One Room, 120 Air Purifiers: An Te Liu's "Cloud"

Photos © cameraphoto arte and La Biennale di Venezia
The Architecture of Purification
The stuff we breathe indoors can sometimes be worse for our health than outdoor air. Taiwanese architect and artist An Te Liu takes no chances. Cloud, his installation at the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale, is comprised of over one hundred air purifiers hanging from the ceiling in a looming robotic swarm that Stanley Kubrick and Jacques Tati – and Venice's non-smokers -- would love.

The effect of the collection of 120 air purifiers, ionizers, sterilizers, washers, humidifiers, ozone air cleaners, all running continuously, is eerie -- not least because its mostly rectangular, squat forms and vents evoke the cool, sober designs of modern apartment blocks, and the squeaky clean future they promise.
The Modernist "Clean" Obsession
That's no accident of course: Liu, who is based in Toronto and Berlin, has written of the fascination with sterility, hygiene and mechanization that Modernists like Le Corbusier showed in their Utopian architectural schemes. The desire for clean living environments and to protect ourselves from an increasingly uncertain and ever polluted world continues today. At designboom, the artist describes one future projection of this hygiene society:

some time later, reyner banham made a provocative suggestion. why have buildings at all? the increasing sophistication of our environmental technologies will allow us to survive fine without traditional forms of shelter. we could live in completely controlled environment-bubbles, with all our needs met by an array of systems and devices.

Making Pollution to Clean Pollution
The irony of course is that powering air cleaning machines produces the sort of air pollution that they're trying to clean in the first place. Some ionic and electronic air purifiers even produce measurable amounts of ozone. And that's not to mention the pollution created in the manufacturing process of these machines: Many of them are made in pollution hotspots like China.

Protecting Ourselves
One menacing message of Liu's swarm seems to be this: If we can just keep protecting ourselves from the elements through technology, if we can stay inside our bubbles, then we needn't worry about preventing those elements from occurring to begin with. Maybe it's a metaphor for a lot of things we do in a society of enjoy-now-pay-later. Mortgage-backed securities, anyone?

In China, where breathing is deadly for 750,000 people a year, cleansing technology is all the rage in upscale buildings. Steven Holl's Linked Hybrid, for example, boasts apartments that pipe in fresh air without the need to open the window (that's not necessarily a good thing). Such technology seems less egregious thanks to the building's promised small ecological footprint.

But are filters and air purifiers not kind of like the architectural version of prescription drugs: just take these to stop your illness -- no need for preventative medicine.

Aside from Modernist apartment towers, Liu's forms also bear resemblance to the architecture of space ships and sci-fi films, a reference to those dystopian future imaginations we can't seem to shake.

Liu's sculpture may not be very green in practice -- it would be cool if the electricity required to run these machines were powered by outdoor solar panels. But it prompts us to consider the air we breathe, how we live with it, and how we might really clean it -- or not.

An Te Liu

The 11th Venice Architecture Biennale, Out There: Architecture Beyond Building, runs in Venice from September 14th to November 23rd.

Learn more about testing your air and cleaning it using house plants at Treehugger. And read even more about detoxing your home and growing clean air with plants at Planet Green.

Also on TreeHugger:
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Steven Holl's Linked Hybrid
Indoor Air Quality
Indoor Air Quality: Causes Of, Testing, and Monitoring Indoor Air Pollution
Ask TreeHugger: Portable Air Cleaner Considerations
TreeHugger Picks: Improving Indoor Air Quality
Top 5 Plants For Improving Indoor Air Quality
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