Some say that Joseph Priestley “invented” air during the spring and summer of 1771[1]… It’s difficult to know up to what extent the clergyman and amateur scientist was aware of the consequences of the experiment he carried out in the “cabinet of wonders” in his house on Basinghall Street. He placed a mint plant in an inverted bell jar. The result of this experiment is well known: the plant, confined in an airless environment inside a pneumatic trough[2], was able to survive and continue to grow. Priestley confirmed that the vegetal fragment neutralized something that, in similar experiences, had caused mice to immediately die by asphyxia and extinguished the flame of a candle. In the autumn of 1771, he was confident enough to share the results of his investigations related to the “restitution of air that had been poisoned or corrupted by animals or breathing”[3] with The Club of Honest Whigs[4]. He astonished them when he announced that air had ceased to be invisible, since it could no longer be thought as the empty space between objects.

However, the scientific finding that Priestley was sharing with this community was even greater than the discovery of a molecule (dioxide or O2), and of an immutable and stable law (similar to the Law of Gravity). Actually, these few cubic inches of air generated by a mint stem contained the principles of a metabolic strategy that would change the understanding of life on this planet. It unveiled an intertwining system so vast that it connected animals, plants and invisible gases within a politic ecology articulated through energy flow and molecular exchange. Whether he knew it or not, Priestley set in motion the ecosystemic conception of the environment, that is, one where the historical and political subject is no longer activated by an individual (human –anthropocentric– or biological –biocentric–), but by an ecosystem[5], or exchange network.

What about architecture?

Under an ecosystemic perspective, architecture cannot be something other than a junction within this relationship entanglement, a filter through which interactions are arranged. This is why permeability will be one of its fundamental characteristics. Arquitectura permeable (Permeable Architecture), exhibition by the architectural team plan:b, opens in LIGA 08 in Mexico City on February, 2013. In the authors’ words, this exhibition will be one that “allows interchanges, the transferring of any kind of fluid from one place to another and its gradation”. Both the exhibition and the book that complements it constitute an almanac of permeable architectures, which gathers, on the one hand, key concepts surrounding permeability (such as absorbency, penetrability, flexibility, availability, interchange, circularity and convergence) known as Permeability Angles. On the other hand, it is a catalogue of Permeability Phenomena, a series of case studies to understand them through different formats. Finally, it comprises a set of Permeable Projects designed by plan:b, which materialize an architecture that stems from the acknowledgement of its ecosystemic condition. Permeability, the same elemental characteristic that Priestley described more than two centuries ago, and that makes biotic communities and social groups function, guarantees the continuity of scales (within an inter-scale of space and time taking place from the micro to the macro level) of a porous system that can be affected, but can simultaneously cause affections and effects, through a relational architecture.

The methodology of plan:b resembles Joseph Priestley’s, not only in the laboratorial, experimental and interdisciplinary condition of their production, but also in their immense intellectual generosity. Like the english scientist, this national team has tried to make its discoveries available to the general public through all the means of communication they have access to (books[6], conferences, prestigious associations, sketchbooks, social networks, etc.), in order to make them permeate communities. plan:b is aware that architecture is inscribed within a political ecology and, therefore, it cannot be isolated, since it has no choice but to make agreements with all the other interested parties that have roles in the ecosystem. Architecture is a permeable object, and as such it is permeable to controversy, which means it needs to be discussed. Architecture is, most definitely, the “art of permeability”.

Uriel Fogué, Madrid 2012.

[1]  Johnson, Steven, The invention of Air. A story of science, faith, revolution, and the birth of America, Riverhead Books, Penguin Books, 2008.

[2]  Artifact adapted to capture and manipulate gases of different natures.

[3]  The text where he would later explain the global implications of his findings is Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air and other Branches of Natural Philosophy, Connected with the Subjects… Being the Former Six Volumes Abrid-ged and Methodized, with Many Additions, Birmingham, Thomas Pearson, 1790.

[4]  Priestley maintained fruitful contact with two communities of knowledge: The Club of Honest Whigs, during his stay in Britain, and the Lunar Society after he moved to the USA.

[5]  The word “ecosystem” would not be coined until the 1930’s, by the botanist Arthur Roy Capham, answering the request made by Arthur Tansley, an Oxford colleague. He proposed this term to define the complex interactions between organisms and their physiscal surroundings.  See: Willis, A. J. “The ecosystem: an evolving concept viewed historically”, Functional Ecology 11:2, 1997, p. 268-271.

[6]  Plan:b’s monographic publications until now are: Plan:b. Acuerdos parciales. Medellín, Colombia, Mesa editores. 2006, Plan:b. Arquitectura en espera, Medellín, Colombia, Mesa editores. 2009, AAVV, Archipiélago de arquitectura, Medellín, Colombia, Mesa editores. 2010 and Plan:b, Mazzanti. Escenarios deportivos, Medellín, Colombia, Mesa editores. 2011.