Fog: Architecture and Environment

Although not typically considered an architectural material, fog has the almost magical ability to alter our understanding of space and place, as well as call attention to the relationship between architecture and the environment. Fog forms when water vapor condenses around particles in the air. This can occur in a number of ways including the movement of cold air over warm water, the cooling of moist air as it moves over a mountain range, the transpiration of plants and trees, or the upward motion of air caused by colliding winds.

The Ghost Lab architecture of Brian MacKay-Lyons derives much of its power from the predominantly foggy climate of Nova Scotia, one of the foggiest landscapes on earth thanks to the collision of the cold Labrador Current from the north with the warm Gulf Stream from the South. Each structure is designed and built by workshop participants on the site of 400 year old architectural ruins left by early French settlers. The construction process is understood as a continuation of the deep material culture of the area, with the final built structure functioning as a place of nocturnal social and cultural celebration upon the project’s completion. Common across all Ghost Lab projects is the dramatic effect of light emanating from semi-enclosed structures. As fog begins to form in the evening along the site’s coastal location, the simple archetypical structures are transformed into glowing ghosts on the historic landscape.

In sharp contrast to Ghost Lab’s use of the local climate to imbue deep mythological meaning into relatively simple architectural structures, Diller & Scoffidio’s Blur Building takes a far more conceptual and technological approach to fog. Built as an exhibition for the 2002 Swiss Expo, the Blur Building consists of a structural scaffolding of water pipes enveloped in a cloud of mist. The spray emitted from the mechanized piping responds to wind direction to ensure that the manufactured cloud remains centered around the structural scaffold. Visitors are given specially designed raincoats with embedded LED lights and smart technology which allows information to be shared wirelessly between visitors. Here, fog is manufactured to obscure but not fully conceal the techno-structure that makes this manufactured environment possible.

A more recent project that seems to bridge the gap between the techno-driven apporach of the Blur Building and the mythological qualities of Ghost Lab is the “Cloudscape” installation at the 2010 Venice Biennale by the German climate engineering firm Transsolar and Japanese architecture firm Tetsuo Condo. The project offers an incredibly poetic and sensorial understanding of fog through a careful engineering of multiple microclimates within a single room. Unlike the Blur Building which attempts to manufacture a cloud through a reliance on intensive mechanical equipment, Cloudscape succeeds in engineering an actual cloud using the very same principles that produce clouds in nature: the stratification of air temperatures and humidity levels. Three types of air are pumped into the room at three levels: cool dry air at the floor, warm humid air in the middle, and hot dry air at the ceiling. A spiraling ramp brings visitors through the space, allowing for a full sensorial experience of the changing temperature, humidity, visibility levels, and qualities of light produced across the three engineered microclimates.

Although both the Blur Building and Cloudscape were designed as temporary artistic installations, the shift from a techno-mechanical approach to environmental engineering to an approach that is rooted in natural systems is profound when considered in relation to sustainable design. The current focus on mechanical and technological solutions in sustainable architecture lacks both a rootedness in the logic of natural systems as well as the phenomenological qualities that make these natural systems intuitively understandable and deeply meaningful.

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