How the 19th-century rebuilding of Britain’s Parliament House made air pollution visible and controllable..

There is just so much to figure.

Timothy Hyde  Professor of Architecture at MIT has a piece on the topic. He shows how reconstruction of British Parliament house raised awareness about the presence of air pollution in London. This rising awareness eventually made authorities take action to curb the same:

Impressionist painter Claude Monet was able to see beauty in the swirl of fog encompassing Britain’s Houses of Parliament at the end of the 19th century. Most people regarded it as a very unpleasant inconvenience. Today, Londoners recognize the sources of the city’s current air quality problems: diesel vehicle exhaust and natural gas combustion for heating and cooking. Back in the 19th century, a small group of architects and scientists was just beginning to recognize the fog Monet painted as a threat to people, buildings and the city itself.

Officially known as the Palace of Westminster, the current Houses of Parliament were built between 1840 and 1870, after the medieval building was destroyed by fire. The reconstruction was the grandest architectural project of 19th-century Britain. From fierce debates about the style of the building to the installation of new heating and cooling technologies, the project captured the attention of politicians and public alike.

Mysteriously, the stone chosen for the building began to show signs of rapid decay while the building was still under construction. It soon became evident that the cause of that decay was London’s soot-filled air.

This embarrassing and expensive turn of events quickly contributed to new ideas about the environmental management of the city. By century’s end the government had passed new laws regulating the air of London, forerunners to contemporary clean air laws. A seemingly solid part of the city – one of its buildings – had enabled a new understanding of its most intangible element: the air.


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