The Crystal Palace Again

From Brian Dillon, “Under Pressure,” Frieze 99 (May 2006) . . .

The Crystal Palace from “World Architecture Images—Crystal Palace” at Essential Architecture

According to Mary Merrifield’s “The Harmony of Colours as Exemplified in the Exhibition” that accompanied the Great Exhibition Catalogue (1851), the Crystal Palace was

the only building in the world in which the atmosphere is perceptible. . . . To a spectator situated in the gallery at the eastern or western end, who looks directly before himself, the most distant parts of the building appear enveloped in a bluish halo. (qtd in Agamben 39)

Here is the original (it has “blue haze”; the evocative phrase “blue halo” in Agamben is an effect of retranslation):

Merrifield ii.

The blue haze interiorizes the sky, as if to phantasmagorically capture its openness, which suggests the free movement of capital (transcendental capitalism) and information (telematics), the Gods of the coming age (see Heidegger on “the Serene“).

For Sloterdijk, what is prophetic is the atmosphere of the Crystal Palace—it is for him, as Dillon puts it, “a pneumatic machine for representing the world”—but also its transportability. At the time, The Palace was also considered a triumph of modular construction. (See Stephen Turner and my essay from Interstices 12, “‘Built Pedagogy’: The University of Auckland Business School as Crystal Palace.”)

In an address at “Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy,” an exhibition curated by Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel at ZKM in Karlsruhe in 2005, Sloterdijk half-seriously extrapolates a “Pneumatic Parliament” to broadcast democracy globally:
a parliament building that is quick to install, transparent, and inflatable; it can be dropped in any grounds and then unfolds itself. In a mere one and a half hours, a protective shell for parliamentary meetings is ready, and within the space of 24 hours, the interior ambience for these proceedings can be made as comfortable as an agora.

The Pneumatic Parliament

But, as Dillon puts it, “the democratic bubble is a perilously delicate object: it might easily be contaminated by the very freedom it is built to protect.” He quotes James Russell Lowell’s Inaugural Address “Democracy” (1884):
All free governments, whatever their name, are in reality governments by public opinion, and it is on the quality of this public opinion that their prosperity depends. It is, therefore, their first duty to purify the element from which they draw the breath of life. With the growth of democracy grows also the fear, if not the danger, that this atmosphere may be corrupted with poisonous exhalations from lower and more malarious levels, and the question of sanitation becomes more instant and pressing. Democracy in its best sense is merely the letting in of light and air. (my emph.)

That is to say, because air, for Sloterdijk, is “the last common property.” But most often he sees it negatively: it is both weapon and target in modernity; hence,

  1. the environment as habitat or resource, and
  2. what Dillon calls “aerated art”:


  • Giorgio Agamben, “Marx; or, the Universal Exposition,” Stanzas: Word and Phantasm in Western Culture (Minneapolis, MN: UMP, 1993) 39-40 (ch. 7, 36-40).
  • Martin Heidegger, “Remembrance of the Poet” (trans. Douglas Scott), Existence and Being, ed. Werner Brock (Vision, 1949) 251-89.
  • James Russell Lowell, “Democracy: Inaugural Address on Assuming the Presidency of the Birmingham and Midland Institute, Birmingham, England, 6 October, 1884,” Essays: English and American, vol. 28, The Harvard Classics (New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909–14;, 2001).
  • Mrs Merrifield [Mary Philadelphia Merrifield], “Essay on the Harmony and Contrast of Colours as Exemplified in the Exhibition,” The Arts Journal Illustrated Catalogue: The Industry of All Nations, 1851 (1851; reprint, London: David & Charles, 1970) i-viii.
  • Peter Sloterdijk, “Airquakes,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 27.1 (2009): 41-57, excerpt from Sphären III: Schäume (Suhrkamp, 2004) 89-126.

One thought on “The Crystal Palace Again

  1. Pingback: The Curfew of Geometry « Te Ipu Pakore: The Broken Vessel

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