Bubble Problems: An Archeology of Infection and Environmental Control

Author: Lydia Kallipoliti

With new protocols of decontamination becoming part of our daily practices, the pandemic has transformed our households into spaceships and has rendered the outdoors as a defamiliarized non-cohesive space. Architect Lydia Kallipoliti investigates architectures of containment to find new ways to fathom architectural legacies of interiorization, climatic control, and fear of infection.

The last scene of First Man, Damien Chazelle’s 2018 biopic of Neil Armstrong’s moon landing, shows Armstrong returned from the moon, touching the sealed glass of a clean room to reach his wife. After 140 minutes of lucidly conveying the improbable survival journey of space flight—with humans enclosed in noisy tin cans, screeching and leaking toward the unknown like adolescent wounded animals—Armstrong was in solitude encased in yet another sealed capsule, to sterilize his bodily mass from contaminating Planet Earth.

Neil Armstrong touching his spouse Janet Shearon (portrayed by Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy respectively) through the glass of NASA’s quarantine facility in Houston after returning from the moon. Snapshot from the film First Man (2018) directed by Damien Chazelle.

Along with his Apollo 11 crew, Armstrong was held in quarantine for twenty-one days at the Lunar Receiving Lab in Houston, after being transported in the USS Hornet recovery ship, a mobile quarantine facility (MQF). The lunar quarantine program, which was established in 1963 by NASA’s Interagency Committee on Back-Contamination (ICBC), mandated strict sterilization protocols for every space mission before and after flights. The objective was first to ensure manned missions would not be compromised because of equipment malfunction. Yet, more importantly, clean rooms and quarantines for astronauts returning from space would hinder the remote possibility that cosmic explorers could bring back dangerous organisms that could destroy all life on Earth. This was the threat that urged the US Congress to authorize NASA in building the Lunar Receiving Laboratory in Houston, where returning astronauts, their spacecraft, and all of the samples of lunar material could be kept in strict quarantine and tested to determine if they posed a threat to the planet (Carter, 2001, p.235).

President Richard Nixon commends the Apollo 11 astronauts (Armstrong, Collins, Aldrin), who look out a window in the Mobile Quarantine Facility aboard the USS Hornet. (National Archives, 428-K-76961).

At the same time, sterilization protocols were also consistently applied down on Earth, especially in the setting of the laboratory. Decontamination and the isolation of biological life within a confined sealed perimeter was not only a method to prevent infestation from the outside, but also a method to maintain and control environmental conditions of constancy while an experiment was taking place. As early as the late 1940s, plant physiologist and biologist Frits Went was obsessed with the decontamination of his phytotrons at the Earhart Plant Research Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). The fully air-conditioned phytotron, where plants could grow in an atmospherically designed medium, demonstrated for Went that plants placed inside its protected and uniform environment grew better than plants grown in the polluted and environmentally variable atmosphere of a city. Went went to great lengths to prevent atmospheric variation in order to avoid infestation, by rigidly controlling the interior weather of his phytotrons. His regimes included locked doors, sterilized jumpsuits, and continuous hand washing and hair combing. As he noted, “once a person becomes aware of the fact that he/she may be a vector of insect-spreading, it is amazing to observe how many aphids or other plant pests are carried on one’s clothing” (Went, 1957, p.47).

The very act of entering a controlled, sealed space was also the mechanism by which corruption could penetrate the facility (Munns, 2017, p.81). Contamination takes place as soon as humans with microorganisms inhabiting their bodies enter them. The laboratory can thus only be viewed as a biological preserve until someone enters its premises. The colonization of the laboratory by humans as living participants is by default a type of infection; it is a blending of substances, species, and materials either of biogenic or abiogenic sources.

Dr. Frits Went working in the 1940s at the California Institute of Technology, where he constructed a series of greenhouses in which he could vary light conditions, humidity, temperature, air quality, and other variables. It was at Caltech in 1949 that Went developed the phytotron. Courtesy of the Caltech Archive.

The prevention, nevertheless, of decontamination was warranted for Went via the impenetrable enclosure, where airflow was highly regulated and managed in levels of comforts for the contained subjects to flourish. The prospect, therefore, of climatic control cannot be detached from the hygienic conception of a pure disinfected atmosphere, one that is regimented and safeguarded for selected subjects. In speaking of comfort, the father figure of environmental control in architectural debates, Reyner Banham, was quite explicit in announcing his famous collage for an “environmental bubble” as a hygienic project. Even though Banham, nude, was surrounded by machines that would yield the temperature to unburden him from clothing, his fixation was foreseeably on screening out noxious atmospheric pollutants from the domestic interior. According to Banham, atmosphere was not only to be calculated, but also to govern design decisions, decisions undertaken with the aid of medical practitioners (Banham, 1969, p.48). Banham’s ardent advocacy in the 1960s for the conditioning of indoor air quality sprang from his voracious investigations in the evolution of building systems throughout the nineteenth century, determined by medical practitioners. Doctors were directly transferring their medical knowledge in the environmental management of airflows. In this light, the tempered interior was a remedial treatment to the pathology of unregulated airflow. Specifically, he wrote: “That obsession with clean (which can become one of the higher absurdities of America’s Lysol-breathing Kleenex-culture) was another psychological motive that drove the nation toward mechanical services. The early justifications of air conditioning were not just that people had to breathe; Konrad Meier (‘Reflections on Heating and Ventilating’, 1904) wrote fastidiously of excessive amounts of water vapor, sickly odors from respiratory organs, unclean teeth, perspiration, untidy clothing, the presence of microbes due to various conditions, stuffy air from dusty carpets and draperies…cause greater discomfort and greater ill health. (Have a wash and come back for the next paragraph),” (Banham, 1969, p.46).

To paraphrase Banham, wash your hands, and come back for the next paragraph.

During the clickbait of the current COVID-19 crisis, the icon of the bubble and decontamination protocols resurge insatiably. Haus-Rucker-Co’s masks, balloons, and mind expanders reemerge as prophetic. So does Coop Himmelb(l)au’s “Restless Sphere” in Basel and Buckminster Fuller’s “Dome Over Manhattan” with Shoji Sadao; along with many other bubbles as organizations of containment and engineered safety. It is important to remember, nonetheless, that the bubble does not singularly operate as a defensive medium from danger, pollution, and disease in a surrounding physical reality; it also operates as an existential medium of detachment for individuals or collectives from the urban fabric and the social sphere. Beyond a prophylactic, the bubble is a machine of calibration for the human and material capital inside the boundaries of its perimeter.

Berlin art collective Plastique Fantastique founders Marco Canevacci and Yena Young in their bed with their coronavirus faceshield, April 2020. Published in Dezeen on May 6, 2020.

In the 1960s-70s, the rise of the “bubble” cannot be detached from the framework of social and political unrest that rendered cities as dark places of smog, lacking oxygen. It not only controlled the weather for the purposes of comfort and leisure, but also operated as a prophylactic from the dirty urbanity, the filth, ugliness, congestion and noise that geophysicist and oceanographer Athelstan Spilhaus feared for his “Experimental City,” a large-scale domed city that would have been implemented in Minnesota (Spilhaus, 1968). At the same time, the bubble enforced biased standards of comfort and well-being for the entirety of the human race, like a power structure that could maintain and manage constancy over bodies and psyches. It provided a homogenized atmosphere in order to control and predict the behavior and growth of bodies, as tools within a constant atmospheric medium.

Prior to the architecture of the bubble operating as a protective measure against pollution, in the 1950s it represented an engineering challenge to maintain a protected thermal equilibrium that would create controlled and sequestered comfort zones held within narrow ranges. Aside from the allusion of comfort and well-being, the construction of interior weather was on many fronts a cosmological project; it was a project of sovereignty to conquer territories and to control the population shielded inside. This becomes evident if one reflects upon the spectacular posters that Swiss graphic designer Erik Nitsche drew while working for General Dynamics between 1955 and 1960. In addition to being tasked to popularizing atomic energy and reinventing the company’s visual identity as a purveyor of peace and progress (rather than a producer of war engines), Nitsche drew a series of posters under the theme to “Explore the Universe,” one of which was the poster of “weather control.” Harnessing the weather, then, inside a jar, has reflected an understanding of bodies as mechanical tools within a constant atmospheric medium in order to control and predict its behavior and growth. For the philosopher and physician Georges Canguilhem (as referenced by David Gissen), it is precisely such a mechanical vision of biology that gives life a specifically modern character (Canguilhem, 1992). If organisms, either people or plants, are examined explicitly as mechanical structures serving a physical equilibrium, one cannot account for the complexity, but neither for the beauty of life.

Erik Nitsche, Printed Lithograph, General Dynamics - Exploring the Universe / Weather Control, 1958.

Controlled bodies encircled in the premises of quarantined experiments are nowhere more evident than in the visualization of containment, looking inside through airlocks. Like the photograph of Armstrong and his crew in the mobile quarantine facility, the closed ecological life-support system BIOS-3 at the Institute of Physics of the Soviet Academy of Sciences Siberian Branch offers a profuse archive of sealed subjects and the fear of breach. Looking through circular airlocks renders the perimeter of the facility as a critical barrier not to be penetrated at any cost. But perhaps most importantly, these photographs render the crew as an object of observation, monitoring, and experimentation. Bodies are no longer outside the biological preserve of the experiment.

BIOS-3 in 1973. Pictures by Nikolay Bugreyev. Published in The Siberian Times (2016).

Independent of regenerating material resources—among which included the conversion of human excrement into food—one of the most substantial, unprecedented, and still-unique characteristics of BIOS-3 was its autonomous governance by those living inside it. There was no interference from an external control panel or series of experts monitoring the experiment; BIOS-3 was contingent on the actions and decisions of the users inside. BIOS-3 not only made it possible to study how humans operated in containment, but also exhibited “the problem of the reciprocal influence that microbes and humans have upon one another, as well as other problems that arise when more than one person inhabits a closed ecosystem (Gitelson, Lisovsky, Genry, MacElroy, 2002, p.231).”

For BIOS-3, autonomous internal control was vital. In all experimental ecosystems implemented before, human test subjects participated in the system as nothing more than a metabolic link. BIOS-3 was the first closed ecosystem in which humans were supported as active agents rather than passive constituents, controlling the evolution of the system from the inside out. This internalization, both in terms of material and informational resources, is the ultimate example of closure, insofar as the concept refers to a system’s organic independence and self-governance.

The results of this experiment in codependency and cohabitation demonstrated the complexity and diversity of living enclosed ecosystems. Chances are that some species act in unforeseen ways (Salisbury, Gitelson, Lisovsky. 1997, p.583). Even though perfectly sealed from the outside, BIOS-3 presented unexpected findings about the dynamic equilibrium between a human microorganism and its microflora, inside the experiment. Closure seemed to entice unpredictable patterns in the constitution of microbial communities. Human actors demonstrated a shift in their gut microflora under extreme conditions of containment, such as nervousness, physical overwork, and continued feeding on specially developed diets. Particularly in hermetically sealed spaces, significant changes in individual microbiota patterns carry the risk of microbial shock, or the inability of the body to inhibit the growth of potentially pathogenic microorganisms. And humans staying in isolation for a long time usually exchange their microflora with one another, which can often be pathogenic and infectious.

In many cases, the source of infection destabilizing the system comes from inside; produced by the interactions of contained subjects and species rather than an external contaminant penetrating the surface that secures the perimeter of a sealed space. The fear of restraint within a diseased space, as well as the impossibility of escape, has vividly manifested in visual culture, particularly in films over the past fifty years that mimic the aesthetic and cultural anxieties of their times. While these thin borders between the world as we know it and its decayed, infested version is a figment of fiction, Donna Haraway reminds us that “the line between social reality and science fiction is an optical illusion” (Haraway, 1991, 149).

Agnetha and Matthew Septimus, with children Ezra and Nora. Photography by Stephen Lovekin, Brooklyn, New York, March 20, 2020 for the project “Words At The Window: Social Isolation And The Coronavirus.” Courtesy of Stephen Lovekin’s Instagram.

Architectures of containment have recently acquired new forms of resonance in our new pandemic reality. The view through the airlock in BIOS-3 is now representative of our current state of induced paralysis and the requirement to stay at home. Via the photographic lens of Stephen Lovekin, thousands of citizens in Brooklyn, New York, look to the outside with dire longing, hoping for a day where we can regulate our porosity between inside and outside.

In our new reality of the age of extinction, we have revised how we navigate autonomy and territoriality, from inside to outside; renewed protocols for leaving and entering the household are forged. The process of departure and reentry expands the threshold of the door to an elongated space of serial decontamination steps. The door is now an airlock, necessitated to enter the unfriendly and unforgiving void of a foreign planet outside. Our households are spaceships, whilst the outside has become a defamiliarized non-cohesive space, where urbanity has transformed into a series of constellations of “essential” places.

With no hope of exteriority, the question becomes how long can we live in individualized containers?

To address containment, a new kind of criticism is needed; new ways to fathom architectural legacies of interiorization, climatic control, and fear of infection. For there is no longer an outside, but the reality of the inside is also generating its own hysteria. The lesson from the small-scale microbial derailments of BIOS-3 is that in all likelihood, our containment will come back to bite us. We are all on the inside together, unwittingly being the sources of our own infestation.

Cover image: The BIOS-3 station during a closed ecosystem experiment, observed by one of the experiment’s leaders, Vladimir Okladnikov. The photograph was taken on January 30, 1985. 

Lydia Kallipoliti

Lydia Kallipoliti is an architect, engineer and scholar whose research focuses on the intersections of architecture, technology and environmental politics. She is an Assistant Professor of Architecture at the Cooper Union in New York. Previously she has taught at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where she directed the MSArch program, Syracuse University, Columbia University, Pratt Institute and the University of Technology Sydney; she was also a visiting fellow at the University of Queensland in Australia.

Kallipoliti is the author of the book The Architecture of Closed Worlds, Or, What is the Power of Shit (Lars Muller/Storefront, 2018), as well as the History of Ecological Design for Oxford English Encyclopedia of Environmental Science. Her work has been exhibited in a number of international venues including the Venice Biennial, the Istanbul Design Biennial, the Shenzhen Biennial, the Oslo Trienalle, the London Design Museum and the Storefront for Art and Architecture. Kallipoliti is the recipient of a Webby Award, grants from the Graham Foundation, and the New York State Council for the Arts, an Honorable Mention at the Shenzhen Biennial, a Fulbright scholarship, and the ACSA annual award for Creative Achievement. Recently, her practice ANAcycle was recognized as a Leading Innovator in Sustainable Design in BUILD’s 2019 & 2020 Design. Kallipoliti holds a Diploma in Architecture and Engineering from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece, a SMArchS from MIT and a PhD from Princeton University.


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This essay is part of the Revenge of the Real special project by The Terraforming research program and Strelka Mag. Read more essays here.

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