In The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment, architecture critic Reyner Banham invokes a connection between cities and pollution that Aristotle made long ago: "While it was necessary for men, in Aristotle’s phrase, ‘to come together in cities in order to lead the good life’, those cities, by virtue of the coming together of men, would become places of pollution and congestion.”

Cities have exploded in scale since Aristotle’s time, and humanity is now predominantly urban. Although the skies above many contemporary cities are clearer than those of Victorian-era London or Los Angeles in the 1970s, air pollution remains a chronic problem in urban areas. Designers have responded in kind with projects that are simultaneously eye-catching and politically-charged.

During an event at last month's Shanghai Fashion Week, representatives from the men’s apparel brand Blackgateone distributed pollution masks among the audience. As Forbes Asia reported, Blackgateone director Hadas Zucker advocated the literal consideration of l’air du temps (the air of the time) as a source of inspiration.

The dire atmospheric condition of Chinese cities—coined the “airpocalypse”—is well-known. Last month, The Economist reported that the smog has motivated an exodus of middle-class professionals from cities such as Beijing, while the Chinese government updated its environmental-protection law with measures that include more stringent regulations for companies that harbor unsustainable practices. Time magazine senior writer Bryan Walsh reminds us that China is not unique, claiming that nearly one-half of Americans also breathe noxious air.

For architects and designers, the problem of extensive urban pollution has become a perverse kind of muse. Notable smog-inspired works include the Aegis Parka, a protective jacket created by Dutch design studio Nieuwe Heren; a palladium dichloride coat that changes color in the presence of carbon dioxide emissions and is designed by London-based artist Lauren Bowker; and R&Sie(n)’s “Dustyrelief” building in Bangkok, designed to collect atmospheric dust via an electrostatically-charged facade. A decidedly less inventive example is a jar of fresh French air auctioned for $860 in China by Beijing artist Liang Kegang.

Although such works exhibit various kinds of design ingenuity, they also project a cynical attitude regarding contemporary environmental ills. As a result, they inspire questions concerning the role of design and its relationship to the environment. How should design and architecture respond to chronic urban smog? Is this a surmountable challenge that society should continue striving to solve? Alternatively, is it an intractable problem that must be dealt with at an individual level?

As global urbanization increases, the insalubrious air surrounding our cities will doubtless inspire continued responses from the design community. Perhaps such proposals—and the disarming irony they conjure—will motivate the changes necessary to clean up our act.

Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.

Photo courtesy Flickr user Steven Buss via a Creative Commons license.