Culture and Climate Change – Architecture and Urbanism

The Future is a Bubble – the “Climate Capsules” Exhibition in Hamburg

Klimakapseln, Haus Rucker, Environment Transformer; © MKGClimate Capsules, Haus Rucker, Environment Transformer; © MKGOases made of plastic, tent fashions, floating islands and cloud cities – the Hamburg exhibition “Climate Capsules” has assembled 30 strategies for living and survival in the face of a climate catastrophe.

The two palm trees supporting the hammock are made of rubber. There is a smell of PVC in the air. The view of the world outside is through a transparent shell – a foretaste of life in a climate capsule.

In view of the fact that the Copenhagen conference on climate change produced almost no results whatsoever, climate researchers are not only continuing to discuss possible global strategies to prevent the ultimate catastrophe, but now they have started to ponder ways of actually adapting to an environment that has been destroyed or altered by climate change.

Just what our lives might look like after the climate catastrophe is being vividly demonstrated at the “Climate Capsules” exhibition in Hamburg. The exhibition at Hamburg’s Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe (Museum For Arts and Crafts) has collected 30 historical and contemporary models and strategies from design, art, architecture, stemming from the 1960s to the present day. The one thing the photo-compositions, models, videos and drawings by the international artists, architects and designers have in common is that they have all placed human life in a future, uninhabitable world into capsules. Some capsules into which some people have to slip and others that envelop whole cities; some that float around on the world’s oceans, others that soar above the clouds; capsules that only exist in people’s minds and others that are to save the world’s plant life.

A visit to Oasis No. 7

At second floor level on the outer façade of the museum there is a huge, transparent bubble suspended – Oasis No. 7 by the Haus-Rucker-Co group. This is where the museum visitors themselves can become a capsule resident for a few minutes. The group of Austrian architects and artists first built the PVC bubble back in 1972 for the documenta 5 exhibition in Kassel. The plastic oasis has once again been resurrected for the exhibition in Hamburg. Under the strict control of the museum personnel a maximum of three people at any one time are allowed to enter a plastic airlock into which a machine is constantly pumping air. From here they are then led into the bubble itself, which is completely empty, apart from two plastic palm trees with a hammock hanging between them. The view from the bubble opens up on the area around Hamburg’s main railway station. If the people speak, their voices echo and sound squeaky like those of cartoon characters.

Climate Capsules, HausRucker, Oasis7 ; © MKGThe oasis from the 1970s hangs in stark contrast to the 2008 vision of the MAD Architects from Beijing. Superstar: A Mobile China Town is the name of a gigantic star that has room for 15,000 people and will serve as a refuge for them in the face of a climate catastrophe. In order to save room the architects decided to forego a conventional cemetery with graves and tombstones – the Superstar’s cemetery is to be of a purely digital nature.

One-family capsules

R129; © SobekWerner Sobek envisaged far fewer people living in his R129 house project. The outer skin of his house is made of transparent plastic that can be darkened, enabling the residents, in the words of Werner Sobek, “to sit in it, like a yogi, peering out of a soap bubble”.

Whereas R129 stays in one place, the Walking House project by the N55 artists’ group from Copenhagen is able to move slowly around the country thanks to its hydraulic legs. At the moment it is to be seen as part the Ruhr 2010 capital of culture year on Emscher Island. It has solar energy panels, a rainwater processing plant and a small greenhouse, enabling its residents to be self-sufficient and, therefore, independent.

A dome over Manhattan

Climate Capsules, Fuller, DomeOverManhattan, © MKGOne of the pioneers of capsule architecture is Richard Buckminster Fuller, who around 1960 had the brilliant idea of encapsulating an entire district of a city with his Dome over Manhattan project. The glass dome was to extend from the Hudson to the East river and from 22nd to 62nd street. Right in the middle of all the action and yet shielded from all the noise , dust and heat of the big city, rich New Yorkers were to feel good under the dome. His design could become of vital import to us all in the throes of a climate catastrophe.

Exhaust-air systems for protection

Whereas many of the projects on show at the exhibition were not intended to be realised, the inflatable shelters by New York artist, Michael Rakowitz, were actually built and used. When, in Cambridge/Massachusetts in 1997, the outtake vents of heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems were re-routed to prevent homeless people spending the night in the warm exhaust-air, Rakowitz responded to these city-council measures with his paraSITE shelter. This is an inflatable tent shelter that can be fitted onto an outtake vent that blows the warm air out of the subway tunnels. The warm air inflates the shelter and keeps it warm. The New York artists works on the shelters in collaboration with homeless people to make sure the individual shelters are custom-built.

Tent fashions

Climate Capsules, Orta, Habitent; © MKGPeople who prefer to install their protective sphere on their own bodies should avail themselves of the Refuge Wear collection, conceived by the English artist and designer, Lucy Orta. It consists of various one-man-climate-tents, equipped with a whistle, a compass and a light, that are draped over the wearer’s body with the help of telescopic poles. It is all very well to be sealed off from your climatic environment, but the tents also rule out any form of contact with your human environment. How on earth would two of these tent-wearers ever be able to embrace, let alone kiss?

Would we feel protected in a capsule? Or would we be lonely? These are the questions the curator, Friedrich von Borries, who also curated the German pavilion at the 2008 Architecture Biennale in Venice, is trying to answer at the Hamburg exhibition. Is a climate capsule a nightmare or a dream?

Dream Boat or Cloud City

Climate Capsules, Callebaut, Lilypad ; © MKGOne thing however is quite certain – the idea of embarking on a trip on architect Vincent Callebaut’s Lilypad without any hope of ever disembarking is quite frightening. The Lilypad is a floating mixture of Dream Boat and Starship Enterprise. Maybe the thought of lifting off in one of the floating balloons designed by the Argentinean artist, Tomás Saraceno, would be more tempting. Life in Cloud City – a fantasy? With the prospect of devastating earthquakes, lava-spewing volcanoes and disastrous oil spills it just might be one of these new concepts in living that will save us all in the future. At any rate, Tomás Saraceno has already started researching various materials with which he can build his spider’s webs – webs that are to link up his cloud balloons.

Exhibition: ”Climate Capsules: Means of Surviving Disaster”. 28th May until 12th September 2010, Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg. Publication: Friedrich von Borries: “Climate Capsules: Means of Surviving Disaster”. Edition Suhrkamp 2010, ISBN 978-3-518-12615-8, 14 euros.

Verena Hütter
works as a free-lance author and editor in Munich.

Translation: Paul McCarthy
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
July 2010

Any questions about this article? Please write to us!

Related links

Future Perfect

The Goethe-Institut and the foundation Futurzwei collect stories for tomorrow – lived today, everywhere.


In "EnergieWendeKunst", artists give aesthetic expression to their ideas about climate change. The catalogue will be released in November 2015.

Global Ideas

GLOBAL IDEAS brings you original reporting about the smartest local projects to fight global climate change. All around the world.

Glacier Music

What do melting glaciers sound like? An art project and an open competition for multimedia artists from Central Asia on the problem of advancing glacial melting.