“The Ethics of Dust,” an ongoing project by architect, historian, and artist Jorge Otero-Pailos, AIA, addresses both the moral implications of pollution and the practical implications of cleaning monuments. Pollution, he contends in the account that follows, can never be eradicated—it can only be displaced. Our shared cultural heritage, then, is about monuments and prosaic structures alike, but it is also about the residue of architectural production. Furthermore, says Otero-Pailos, we can design all the grand structures we like and even make copies of those structures in perpetuity—as his project for Trajan’s Column demonstrates—but our chief product as a species is nothing more (or less) than toxins.
I think of pollution as the chief product of the Anthropocene.
It’s clearly the material that one can turn to as the evidence of the Anthropocene. It’s the anchor of this concept of a new geological era. That, to me, is really important, especially in light of the recent climate talks. The best they can do—the leaders—is look for solutions in preservation. But which date do we turn ourselves back to in terms of an ideal time when pollution was minimal?
What is amazing is this conceptualization of the atmosphere as an object of preservation.
We have been talking about architecture as interior rooms—as buildings that go to a lot line, vistas, landscapes—and now we’re talking about not just air, but the entire atmosphere of the planet as one object that needs to be tended to. The idea of turning an object back to its original moment is suspect, though—it’s problematic for preservationists. But pollution is evidence of the lack of inventiveness and intellectual sophistication around the climate discussion. If the best we can do is to imagine the return of the atmosphere to some date in the past—1985? 1995?—that’s an issue.
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Jorge Otero-Pailos has been a member of SAH since 2003.