Chinese Air Bars

In a short post on MadRegale, Wired correspondent Alexis Madrigal suggests that we should open a series of "Chinese air bars" so that people around the world can temporarily experience what it's like to breathe the polluted city air of China.

[Image: The "air" in Beijing on June 20, 2008, with the summer Olympics less than two months away. Photo by James Fallows].

China, home to some of the most polluted cities in the world, could thus capitalize on its newest export: vials of urban atmosphere. They'll simply export the sky.
They do it already, in any case, with huge oily clouds of industrial particulates blowing halfway around the world to land as dust on the streets of California; this way they'd just make a little money from it. Athletes training for this summer's Olympics could order it by the tankful.
It'd be like bottled water – or like Marcel Duchamp's Paris Air, in which a 50cc phial of Paris air was exhibited as a readymade art object.
Take something; bottle it; bring it to market.
Leading me to wonder: if Marcel Duchamp had lived in a different historical era, would he perhaps have invented bottled water?
It'd be interesting, though, to open not only a Chinese air bar, but a Haitian air bar, and a Paris air bar, and an LA air bar – a whole series of air bars – or just one huge air bar in which all of these airs are served.
You could have even air flights: with a weird plastic mask attached to your face, staring deeply into the eyes of your date, you'd breathe in a succession of the rarest airs: Guangzhou followed by Cape Town followed by Rome is a particularly strong sequence. It brings out certain scents.
You could even wrap these up into complex, synesthetic packages – call it Café Synesthesia, and you'd appear on the evening news. While eating skirt steak you breathe packaged air from Sacramento. When you sip your wine, the air supply switches to a light southern Italian blend. Pasta dishes go well with air from the mountains of Colombia – and, in fifty years' time, you can read Dave Eggers's books while breathing air from San Francisco stored in 2008. It's vintage. Stored under ideal conditions in steel tanks.
Or listen to Mozart while inhaling air from the streets of Vienna.
It's the rise of the boutique air industry.
Cultural air archaeology.
Air harvesters – the preferred summer job for backpackers in 2050AD – are sent out to capture the sky in vast balloons. Air farms. The balloons are then kept in quarantine at international airports where stunned customs workers, earning minimum wage, look up at bulbous forms swaying inside hangars in semi-darkness.
The balloons are labeled: Singapore, Marrakech, São Paulo.
Next week your friends come round for a fish dinner – but it's not complete till you seal off the room, twist a valve in the corner... and the air of central Tokyo wafts silently around you.
You've never eaten anything so good in your life.
Air rooms. Café Breathe.
Either way, Chinese air bars are just the start.

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Anonymous glen.h said...

The concept of exporting polluted Chinese air is interesting- after all we in the West have largely exported our polluting industries to China. When stronger pollution rules have come into operation in our countries,some businesses have cleaned up, where as some simply shut down and move to places like China to take advantage of more relaxed pollution laws.Same amount of pollution, just a different location!

July 04, 2008 3:45 AM  
Anonymous exurban escape said...

I think OMA should've turned in a similar picture as a concept rendering for CCTV. Truth in advertising...

July 04, 2008 5:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In Shenyang, we measure visibility in blocks. On a good day, maybe 6. On a really good day, we can see the tower restaurant in the next district. Usually, it's around 2 blocks.

July 04, 2008 6:50 AM  
Anonymous tomé said...

You realize that in a way that industry already exists and is expanding, right?

They advocate the benefits of oxygen in stress reduction, productivity enhancement, blood pressure regulation etc etc. And people literally EAT this crap, too lazy to realize that those are precisely the benefits of EXERCISE.

Anyway, brilliant post.

July 04, 2008 8:40 AM  
Blogger Archenx said...

I checked the property of this picture in ACDsee and it is shot on 7:04am 07,08. I really do not know if this is the shot date, but I would seriously suggested list the accurate schedual of this shot under your picture. Casu in my living experience in Beijing from 02-06, she always has blue sky. The annual sand storm only comes from May to June or July. And in the summer season, there could have sudden hail in daytime, and when that thing came, the sky could be as dark as it be.

This image might be the time after the sand storm or the time before the hail comes,who knows? We need general description of the weather before and after this shot. I would really doubt your conclusion like the pollution of air bar in Beijing, how do you get it? If this is a fact, we need see the fact and database.

Again, do not just simply upload an image like pollution and reach your conclusion to that point.

July 04, 2008 2:30 PM  
Blogger Archenx said...

take a shot in London and upload it! and how could you say it is Chinese sky bar? It is a perticular day in Beijing, and lots of Chinese cities have blue sky like Yunnan, Kunming.
Also, sometimes Beijing is foggy during the summer,it could be the fog who generate this great image?

July 04, 2008 2:37 PM  
Blogger mr. v. said...

having grown up in sacramento, i can assure you that far from the most pleasant of air. part of the problem is that the city is contained in a valley.
however i do like the idea of synesthetic meals. marco frascari, who taught for a while at my school, wrote a good article on the condition and architecture.
at any rate, excellent image.

July 04, 2008 3:04 PM  
Blogger Rombsy said...

My initial reaction to the image was that it must have been foggy that day, but having read the previous comments I will try to stay out of that morass. Rather, I'd like to throw out the question: why build a building like that if it cannot be seen, or seen with at least some clarity? I mean, I know that buildings are meant to be inhabited at least as much as looked at (generally speaking) but you can't tell me that the CCTV bldg wasn't designed without consideration of how it would look!

July 04, 2008 7:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would probably dream like this if I had enough sense to use my hands after smoking pot.

July 04, 2008 11:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This post reminds me of the comments made by the heroine of William Gibson's Pattern Recognition about the unique flavor of hydrocarbons that percolate the air of various cities: as Geoff said, all cities are polluted. Its just that each particular place has a unique mix of pollutants.

Rombsy, in the Forbidden Cities article in the New Yorker included in the Quick Links, the co-architect of the CCTV building said that he "had the fantasy that the façade would disappear against the gray sky and you would be left with only the black grid.” Looks like his fantasy became reality.

July 05, 2008 1:17 AM  
Anonymous kangnar said...

ya, i like the idea, you could even have the bar experiment 'seeding the clouds' in order to clean the air with rain. like yesterday in beijing, just ridiculous downpours and flash lightning...

July 05, 2008 3:00 AM  
Blogger shane said...

On a side note, completely unrelated to the political/source specific connotations of these air bars, a boutique air bar has actually been created, the flood restaurant in paris. The restaurant has a huge tank of algae rich water cleaning and purifying the air. You can see pics in the portfolio of the designer look at project number 23

July 06, 2008 1:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was there on June. I would say the air pollution has nothing to do with this image. or vise versa. Because it is a raining season for the city and when it comes, the sky turns to almost dark, and it is foggy. Yes, it is true that air pollution is there in BJ, but not this image. The conclusion is abosultely on the wrong track and misleading. Try to be critical, guys, think about it, if BJ is like this? How could survive for this people? on the other hand, for the critical, do not reach your conclusion too fast to shield the truth.

July 06, 2008 5:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

^ Anonymous - in response to your question, 'if Beijing was really like this, how could people survive?'

"The Chinese Academy of Environmental Planning in 2005 estimated there were 411,000 premature deaths, but a 2007 World Health Organization study said pollution killed 656,000. (This compares to 41, 200 premature deaths annually in the US.)."

"A recently published study, conducted by the Chinese Academy on Environmental Planning, blamed air pollution for 411,000 premature deaths - mostly from lung and heart-related diseases - in 2003. It said that a third of China's urban residents were exposed to harmful levels of pollution. More than 100 million people live in cities, such as Beijing, where the air is considered "very dangerous".

The political implications are also becoming more apparent. Health concerns, particularly regarding cancer and birth defects thought to be caused by chemical factories, have been a major factor in a recent wave of protests. Conservation groups say acid rain falls on a third of China's territory and 70% of rivers and lakes are so full of toxins they can no longer be used for drinking water."

July 07, 2008 12:22 PM  
Anonymous cuishi said...

South China is suffering floody weather, and most Chinese cities are realated to that. Beijing has rained almost for a month. What i want to point out is that, this photo has nothing to do with the polluted air in Beijing, though the air in beijing is more terrible than the others around the world. It's just foggy but not dusty i this photo.

July 09, 2008 2:09 AM  
Blogger Rombsy said...

We get it, already- the lead photo in this post MAY represent some other atmospheric conditions than merely the worst smog I have ever seen! Can we talk about something else?
Thank you, emceekoopa, for pointing out the New Yorker story- I missed that the first time around. The line at the end of the first paragraph, second page, reminds me of the only JGBallard novel I've read- Highrise. I find it encouraging "that planners in the United States have been trying to get away from [exactly that model] in recent decades."
I like the various Chinese nicknames in the article, too.

But no-one took the bait on my question about buildings being for looking at versus inhabiting? I avoided using a phrase like form vs function bc part of "function" can certainly be aesthetic, but how about some percantages? Is this bldg 60% about external appearance and 40% about internal occupancy? What about other marquee architecture, or architecture in general?

July 09, 2008 4:17 AM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

Rombsy, the CCTV building was definitely designed to be a sort of "icon" of the new Beijing, as well as to give an architectural face to the state television service. So the building is very much there to be looked at - as much as the people inside of it, working for the state-controlled media, will be inside of it looking out at us.

July 09, 2008 9:42 AM  
Blogger cdiddy said...

I was in Beijing this June 26th through the 29th. almost every day the sky looked like the referenced photograph. However, I do believe some of what we were seeing was weather based as I have been to Beiging at other times of the year and have experienced relative blue skies.
The CCTV tower is iconic and is in sharp contrast to historic Beijing Architecture. It will be interesting to see how this buildings structural and mechanical systems will perform over the next few years.

July 09, 2008 12:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

im suprised they arent selling paris air replicas already .. seems like it would be a cool souvenir. i'd get one.

July 14, 2008 1:18 PM  
Blogger JME said...

Hey Geoff!

Just remembered reading this excellent post. Thought you might like this project I've been working on. Also on the inability to see the sky, this in a more psychological rather than a physical way though. Check it out!

Hope all is well.
Jose Esparza

August 23, 2008 4:26 AM  

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