On Ash Clouds | Testing Human Emotions in Radical Atmospheres

Eyjafjallajökull’s largest outlet glacier covered in volcanic ash

Yesterday, Sunday May 22th 2011, we started the day reading this news:

An Icelandic volcano was flinging ash, smoke and steam miles [kilometers] into the air Sunday, dropping a thick layer of gray soot in an eruption far more forceful — but likely far less impactful — than the one that grounded planes across Europe last year.

While expading in almost all the regions of the earth, humanity has always lived exposed to the forces of nature. This fragility may be highlighted by new attempts of exploit resources from remote regions. The workshop On Ash Clouds has produced some suggestive proposals for human facing extreme conditions. So, how could humans inhabit near to ashes from a volcano lying beneath the ice?. That’s the case of Grímsvötn at the uninhabited Vatnajokull glacier in southeast Iceland erupting for the first time since 2004.

In previous post we have seen ideas to transform airplanes into observatories or how to reshape the landscape using seed bombs and ash cloud as a new construction material. Now, here are some projects that takes human emotions to its limits, from the most ludic and joyful point of view to a most dystopian approach:

[1] VOLCANOLAND by Heather Dunbar

Iceland in August 2010. Photo by Luis Callejas

The idea of Heather Dunbar is to combine the existing icelandic countryside typology of electric towers and amusement park rides. As she pointed, “Both structures can be combined to create a new kind of landscape.” Simon Sellars wrote on Postcards from the Edgeland:

In the built environment, the ‘edgelands’ describes the interfacial interzone between urban and rural, a mix of rubbish tips, superstores, office parks, rough-hewn farmland, gas towers, electricity pylons, wildlife and service stations. The term was coined by the environmentalist Marion Shoard, who has uncovered the hidden dynamics at work in this ‘apparently unplanned, certainly uncelebrated and largely incomprehensible territory’.

It seems like Dunbar wants to revisit the most ludic projects of Archigram and relate them with the existent infrastructures. The definition on the interfacial interzone can be a perfect place to locate the Volcanoland, and when Sellars said that architecture and infrastructure are inseparable, he’s just reinforcing the idea behind Volcanoland: a mobile, ephemeral architecture always interacting with electricity pylons.

Volcanoland by Heather Dunbar


[2] GREY SITES by Alexander Arroyo

Grey Site Situation Room by Alexander Arroyo

Alexander Athansius Arroyo proposes a change on the concept of Black Site, which he describes saying:

From 2001-2009, one of over 50 secret US facilities in an extraterritorial, extra-juridical >global prison network operated by the CIA and its allies, housing suspected terrorists ans other “unlawful enemy combatants” in non-US sites locations included sites in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, Europe and several mobile airborne and floating prisons.

The first step to succeed on his proposals, is to monitorize in a situation room all the existent black sites, to have some data to work with. Arroyo also refers of two different data-monitorizing: one about the existing global prison network and the other about the electromagnetic charge on ash clouds before ascending to the the ionosphere. This electromagnetic charge will be used to create the new “spaces” created on the project.

Arroyo proposes to use a patented method and apparatus for altering a region in the earth’s atmosphere, aiming to create a new kind of Grey Site, a new typology of mobile prison replacing the obsolete black site typology [sic].

Grey Site 0. Launching from tertiary crater

Grey Site 0. Electrostatic cell

“Ghost” existences* –whether prisons, or prisoners– are inherent part of our current dystopic world. Dystopias often explore the concept of humans abusing technology, and according to this, we can point that Arroyo’s project is a dystopia, creating environments for this ghost existences. Such as dystopic as the existence of the black site is.


[3] SPECTROMETER by Lindsey Nelson + VOLCANIC TWILIGHTS by Traci Curri

Spectrometer by Lindsey Nelson

A spectrometer is an instrument used to measure properties of light over a specific proportion of the electromagnetic spectrum, typically used in spectroscopic analysis to identify materials. Lindsey Nelson‘s project aims to transform the Icelandic villages using spectrometers on the windows, so the “face” of the village will be ever-changing according to human activity inside the houses. This project can be easily related to Tracy Curri‘s project on volcanic twilights, from micro-scale to macro-scale.

Volcanic eruptions eject particles into the stratosphere where they exist as thin veils of dust or sulfuric acid droplets, 12 to 18 miles above the Earth’s crust. These clouds are usually invisible during the day, because they are obscured by scattered sunlight creating the blue sky of the troposphere. About 15 minutes after sunset, when tropospheric clouds are in shadow, these aerosols are illuminated. The properties of atmospheric sulfur scatter longer wavelengths of light, making red more visible in the sky and creating striking twilight colors that are otherwise not possible.

Transforming the village:

Spectrometer by Lindsey Nelson

Transforming the atmosphere:

Volcanic twilights by Traci Curri

It’s important to stop for a while and think what do we mean when we talk about transforming the landscape, which are the differences between the Chemtrail conspiracy theory or the idea of creating magnetic voids. Are we aware of our limits when trying to alterate a complete region?

Isn’t the idea of creating artificial particles another kind of dystopia or is this the point where the future waits to happen*?

We want to end quoting Stanislav Lem in Solaris:

“We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors. We don’t know what to do with other worlds. A single world, our own, suffices us; but we can’t accept it for what it is. We are searching for an ideal image of our own world: we go in quest of a planet, of a civilisation superior to our own but developed on the basis of a prototype of our primeval past. At the same time, there is something inside us which we don’t like to face up to, from which we try to protect ourselves, but which nevertheless remains, since we don’t leave Earth in a state of primal innocence. We arrive here as we are in reality, and when the page is turned and that reality is revealed to us — that part of our reality which we would prefer to pass over in silence — then we don’t like it any more.”


* Ghost existence. Term taken from the book An Atlas of Radical Cartographies, mentioned by Visible Collective.
* “where the future waits to happen”, quote from Simos Sellars on Postcards from Edgeland.

This post is part of a series of five [this, the third one] on the course On Ash Clouds. See previous here and here.
Harvard GSD Course. Master in Landscape Architecture
Visiting professors: Paisajes Emergentes. January 2011

Alexander Arroyo, Siobhan Aitchison, Erik Andersen, Kunkook Bae, Senta Burton, Sherry Chen, Rachel Cleveland, Tracie Curry, Heather Dunbar, Lauren Elachi, Michael Easler, Katie Hotchkiss, David Knugi, Kara Lam, Jack McGrath, Connie Migliazzo, Emely Milliman, Madeleine Murphy, Chris Myers, Eunsae Park, Andrew Leonard, Michael Luegering, Lindsey Nelson, Mia Scharphie, Erika Schwarz, Kate Smaby, Heather Sullivan, Xiaowei Wang, Yuyu Wang, Anne Weber, Yizhou Xu, Xin You, Jeongmin Yu, Chuhan Zhang

Instructors: Luis Callejas, Sebastián Mejía, Lukas Pauer


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