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London Pod

Michael Pinsky

The Pollution Pods of Norway

In Trondheim, I met some artists and scientists who produced five „bucky balls“, geodesic domes which simulate the air quality of five cities around the world: London, Beijing, São Paolo, New Delhi, and Trondheim itself.

By Johnny Bliss

A little over a month ago, I found myself gazing at a small number of very spacey and „science fiction“-looking geodesic domes connected by tunnels. As much as these structures would have looked totally normal on the surface of the Moon or on Mars, we were actually on the grassy campus grounds of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in the rainy northern Norwegian city of Trondheim.

These domes, though I did not know it at the time, were connected to a nearby scientific lecture series, also hosted by NTNU.

As interesting as these geodesic domes (produced in collaboration with Build With Hubs, a UK-based producer of DIY dome kits) looked, their purpose was even more interesting.

See, each dome represented a different city, somewhere in the world.

Dome #1: Trondheim

The first one, which doubled as the entrance room, represented the city of Trondheim, which admittedly may have seemed a bit unnecessary, because we were already here, and frankly, the air was exactly the same.

But Michael Pinsky, the eccentric London artist responsible for the project, had an explanation for its inclusion.

Michael Pinsky-1

Leonard Aronsten 2017

Interview with Michael Pinsky

„It’s actually important to have a reception area, where it is just neutral. You don’t want to be outside and just throw yourself into London. In a way, it gives you a moment of reflection, before you really enter the pollution.“

Also, inside each dome, there was a computer monitor hooked up, telling us information about each city’s air quality. Inside this first dome, we found out that Trondheim had some of the best urban air quality in the world (although even Trondheim’s air has its problems).

Dome #2: London

Compared to that, London (Michael’s home city) fares much worse.

„We’ve got an air quality index of seventy two,“ Michael told me, pointing at the screen. „You shouldn’t exceed forty. So forty is an acceptable amount of pollutants in the air. This is an average of things like particulate matter, nitric oxide, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and ozone, as well, all mixed together to give you this air pollution index. When you’re above forty, it’s starting to get bad for your health.“

While I’d never particularly noticed the air quality while actually visiting London, after spending days in Trondheim, the air here definitely had a faintly sour smell. I even thought I could smell a hint of diesel...

Trondheim Air Quality

Leonard Aronsten 2017

Meanwhile, in Trondheim...

„So in London, we have a large problem of asthma,“ said Michael. „One in five children has asthma. Here, [our air quality index] is already warning that you should take it easy when you go outdoors. Don’t, for example, go jogging in the streets, because you’ll inhale too much of these pollutants.“

Well, jeez. I had no idea London had it so bad. That must be the worst -

„So now we’re off to New Delhi,“ Michael announced.

Dome #3: New Delhi

Moving into this dome, I was struck by a cacaphony of unpleasant smells. The humidity was much higher, and I instantly found myself having an icky feeling that clung to me, and would continue to do so for hours after.

„The air pollution index,“ said Michael, seemingly unfazed, "is three hundred and forty. But there’ve been times in New Delhi, when it’s gone over one thousand! So when you think that the safe limit is forty, and this is a massive city with millions of people living in it, when it peaks, this is really catastrophic. Children in New Delhi - about fifty percent of them - have stunted lung development. And their lungs don’t grow properly, and that’s something you can never recover from. And even if they move somewhere like Norway, they will always have those undeveloped lungs.

New Delhi Air

Leonard Aronsten 2017

„So you have incredibly high levels of particulate matter, because they do things like they burn the crops around the city, producing an enormous amount of air-borne dust, they burn wood, they burn rubbish, there’s industry... and it’s a chaotic system, [with no infrastructure] to deal with the rubbish. The other problem is that it’s in a basin, so the air never moves.“

As interesting (albeit sad) as this was, I felt I was ready to get out of this room... I’d been in there for less than five minutes, and I was already starting to develop a cough! (This might have been slightly psychosomatic.)

In the hopes of escape, I ploughed through to the next dome...

Dome #4: Beijing (in Winter)

It was hard to see anything in here, because the room was positively smoky. It was also a lot colder, with little icicles and pieces of snow hanging off the air circulation system. My guide in this room was Laura Sommer, a PhD student who was deeply involved in the project.

„This is my least favourite city,“ she confided in me. „It makes me cough.“ An intense scent of sulphur crept up my nostrils, as she said this.

„That’s maybe the rotten eggs,“ she said. „You’re already feeling it, right? So Beijing has the coal plants in front of the city, which deliver the energy to the city, and they have lots of them... Then, there’s also wood that is being burnt by the citizens because they don’t have much money, and they use the wood for heating! So that combines to produce a really nasty air in the city.“

Beijing Air

Leonard Aronsten 2017

The air from Beijing, in winter

We stood there for a second, shivering in the echoes of her words.

She stifled a cough. „Shall we move on to São Paolo?“

Dome #5: São Paolo

After Beijing, São Paolo seemed like a breath of fresh air. It wasn’t, but it seemed like it was.

„Ah, this is so much better!“ I gushed.

„Yes, but it is full of ozone, which is pretty toxic,“ she said. „Because it still has a pretty high level of pollution, you have to take it easy with outdoor sports and cycling and you shouldn’t go out with a newborn infant, and stuff like that... So these still aren’t very nice conditions.“

Pollution Pods at a distance

Leonard Aronsten 2017

Thankfully, we were actually still in Trondheim...

At this point, Michael emerged from the tunnel behind us, having apparently also had his fill of the smog. This was good timing, as I had a new question.

Go here for more information about the Pollution Pods.

Go here to keep up-to-date with Michael Pinsky’s upcoming projects (including future tours with his pollution pods).

Go here to visit Build With Hubs, to build your own geodesic domes.

Go here to visit AirLabs, who provided the air filters for the Trondheim dome.

„Say, this whole installation... is it safe to breathe all this air, actually?“

„We’re not pushing out carbon monoxide and nitric oxide, and they’re the real killers,“ he reassured me. „Basically, we are using a lot of the same chemicals, but then we have distilled them, or infused something else with them, and we’ve pushed them through cotton or water or oil, to then get the impressions of the pollution, without the stuff that kills people.“

As happy as I was to hear that, there is no denying that we are living on one planet that we all share, and pollution in India is pollution in London is pollution in Trondheim is pollution in Austria.

Leaving the domes, I realized I was still in one big dome called the earth’s atmosphere, and there was no getting away from THAT pollution, not even in Trondheim...

Johnny's Journeys - Pollution Pods from Lenny Aronsten on Vimeo.

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