An experiment on ventilation being carried out on a 1/8 scale model of the debating chamber of the House of Commons at the National Physical Laboratory in the early 1920s. The direction of air flows in the Chamber was demonstrated by observing smoke produced by a special firework. (Image courtesy of the NPL.)
In search for an object-oriented politics, one should look not only for a system where truth claims about materials are frequently stated inside political assemblies, but for a system which very existence is sustained by those objects and which therefore is always to some extent dealing with the ways those objects should be regulated, managed, produced and designed. “The birth of ancient Greek political theory implied a doctrine of living in an artificial construct”, for the polis is the political-space which enables the coming-together of different persons with apparently no commonality to assemble and “naturalize in a shared climate”, as the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk conceptualizes. The definition is powerful because the concept of “the public” is already entangled with the matters of social concern in a mixed, non-polarized and non-hierarchical relation: “the public sphere is not just the effect of people assembling but in fact goes back to the construction of a space to contain them”. For Sloterdijk, the idea of the polis as a political construction implies a “pre-symbolical” dimension of coexistence of the citizens which is the result of the “designed” conditions they inhabit. There is an “atmospheric politics” produced by all the materiality that surrounds the subjects and that sustains the possibility of cohabitation. Hence the idea, notably taken forward by Paul Virilio, that is impossible to distinguish the built environment of the city and the political sphere, insofar as there is no such a thing as the voided space where social affairs take place but in fact the organization of the technological milieu which defines the city is already the site of social dispute and political intervention. Thus politics becomes not just a question around the symbolical – opposed ideologies, values, consciousness, representation and so forth -, but it is very much grounded on the ways by which the common environment is shared and managed, or in other words, on the collective conditioning of the atmosphere of the city.
From the conceptual urban dimension of the polis down to the architectural scale of political chambers, the artificial conditions that enables cohabitation and forms the ground of the political can be seem embodied in the functional design of parliamentary assemblies, those architectural speech-machineries where air works as the medium that guarantees the voice of rhetoric and provide the adequate climate conditions for one to wait while listening to the others. Indeed, the first time issues around the action of breathing, atmospheric gases, air and other correlative matters had entered inside the House of Commons were not through a discussion about regulations on chemical emissions, but by means of architectural mechanisms, when as early as 1835, David Boswell Reid, a graduated doctor, partly physician partly chemist, who would be known in the records of design history as an engineer specialized in ventilation systems, brought the matter to the level of scientific precision: “at the sitting of the House of Commons on a very leading question, when 800 persons, members and strangers, are present for twelve hours, air is required for 12.520.000 respirations”, he stated in his major work, “Illustrations of the theory and practice of ventilation”, published in 1844.
Reid was a typical man of the sciences of his time who among others contemporary hygienists, physicians, chemists, doctors, statisticians and city planners, was very much concerned with the relations between health and the quality of air. At the Edinburgh University, where he held a chair in the Chemistry Department, Reid constructed “laboratory” rooms equipped with special arrangements for heating and ventilation that he used to investigate issues on respiration. Inside the controlled chambers, he tried to establish the precise amount of air required for health and comfort through experiments conducted with “human guinea pigs”. After October 1834, when a serious fire destroyed most of the Parliamentary Buildings in London, he had the opportunity to transfer his scientific researches from his equipped rooms to another chamber, the temporary House of Commons, which was built to hold the parliamentary debates while the definitive building commissioned for the architect Charles Barry was being constructed. Reid accepted the invitation to design the ventilation system of the provisional House regarding it as a possibility to test his technology before the new building’s definitive system that he was also designing was definitively implemented. In an entire section of Theory and Practice of Ventilation he carefully describes the project as if it was a truly experiment he had brought from inside the laboratory to the scale of reality: “The movement of air, from its ingress to its egress, was regulated as in a pneumatic machine, the house, in this respect, being treated as a piece of apparatus”. Along with his efforts to regulate the air flows to achieve the right acoustic necessities of the House – a clear demand made by the selected Commons Committee -, what is very interesting and curious in his report is the way by which Reid tried to put the system in fine tune with the types of activities that were going inside the House. He was concerned with very small details and handled them with precision, a fact that is made clear, for example, by the way he paid special attention to the “atmosphere with which The Honourable Speaker is supplied”. He made a slightly modification in the system in 1836, when a separated and autonomous controlling mechanism was placed just for the site where The Speaker would sit, once he was often required to stay longer periods of time and therefore, Reid thought, would necessitate greater amounts of air. Even more curious is Reid’s sensibility to the connections between the state of humour of the members of the parliament and the air conditions inside the chamber:
“In directing the ventilation, great difficult is often experienced in ascertaining the feelings of the members. They necessary fluctuate with every change of circumstances in the state of the internal atmosphere that is not immediately controlled, independent of the extreme diversity of temperament that may be expected to prevail where so many are assembled in the same apartment.” (249)
Thinking that the atmospheric qualities of the House could have a direct effect on the emotion of the constituents, and therefore exerting considerable influence in the course of political decisions, he designed the system to act in response to oscillations in the levels of excitement of the parliamentary members. The “pneumatic apparatuses” therefore should allow the calibration of air inputs in accordance to the changes in the temperature of the chamber brought up by polemical political affairs.
“During the late debates, as they advance to two, three, four, and five in the morning, the temperature should be gradually increased, as the constitution becomes more exhausted, except in cases where the excitement is extreme.” (297)
The quantity of the air supplied to the House of Commons was placed under the control of valves that could be adjusted according to variations in temperaments and temperatures. Reid regarded his duties with so much importance that it has been said that he would often stay in personal control of the system when the House was in section, as if he was another member of the parliament ensuring the adequate climate for the political stability of the British Empire. It is not surprising, however, that Reid had taken his empirical experiments with the ventilation systems in the House with such a great care, as for him air was not just a matter of healthy and bodily vigour, but a material that should be supplied in the necessary quantity and with the adequate quality to ensure the full disposal of mental capabilities. “When the air is of inferior quality, the mental faculties are subdued and deteriorated in proportion as the body is oppressed by the vitiated atmosphere, pure air being not only essential for the proper development of the bodily frame, but also a requisite for the due energy of intellectual functions”. Considering that he was dealing with individuals who were in charge of the decisions that would indicate the political future of the nation, it is very comprehensible that Reid would want to “supply” the best emotional state possible for them to execute the parliamentary activities. It is less comprehensible though that he thought to do that by simply managing air flows. In the light of his remarks, the history is rather comic and Reid easily appears as an ingenuous victim of his time, when air was ascribed both a medical and moral value, a material which should be mechanically delivered in precise amounts to ensure the health of the body and spiritual strength. In the light of more recent scientific studies that try to establish a connection between employees productivity, individual’s levels of concentration, child behaviour and neuro-psychological functions with variations in the quality of air and adequate rates of ventilation, however, Reid, even limited by the scientific knowledge of nineteenth century, then turn out to be a sort of visionary pioneer.
 Peter Sloterdijk, Atmospheric Politics, in: Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel (ed.), “Making Things Public: atmospheres of democracy”, 2005, p. 946
 Once again Sloterdijk’s obsession about architecture-as-atmospheric-design is an unavoidable reference: “Democracy is based on the proto-architectonic ability to build waiting rooms”, op. Cit, p. 944. It is worth mentioning that the media-acoustic-machinery of the House of Commons is now added with several microphones scattered around the chamber, let alone the cameras that broadcast the sessions in a daily basis. The contemporary “mediatization” of the chamber makes clear how the idea of the public sphere is already implied in the proto-mediatization of the rooms’ acoustics provided by the adequate design of air circulation. Along the several encounters between the history of the House and the history of air, concerns with its acoustics have had an important role.
 David Boswell Reid, Illustrations of the theory and practice of ventilation. London: 1844, p. 16.
 David Boswell Reid, op. Cit, p.249.
 David Boswell Reid, op. Cit, p.249.
 David Boswell Reid, op. Cit, p.297.
 David Boswell Reid, op. Cit, p. 07.
 Large part of contemporary scientific research related to air quality and especially with thermal comfort indoors is related to issues of productivity and behaviour, trying to connect the effects that air and adequate levels of ventilation might have on people’s psychological states.