Qatar artificial clouds

What are they?

A fleet of airborne drones designed by Dr. Saud Abdul Ghani and his team from the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering department at Qatar University to provide shade over soccer stadia during the 2022 World Cup, to be hosted by Qatar.

Being designed in response to a requirement of the World Cup selection committee to have all stadia in the hot desert nation air-conditioned, the drones will be constructed from ultra-light carbonic materials, be entirely solar-powered and remote controlled. First seen on an Engadget post.

What do we think?

The artificial clouds are, we must confess, a pleasant respite from the heaviness of current world events. Sure, they are wasteful of both financial and energy resources – at an estimated $500,000 a pop they are anything but cheap; and they undoubtedly represent yet another example of oil-rich Middle-Eastern countries trying to deny and defy their desert environments – however they should also have a positive impact on portable solar-power and lightweight aircraft technologies.

All things considered, the clouds are a clever and light-hearted glimpse into the future of transport technology. Who knows, perhaps the idea of a world full of dirigibles has life in it yet.

Modular refugee shelter

What is it?

Japanese architect, Shigeru Ban, has spent many years investigating the potential of cardboard construction in his work. His most recent project is a small-scale, modular refugee shelter originally developed after the Niigata earthquake in 2004 and now being deployed in gymnasiums across the Tohoku region for families displaced by earthquake, tsunami or imminent nuclear meltdown. First seen on an Inhabitat post, here.

What do we think?

Ban’s shelter design addresses many of the primary concerns that face its successful implementation in an emergency refugee situation. It is easy to transport, permits rapid assembly, allows flexible adaptation for differently sized user groups and has low embodied energy. Whilst it is hardly soundproof, it nevertheless establishes personal space and a modicum of privacy for families crammed with hundreds of others into each gym.

Critically, Ban’s shelter is cheap to manufacture, avoiding the ineffectiveness of Sean Godsell’s beautiful but unrealistic shelter designed in 2001 out of a recycled shipping container, Future Shack. With a price tag of AU$40,000, it was entirely unsuitable for mass-production.

We applaud Ban for devoting energy to an important issue that has surfaced in the aftermaths of each of Japan’s recent earthquakes, and that, given our planet’s increasing climatic instability, is only likely to become more prevalent.

Radiation chart

What is it?

The comic genius behind XKCD, Randall Munroe, has put together this chart comparing the radiation doses received from various activities, giving graphical measurements in sieverts, the unit that quantifies the affect ionising radiation has on the human body:

  • We receive 0.1 microsieverts of radiation from eating a banana.
  • We received 0.05 microsieverts (half a banana) from sleeping next to another person for a night.
  • The EPA in the United States recommends we should not receive more than 1 millisievert (10,000 bananas) in a year.
  • Spending the 16th of March at a site 50km north-west of Fukushima would have subjected us to 3.6 millisieverts (36,000 bananas).
  • The lowest fatal dose of radiation poisoning is 2 sieverts (20,000,000 bananas).
  • Standing for just 10 minutes next to the Chernobyl reactor right after meltdown in 1986 exposed workers to 50 sieverts (500,000,000 bananas).

Munroe gives free license for the chart to be republished anywhere, though requests it be made clear that he is not an expert, and that anyone potentially affected by Fukushima should defer to the directives of regional health authorities.

The Art of Disney

What is it?

An exhibition currently showing at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), running until the 26th of April, that celebrates 70-odd years of the art of Disney. It provides a broad overview of the history of the animation company, centred around the showcase of 9 key feature films, from Snow White in 1937 all the way through to its most recent offering this year, Tangled. In addition to original cels, experimental sequences and character artwork, the exhibition also delves into some of the fascinating artistic and technical innovations Disney has pioneered during its long history.

What do we think?

The sub-title for the exhibition, Dreams Come True, is apt for two reasons: the first relates to the manner in which the exhibition content is laid out – a lot of wall space is dedicated to discussing the relationship Disney films have to traditional European fairytales. Walt Disney himself considered the animated film as the modern equivalent of, and natural successor to, the medieval stories and their originally verbal recitation. The second reason is more personal. From the very outset of the exhibition, where a large screen plays Snow White on a silent, continuous loop, we were briskly and efficiently transported back to our collective childhoods, re-immersed into the fairytale imagery that remains an inescapable part of the upbringing of every 20th Century child.

Less prevalent, and unfortunately so as this was an engaging part of the similar Pixar exhibition at ACMI in 2007 (see here for a previous post on Pixar), are Disney’s aforementioned artistic and technical innovations. In addition to details of the multiplane camera (above), developed for Snow White to enhance the sense of depth in two-dimensional animation sequences, there is computer analysis of hair-modelling for Tangled and an interesting short film describing the action analysis early animators undertook to understand and realistically replicate the complex, interacting movements of the human body. We would have enjoyed a lot more in this vein.

Without doubt, the exploration of fairytales and story-making, shaped by an impressive dedication to quality, is the most compelling aspect of the exhibition. In relation to Snow White, the world’s first feature-length animated film, Disney famously said, “There would be no compromise on money, talent or time. We did not know whether the public would go for a cartoon feature: but we were damned sure that audiences would not buy a bad cartoon feature.”

Going nuclear

The recent earthquake, tsunami and aftershocks that have (and are continuing to) hit Japan are tragedies surpassed only by what now appears to be the real possibility of a nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. Images of containment chambers on fire, video footage of radioactive water vapour pouring into the atmosphere and discussion of failed attempts at cooling the reactor cores are highly distressing.

That such a disaster can befall Japan, a rich, developed nation with a well-regulated, safety-conscious power industry is cause for significant alarm around the world: Switzerland is aborting the construction of two new nuclear power plants; Germany has canned the investment required to extend the life of two ageing plants; and here in Australia, the political debate over nuclear power has fired up all over again.

Nuclear “experts” (whom we cynically believe should really be referred to as nuclear advocates) are all over news programs assuring us that a meltdown is nigh on impossible, that since Australia is isolated from tectonic faultlines it’s a great place for nuclear power and, somewhat nervously, that Fukishima is very different from Chernobyl, its cores protected by two containment chambers in addition to the thick but entirely inadequate concrete skin that failed so infamously at the Chernobyl meltdown.

Whilst comparisons between Fukushima and Chernobyl are inevitable, surely they must be freaking everyone out as much as they are us. Even forgetting the unanswerable question of how to dispose of radioactive waste, that the world can be facing another nuclear meltdown must make something crystal clear to us all: nuclear power is not safe. Take a quick glance through the list of civilian nuclear accidents on Wikipedia, here, and both the sheer length of the list (around 25 separate incidents since the 1950s) and resultant fallouts are terrifying.

As we move forward into this new century, it is an unfortunate truth that we will be seeing more and more natural disasters of increasing magnitude. Turning towards nuclear power as a solution to the world’s energy and carbon crises will only replace our current set of irreconcilable problems with another, one less predictable and far more dangerous.

Let us point out for the record: should an earthquake damage a photovoltaic array, there would be no fallout.

The opposite of graffiti

What is it?

As graffiti is commonly understood to involve the addition of paint or other markings to bare public surfaces, its opposite would be the removal of such markings. Or, as in the case of the Ossario project by Brazilian artist, Alexandre Orion, it is the selective removal of dirt and grime to reveal a fresco of clean wall (first seen at fellow WordPress blog, Inspirational Geek).

Orion was approached by authorities several times during his nightly visits to the tunnel, but they were powerless to stop him – there’s nothing illegal about cleaning. In the end, they could only remove his installation by high-pressure hosing the whole tunnel from end to end. They didn’t stop with Orion’s tunnel either, but continued onto every other tunnel in the city, cleaning them all.

What do we think?

Orion has a specific agenda with this project, to highlight both the extreme quantities of pollution coating the tunnels of São Paulo and the public’s carelessness towards it. His choice of graphic imagery for the installation, a 160m long collection of sightless skulls, is a singular gesture that brings together the many layers of meaning in his work – skulls rendered as death, pollution and apathy.

As architects, we are often required to consider the potential impact of graffiti and its brainless, clumsy and brutal little cousin, tagging, on our buildings. Despite finding the latter entirely without merit, we have often regarded good graffiti as an enrichening celebration of the involvement we have with our public spaces. Artists like Banksy, Invader and Pixnit are all artists who use(d) graffiti in a positive manner, contributing to rather than detracting from public space. With Ossario, Orion has introduced a clever and intriguing dynamic to this discourse, not only passing judgement on urban pollution, but also investigating many ideas central to the practice of graffiti itself – those of permanence, legality and artistic value.

Pixel building

What is it?

An experimental green building completed late last year by builder-developer Grocon, architecture studio Studio 505 and sustainability consultancy Umow Lai on the Carlton United Brewery site in Carlton. It is being used as the site office for a major development on the site as well as acting as a showcase and testing ground for new sustainable technology.

Sustainable initiatives include photovoltaic panels and locally-invented wind turbines on the roof (the latter sadly stationary on the day we visited) to generate 100% of the electricity required by the building; recycled content in the concrete mix that halves its embodied energy; water collection and management facilities to provide potable water and reduce sewerage output; and a smart-facade that regulates the entry of sunlight into the building and permits natural cross-ventilation. Further information is available here.

What do we think?

The Pixel building is a good example of green commercial design, full to the gills with both passive techniques and active systems that reduced its impact on the environment during construction and continue to do so during use.

Thanks, we presume, to positive feedback from users and the general public, it has also paved the way for Delta (first seen in an Australian Design Review article, here), a 10-storey residential tower by the same design team and also on the CUB site to be built entirely from sustainably-harvested timber and further the best green practices initiated with Pixel.

What could we learn?

The Pixel building may be small and has been criticised for being little more than a run-of-the-mill office building adorned with some “green bling”, but this would be to underestimate its wider merit – that is, as a prototype pointing towards the future direction of Grocon buildings.

Its true value lies within the potential ripple effects it could have for the Australian built environment. Grocon is Australia’s largest construction company, with 22,000 employees locally and a further 100,000 overseas. It manufactures its own concrete, builds its own cranes and is even looking to put a ship on the water to move its equipment around the world. Should Grocon display determination in greening its development projects, there is a good chance that the rest of the industry will follow.