China’s leaders are “largely insulated” from the everyday air breathed in the country’s notoriously polluted urban environments. “As it turns out,” the New York Times reports, “the homes and offices of many top leaders are filtered by high-end devices, at least according to a Chinese company, the Broad Group, which has been promoting its air-purifying machines in advertisements that highlight their ubiquity in places where many officials work and live.”
“Creating clean, healthy air for our national leaders is a blessing to the people,” the Broad Group claims.
While it’s neither shocking nor even particularly interesting to note that those who can afford it will install air purifiers in their homes and offices, the implication that the Chinese government—who are probably “purposely obscuring the extent of the nation’s air pollution,” the Times suggests, and who already eat from their own separate, organic food supply—is in the process of atmospherically seceding from the rest of the nation is extraordinary.
I’m reminded of NBA star Gilbert Arenas, who, as reported here a billion years ago, once “hired a company to reduce the oxygen content in his house” so that he could “train under high-altitude conditions similar to those in Colorado.” The creation of a special atmosphere breathed only by Chinese officials could just as easily be achieved by way of architecture, framing all politburo meetings, all official residences, and all fortified state vehicles with plane-like airlocks and breathing masks.
In what could be thought of as the architecturalization of Piney from Sons of Anarchy, a government-run space would always be known for its ornamental breathing apparatus—a prosthetic atmosphere—as if scuba-diving through the murk of everyday life around them.
In a specifically spatial sense—that is, not political or ideological—it would seem that architects like Philippe Rahm are the future of Chinese architecture: designing for the control and manipulation of internal atmospheres, and evaluating the success or failure of a given space through such criteria as air pressure, humidity, and the thermal movement of air.
Or, to bring politics back into the argument, as historian David Gissen wrote several years ago in the Journal of Architectural Education, “Powerful spatial relationships emerge with the heating, cooling, and ventilation of space that connect urban spaces and other social aggregates in a complex social, political, and economic network. Understanding the complexity of these relationships requires reinterpreting the literature on environmental technological systems with literature drawn from urban geography and urban environmental studies.”
Here, though, we clearly see the value of also adding literature on the politics of this atmospheric phenomenon—the spatial politics of governmentally regulated and maintained spaces of filtered air—as if, again, we might someday recognize a space of Chinese state sovereignty not through such things as armed security teams or surveillance cameras, but through the quality of the air being breathed there. In fact, the spatial relationship between governmentality and the atmosphere only becomes more extraordinary when we put this in the context of Chinese attempts at weather control during the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Perhaps the future of state sovereignty, then, is no longer about the terrestrial control of territory—i.e. land—but about, in a very literal sense, who controls the air. The notion of air power takes on a whole new meaning here.
In any case, I was also intrigued to learn this morning that you can follow Beijing’s air on Twitter.
(Thanks to Nicola Twilley for the tip!)