to modernism the capacity to disrupt the imperatives of the neo-liberal economy and, in their place, foreground the objects of a life world — “that supplement to nature that makes being human possible”— as inalienable rights. The recent Chinese airquakes, along with other atmospheric disturbances such as climate change, remind us that modernism has always been an ontological project. Modernism is not about the invention of spectacular forms or the uncritical promotion of advanced technique; it is instead about the construction of a viable if not vibrant life-world in the face of unprecedented challenges, including those to the air that we breathe.

Iowa State University

Department of Architecture

April 4-5, 2016