July 25, 2014

Letter from the Balloon II: Behold the Soviet Dirigible

Friends, Comrades, Aerialists!

Much has been afoot, and indeed aflight, in SE15 - so much so, that it has prevented me from writing to you in a timely fashion. The balloon has been flying, the winds have been tested; Science, above all, has been done.

We have had now three marvellous events, the last two of which convened first the wonderful Inga Kroener and Adam Greenfield on the subject off CCTV and smart cities, and the inestimable Dan Hill and Finn Williams on urbanism, planning, and dark matter.

In the latter discussion, the subject of balloons and planning arose. I have been particularly taken by the once-prevalent practice of using balloons to demarcate sites of new buildings; for example, this barrage balloon flying above Swiss Cottage in 1970. Elevated to the height of a proposed block of flats, the balloon allowed planners and surveyors to accurately examine the potential impact on the skyline, lines of sight, and the surrounding area. But it also drew attention to the planning process itself, inviting the community to engage with, and potentially critique, the plans. Far more sophisticated and effective than the current method, soggy pieces of paper affixed to lampposts, easily ignored, and almost intentionally designed to be so.

On Twitter, Phil Gyford noted the more contemporary practice of using balloons in planning, on the rise in New York apparently, not to allow the public to see what impact buildings might have, but what spectacular views the lucky inhabitants of such edifices might enjoy. One such company, AirPhotosLive, is thus capable of producing such visions long before the building is built - a complete inversion of the balloon's role in civil planning. Still, as the National Capital Planning Commission for Washington DC notes, the tethered aerostat occupies a special place in the law of the air, capable of inserting itself into restricted airspaces - such as London's - in ways not possible by other means.

Dan Hill was also kind enough to point us towards the fantastic Swiss phenomenon of Baugespann - the use of scaffolding frameworks to give the impression of future developments. Swiss cantons require planners to install "ghost buildings" on the site of future developments for at least a month, in order that the public may make informed observations and comments upon the proposals. A recent article in the Guardian urges their adoption in Britain, a motion we wholeheartedly support. Baugespann also led us to this proposal from a Dutch architectural firm for a "Flight Tower" in the Netherlands, an idea truly in league with our own proposals for a Shard of the Imagination. In the proposal, the architects write:
In the country of direct democracy, the inhabitants are early involved in the process and can directly express their opinion about building plans to the municipalities. The ‚Flying Tower’ project is directly linked with dealing with public space. The negative effect of the internalisation of the public realm has been widely discussed. Shopping as the only remaining activity in the city has often been critized. The reciprocity of social security and well-functioning public space is evident. ‚Flying Tower’ defines a space and creates a location – the site convertes from an unused emptiness to a public attraction. ‚Flying Tower’ makes space public.

Next week's event sees Thomas Nash from Article 36 join with Alice Ross and Jack Serle from The Bureau of Invesitigative Journalism arrive on the roof to discuss international law, killer robots, and the concept of meaningful human control over the use of force. Please join us - you can find out more and sign up here.

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In 1909, the suffragette Muriel Matters undertook an extraordinary balloon flight. In an early dirigible, with the words "VOTES FOR WOMEN" inscribed on the side, she attempted to leaflet the Houses of Parliament from the air. As recounted by the blog the People's Republic of Teeside:

An Australian pianist, she came to UK to work the London concert halls. As well as recitals, she also joined the burgeoning Suffragette movement, on one occasion, chaining herself to the House of Lords entrance door.   As a result of her activities she met and became friendly with people such as Sylvia Pankhurst, George Bernard Shaw and (Prince) Peter Kropottkin.
In 1909 she embarked on a daring mission to fly over the houses of parliament in an airship and bombard it with thousands of 'Votes for Women' leaflets from the air. She had one other male passenger, dirigible pilot and suffragette sympathiser Henry Spencer, and as he climbed over the webbing attaching the gondola to the ship she suddenly realised she had no idea what to do if he - or she -  fell off.  Rising to 3000 feet despite the weight of the ton of leaflets she had brought on board, the airship was blown off course. As Muriel and her companion heaved the leaflets randomly over South London, the bucking airship – with "VOTES FOR WOMEN" emblazoned on its side – became even more out of control and eventually crashed into trees in Coulsdon, Surrey, where Muriel and Spencer thankfully escaped unscathed.

She later recalled that "I had already won my spurs by chaining myself to the grille of the ladies gallery in the House of Commons and the doors of the House of Lords . As a result of this I was entrusted with the aerial demonstration on the day of the opening of parliament. That morning I went to Hendon and met Mr Henry Spencer who had his airship all ready near the Welsh Harp. It was quite a little airship, 80 feet long, and written in large letters on the gas bag were the three key words, "Votes For Women."

You can hear Muriel recall her mission in 1939 in archive audio courtesy of the BBC.

The PRT blog post is also an excellent source for a range of wonderful accounts of radical ballooning, many drawn from science fiction, from Jules Vernes’ 1896 work Robur the Conqueror, in which the anarchic captain of the Albatross proposes to bring peace to the world by bombing anyone who objects from the air, to HG Wells’ truly excellent War in the Air of 1907, in which another South London boy - Bert Smallways of Crystal Palace - is thrown headlong into an aerial war between the Great Powers.

“This here Progress”, observes Bert’s father in the opening line of the book, “it keeps on,” setting the stage for an epic account of aerial battles between fleets of dirigibles and heavier-than-air craft. Wells’ fiction, as always, is political: he predicts, with frightening, dystopic accuracy, the devastation that unthinking technological process will bring, and calls for a new philosophy of Science to account for it:

The development of Science had altered the scale of human affairs. By means of rapid mechanical traction t had brought men nearer together, so much nearer socially, economically, physically, that the old separations into nations and kingdoms were no longer possible, a newer, wider synthesis was not only needed but imperatively demanded.

The collapse of the nation state is a perennial theme of balloon tracts and fictions, so it's hardly a surprise to find that ballooning also fired the Soviet dream of the 1920s, as it imagined one world under socialism. For a wonderful set of contemporary propaganda posters, architectural drawings and photographs of the Soviet balloon fleet, head over to the Charnel House blog, where you will also find the following magnificent quote from the works of Vladimir Mayakovsky:

The bourgeoisie come together
In order to separate us
But the Soviet dirigible
Flies along the border

From Verne's anarchist sky captain, to the suffragette aerialists and Soviet pioneers, all the way to the planning balloons occupying the atmosphere over contemporary cities, the balloon occupies this strange, powerful position above out heads, and exercises a strange, powerful exertion over our plans and politics, capable of lifting our eyes to the heavens, but also focussing our attention on what occurs beneath.

Yours, from the skies,