CLEAN AIR POD
Antfarm, Berkeley, California, 1970
IS IT SAFER TO BREATHE INSIDE A SEALED 40x40 FOOT PLASTIC BAG OR OUTSIDE?
Reflecting the toxic air, smog and the fear of asphyxiation in urban environments, the underground architecture collective Antfarm staged in 1970 the performance “Breathing – That’s your Bag,” inviting visitors to enter an enclosed pneumatic bubble in order to breathe safely, sealed off from the air pollution outside. The bubble, called the “Clean Air Pod” (CAP 1500), would screen out noxious atmospheric contaminants and shield the people sheltered in the envelope. With an idiosyncratic sense of humor, Antfarm – Chip Lord, Hudson Marquez, Doug Michels and Curtis Schreier – wore gas masks, protective gear and white laboratory suits to survive outdoor air pollution. They urged passing visitors to sign death consent forms if choosing not to come into the Clean Air Pod. As part of a three-day environmental teach-in at the Lower Sproul Plaza of the University of California at Berkeley, per Antfarm’s request, the event was published in The Oakland Tribune as a forecast for the future: April 22, 1972.
Outdoor air quality was a primary press headline in environmental campaigns, while our memory of urbanity in the immediate postwar period is the dark city of smog, like New York City’s “Thanksgiving killer smog” in 1966, famously illustrated in the TV series Mad Men. As headlines reported, “a band of warm air, capping cool air settled above New York City and trapped all of the choking, gagging fumes that would otherwise have risen up and out of the city.” A large number of people died that very day, and many were hospitalized due to inhalation disorders. Certainly, there can be no substantiated claims of a direct ‘cause and effect’, yet the throttling fumifugium regenerated the paranoid fears of the atomic age as fears of breathlessness.
What remains a paradox is the fact that Antfarm’s Clean Air Pod has surfaced as a sustainable design practice promoting buildings as regenerative and closed ecological systems, capable of harnessing waste and providing their own energy. In light of this perhaps absurd conservationist ethic, Antafrm’s Clean Air Pod, which was originally conceived as a protective uterine-like environment, has been reiteratively translated as a conserved ecological milieu blocked from the effluence of the exterior world.
Public concerns of indoor air quality mount rapidly as large percentages of building occupants in heavily air conditioned buildings repeatedly experience symptoms of breathlessness, exhaustion, headache, nausea and unconsciousness. Air conditioning systems are in several cases the main carriers of diseases, as they can quickly transfer and distribute pathogenic airborne bacteria
like in the case of legionellosis. Still, windows remain closed. In parallel, the outdoor atmosphere has cleared if compared to the 1960s. The condition is reversed.
PROP FOR THE PRESS: This experiment was a prop, staged to create an image of a closed world for the press, but not to test the liabilities, opportunities and limitations of a closed world inhabited by the large number of people who actually entered the pod.
UNANSWERED HYPOTHESIS: The system components were basic and toxic build-up from carbon dioxide accumulated inside the pneumatic bubble. It was unclear if people were safer inside the bubble or outside in the polluted air.