The following essay will appear in Climates: Architecture and the Planetary Imaginary, published this spring by the Avery Review and Lars Müller Publishers.
Shantel Blakely is the translator of a forthcoming English edition of Philippe Rahm's Météorologie des sentiments. Read an excerpt here.
Architects have historically used diagrams representing human occupants of buildings to communicate their approaches to traditional concerns of architecture, such as the proportions of bodies (Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man, Le Corbusier’s Modulor) or the space of perception (Herbert Bayer’s diagrams of the field of vision). Speaking recently about his work and declaring his preoccupation with body heat, architect Philippe Rahm showed drawings populated with his own version, a silhouette with a blurry red heart.1 Rahm has pursued this interest through experimental installations like his “Hormonorium” at Venice in 2002 and in other projects for calibrated air. He has expanded his inquiry to other aspects of metabolism, such as light fixtures whose elements can be adjusted for human or animal vision. But the body in air—his most central and lasting obsession—is the premise of his new book, Météorologie des sentiments, a collection of short stories that was recently published in French by Les Petit Matins (an English translation is in the works).
The stories in Météorologie des sentiments (hereafter A Sentimental Meteorology) are mostly written from a first-person perspective. Rahm makes an impressive show of knowledge and dedication to scientific fact, and the tone of the book is largely set by his detailed descriptions of geographic locales; the physics of cold buildings; or the body’s responses to cold, sun, or altitude. But the points of departure for these stories, and for their conflicts and resolutions, are almost always emotions—running the gamut from desire or well-being to dread and fear. The tone of the book hovers somewhere between a memoir and a forensic investigation, as Rahm mines his own experiences to explore different aspects of human experience in general, in a range of environmental and physiological situations.
Perhaps more important from an architectural point of view is that in these stories the mind and body—and the occupied landscape—tend to eclipse architecture as the principal human dwelling place. Architecture may be a collective social response to climate, but physical enclosures are not always sources of shelter and security.
While architecture is nowhere explicitly denounced, the book can be read as a critique of architecture and especially of the Western thermal conventions that are often called “modern.” But social relationships are also at the forefront of experience in these stories, which loosely follow a sort of formula. Each vignette finds the protagonist in a situation that offers an unusual vantage point from which habitual experiences are no longer automatic or familiar. From that position we are able to see how, in these situations, personal and social apprehensions of environment can become separated, superimposed, or inadvertently set in conflict with one another. Yet the short titles of these stories imply that each one is a neat description of a property, process, or quality of climate experience, as though the book were a user’s manual.
The protagonist in “Anaerobic,” for example, has drifted happily into the sea clutching an inflatable canoe, oblivious to what is about to happen. With the implacability of clockwork the story proceeds to the situation’s inevitable crisis.
If the water is gaseous in the air above me, could it be solid below me? There would then be ice in the depths on which, should I let myself sink in the water, I could put my feet, rest, recover my breath. I sink now, the horizon rises above my field of vision, the blue sky darkens, the shore disappears as I close my eyes to avoid the salt.
The protagonist’s innocence about the environment and his position on the verge of discovery are powerfully evoked in “Anaerobic,” which revives a literary trope at least as old as Grimm’s Fairy Tales, which often start with a child heading alone into a hostile wilderness. More ordinary situations, in adult life, ground several of the other stories. There is a backpacker who chooses to spend a night outside (“Cooling”); a soldier participating in a training exercise, who falls asleep and loses track of time (“Obliqueness”); a man on a terrace reading a newspaper in the late afternoon (“Obfuscation”); a motorist driving over the Alps from France to Italy (“Altitude”). Each time, the protagonist has a problem to solve. Will he endure his present condition as a sort of prison? Instead, through informal investigation and using his imagination, he comes to terms with his plight and takes action.
In many of the situations in the book, the novel climatic condition experienced by the protagonist results from his placement in a liminal social position. But for all Rahm’s attention to the individual as distinct from the collective, he handles this distinction with a light touch. This is partly due to his excurses into meteorology and physiology that digress from the protagonist’s personal viewpoint. As the reader follows the plot of a story, the narrative may turn from relating a sequence of meaningful events to describing the timing of optical, vascular, cellular systems—or astronomical events, wavelengths, rods and cones, oxygen, degrees of temperature, lux of light, etc. Just as the climax approaches, time slows down. The story then proceeds at a curious, scale-less pace in which the astronomical impinges upon human physiology, and ultimately on thoughts and feelings. The boundary between the subject and environment is blurred.
Notwithstanding his extended meditations on scientific facts, the narrator’s tone is often wistful or warm-heartedly affectionate. Some of the stories involve solitude, but many address a protagonist among friends, classmates, or coworkers. And while all the situations involve a degree of separation from a social group, some are as joyous as others are dark—for instance, in “Greenhouse Effect,” in which two lovers find themselves in an ancient garden pavilion whose sequestered indoor air leads them to sense the presence of ghosts; or in “Diffusion,” in which a father and son contentedly walk a few blocks to a frozen yogurt shop.
Even when describing a solitary protagonist, Rahm makes liberal use of the French pronoun on, which translates to “we” or to the third-person “one,” depending on context. The effect is to conflate the first person with “anyone,” which softens the sense of social conflict while the meteorological and physiological descriptions underscore the generality of the protagonist’s experience. This ambiguity is especially effective in one of the most delightful moments in the book, a scene in “Radiation.” After some time spent on a scintillating suburban hillside in the hottest hour of a midsummer day, two adolescents waiting for the protagonist’s uncle, next to his hot car, give up on trying to cool off.
At some point, one of us arrives at the conclusion that there is no point in trying to be less hot because we have no means to cool off. In the end our freedom, our liberty to act is the power to choose to be even warmer. A search of the trunk yields a sort of coverlet. We get in the car. The interior air is boiling due to the greenhouse effect that bends the sun’s rays to the steel and glass interior, preventing them from escaping the car after having let them in by the glazing and transforming them into heat against the fabric seats and plastic surfaces. The doors are closed, the last open windows put up, the ignition turned on, the heat turned up to maximum. We put on our sweaters, which we had left on the back seat, and bundle ourselves under the coverlet.
In conversation about the book’s literary style, Rahm is liable to mention his interest in objectivity and his fondness for the Nouveau Roman, particularly the work of Alain Robbe-Grillet. The inspiration is evident if one looks at a story like “Obfuscation,” which describes a moment on the terrace of a villa near Lake Neuchâtel. In the opening of his 1957 novel Jealousy, which is also set on the terrace of a villa, Robbe-Grillet lays out an extensive, detailed description of the scene, emphasizing the physical setting. Sentences telescope clause after clause in a detailed accounting of geometry, architecture, and furniture arrangement. The reader might discover, deep in one of these sentences, a human motive that has governed a whole string of preceding actions taken by Robbe-Grillet’s characters.
Rahm lingers, as Robbe-Grillet does, on the relationships between a terrace and a building, the dimensions of an inhabited space, but the experience of reading Rahm’s stories is much more empathetic. We always understand that the point of view belongs to someone, to the narrator.
The sun lowers, moving in the sky until it disappears behind the vertical line formed by the principal façade. This line suddenly throws a shadow that darkens the terrace’s gravel surface except for a very small triangle at the southwest corner. Seated in the sun, on a bench against the house, I read the paper. The paper’s white background, striated with characteristic black lines, darkens all of a sudden, attenuating the contrast between the paper and letters and makes reading more difficult, little by little; but by the time I notice it, the sun might have slipped past the southwest corner ten minutes before. I am conscious of being cold, as reading becomes more difficult. Finally there is no more sun.
Moreover, mention of weather conditions, however objective their description purports to be, tends to evoke associations of well-being or foreboding. The appearance of the sun or descent into darkness often augurs a shift in emotion for someone in the story. Weather conditions are used with forceful cumulative effect in many paragraphs of another work associated with the Nouveau Roman, Albert Camus’s The Stranger. The narrator feels the sun as a source of encouragement and comfort, or as a volumetric presence—as in “a strip of sand between the sunlight and the sea”—but near the novel’s end, the doomed narrator refers to “a dark wind blowing from my future.” Arguably his responsiveness to sun, sand, and water are key to the story’s capacity to elicit sympathy for its alienated “I” and are therefore crucial to Camus’s ability to evoke the inner life of a protagonist who commits a morally unconscionable act. With a similar sense of indexicality, Rahm’s weather manifestations are often fringed with affect, however objectively they may be described.
“Meteorology of sentiments”—these words in Rahm’s title echo how his stories reflect on the “weather” of emotions, and how closely they are interleaved with shifting, or more or less ideal situations of physical climate. The last story in the collection, “Acclimatization,” presents a man at ease, in shirtsleeves, greeting his fiancée. His life has arrived at climatic and psychological resolution at the same time. But while the ostensible dramatic arc of the book is a quest for acclimatization, there is also a progression out of innocence of climate and physiology—or passive subjection to it. The source of free will, free choice, is not so much climate control as self-awareness.
This brings us back to the ambiguity of this book in relation to architecture. The body of each story’s narrator may be indoors or outdoors, but the narrative’s overarching message is that, in all cases, we “live” the moment through the same basic physiological system. In “Conduction,” the protagonist has an unshakeable chill and moves between homes in a country where people warm themselves by unfamiliar means. Normally rendered invisible by habit, these details are painfully evident to a stranger in a strange land. The situation provides the pretext for a welcome review of how architecture is organized to promote insulation, and why the occupants of a building may nonetheless feel cold. But the buildings in this story are inadequate to keep the inhabitants warm. The resolution comes from patience, experimentation, and chance discovery. In contrast to a treatise on a static ideal, A Sentimental Meteorology is an exploration of the body in air that aspires to rigorously confront the physiology and emotion of climate, including their contingency.
Shantel Blakely curates and produces the public lectures and conferences program at Harvard Graduate School of Design. Her recent essays in PLOT, Log, and AA Files have probed architecture’s relationships to ideologies of experiential practice that consider the human being from distinctly different points of view. She holds an MArch from Princeton and a PhD in the history and theory of architecture from Columbia GSAPP.