Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
An exhibit invites the public to experience the air from five cities around the world.
Standing in the middle of London, you can get a taste of Beijing’s air.
In fact, it tastes and smells like the aftermath of a house fire, at least if an installation outside London’s Somerset House is to be believed. Built for Earth Day by artist Michael Pinsky and Danish air filtering company Airlabs, the exhibit recreates the smell, heat, and haze of four notoriously polluted cities: London, New Delhi, Beijing, and Sao Paulo.
Simulating each city’s noxious air inside plastic-clad geodesic domes, the exhibit contrasts them with an additional dome recreating conditions on the pristine Norwegian island of Tautra. The results are a mix of predictable and unexpected. For a Londoner, at least, what you can’t see or feel in the domes is as disconcerting as what you can.
The polluted atmospheres evoked in the geodesic domes are, as you might expect, unpleasant. There’s a strange vinegary saltiness to the air in Sao Paulo’s dome, apparently mimicking the effects of the city’s widely used ethanol-based fuels. Meanwhile a line of electric radiators in the New Delhi section makes its dome’s air feel sultry and as thick as syrup. Beijing’s dome comes as the greatest shock, however. With a small smoke machine pumping fumes into its narrow space, the whole space smells charred, with a headache-inducing bitterness hanging in the air.
By contrast, the dome representing Norway’s Tautra island—through which visitors enter and exit the exhibit—has an herby, almost buttery smell of cut grass, its air cleaned thanks to filters installed by Airlabs. There’s a niggling sense that some of the effects may be created by the heat of the sun on the domes’ plastic cladding, but the shift from exhaust pipe wheezing to pastoral freshness is striking enough.
It’s all safe, of course, as the domes simulate—rather than reproduce—the actual air conditions of its chosen cities. Highlighting the dangers and effects of ozone or sulphur dioxide pollution is one thing; actually exposing people to them is another entirely.
There’s also a surprise. Walk into London’s dome and you notice…nothing at all. That’s as it should be. The conditions within the dome are supposed to be recreating those that all visitors have walked through in the city at large, so there shouldn’t be any dramatic shift. The result is still unsettling: We know that in places London have dangerously high levels of toxic nitrogen oxide (NOx) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2), which reaches such saturations in some places that some streets commonly reach their maximum safe levels for the entire year within the first week of January. The U.K. government itself estimated in 2015 that nitrogen oxides contributed to the premature deaths of up to 23,500 people annually.
The problem with nitrogen dioxide, however, is that it has no taste and creates no visual disturbance. Difficult as it may be to push for political action, it’s easy to deplore the barbecue-accident-flavored air of Beijing’s pod because it’s so intrusive. Fine particles may cause concern in London, but it’s perfectly possible to go about one’s business there without registering their presence, until asthma or bronchitis hit.
Seeing grime or smelling something like char on the wind rightly causes city-dwellers to worry—but some of the urban atmosphere’s worst pollutants can kill without ever signaling their presence.