Saraceno: Conversations on Atmosphere

The dream of Tomás Saraceno’s ongoing project, “Cloud City,” is not only to live among the clouds but also to create cities more like clouds–changeable, mobile, and responsive to atmospheric shifts. His experimental sculptures, expressing an aerial vision for the future, are often prototypes for incubating an interconnected existence in the sky. At MIT, Lodovica Illari, Adrian Dalca and Michael Rubinstein and John Hansman shared with Saraceno their expertise on atmosphere and flight, representing the exciting possibilities in hinging visionary thinking to technical expertise, imaginative speculation to material realities.

Lodovica Illari


Thin red and green plumes of dye slowly unwind in a clear container of water revolving on a turntable. With the turntable’s rotations analogous to the gyrations of the earth, these plumes simulate the swirling planetary movements of wind and water. From cyclones and fronts to currents and eddies, the Weather in a Tank, developed by Lodovica Illari and John Marshall, models the basic principles of rotating fluid dynamics that affect the earth’s climate.

Circulation of the Atmosphere

During the residency, Illari used the Weather in a Tank—which has been adopted by over 50 colleges across the country—to demonstrate for Saraceno the basics of climatology. With the “Weather in a Tank,” her students are able to witness in tangible form what was before only a textbook description accompanied by complex mathematical equations. Using an ice bucket at the center of the container to represent the pole, Ilari showed how atmospheric circulation, driven by solar heating, works at different latitudes.

Such mechanisms of air circulation often form circuit loops similar to the kind of Saraceno creates in his installations—works, which, like the Weather in a Tank, similarly function to replicate the simple beauty of physical phenomenon using basic materials like air, mass, and sunlight. Learning more about these weather systems will inform Saraceno’s ongoing ambition of building a community in the sky.

Lodovica Illari is a Senior Lecturer in the Program in Atmospheres, Oceans, and Climate at MIT.


Michael Rubinstein and Adrian Dalca


One spring evening outside Albany, New York, MIT doctoral students Adrian Dalca and Michael Rubinstein launched two cameras into the stratosphere. Strapped to a High Altitude Balloon (also known as a “poor man’s satellite”), one camera was facing downwards capturing the earth’s surface, while the second camera was facing towards the horizon. What they recorded was the blue curve of the earth, limned by golden light, at just the moment when the sun was setting. The students’ aim was to catch that gloaming time, in the transition between night and day, so difficult to get on film.

Solar Powered Balloons

Attached to the balloon also was a thick, batter-proof Styrofoam cooler, padded with an additional layer of foam, containing a GPS tracker. The GPS tracker would trace the quick path of the balloon from upstate New York to Buzzard’s Bay, Cape Cod—spanning the incredible distance of 150 miles, over four states, in only three hours. Although Rubinstein and Dalca had launched the device farther north to avoid having it land in the ocean, the balloon traveled much faster than predicted and wound up in the waters close to the Cape’s Bird Island; the capsule containing the electronics were soaked in seawater for 19 hours, but the pair was able to successfully dry them out.

Saraceno has experimented with solar balloons (as in his the Museo Aero Solar project), and he was interested in the technology behind how the students tracked and recorded the position of the balloon in the course of its flight through the sky. Already, Rubinstein and Dalca have plans for the next experiment; in the future, they would like to attach many more synced cameras to the balloon to capture the landscape in 360 degrees. From 100,000 feet, it’s quite a view.

Michael Rubinstein is a doctoral student in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT. Adrian Dalca is a doctoral student in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT.


John Hansman

MIT’s D “double bubble” series design concept is based on a modified “tube-and-wing” structure that has a very wide fuselage to provide extra lift. The aircraft would be used for domestic flights to carry 180 passengers in a coach cabin roomier than that of a Boeing 737-800. Image: MIT/Aurora Flight Sciences.
MIT’s D “double bubble” series design concept is based on a modified “tube-and-wing” structure that has a very wide fuselage to provide extra lift. The aircraft would be used for domestic flights to carry 180 passengers in a coach cabin roomier than that of a Boeing 737-800. Image: MIT/Aurora Flight Sciences.


John Hansman has spent over 5,650 hours in the sky—that’s about 235 days—in airplanes and helicopters. With so much time logged in the sky, he was the ideal person to advise Saraceno on ideas for “cloud specific” works.

Hansman’s research in aviation focuses on minimizing environmental impact. For example, he was instrumental in designing the “double bubble,” a 180-passenger “green airplane” with a 70% reduction of fuel burn. A reimagining of the traditional tube-and-wing structure, the “double bubble” consists of two side-by-side cylinders resembling two joined soap bubbles—which also happen to be a reccurring form in Saraceno’s nature-inspired work.

Lighter Than Air

Although a city in the clouds may seem like the stuff of science fiction, Hansman helped Saraceno work through the technical issues to employ lighter than air technology towards this dream. The essential concern was weight, a quantity determined in relation to the wind speed and the number of square meters of material used in the structure’s design. Saraceno needed a lightweight, high-tensile material that could steadily inflate and deflate with changes in the wind. Weather, too, was a mitigating factor; rain would increase weight, causing the balloon to sink. The weather patterns could be tracked, but the balloon would still be difficult to land. And if a big hurricane approached, the balloon could shoot out to the troposphere – a cold, airless place for a human being. Although this conversation was only exploratory, the meeting was useful in thinking through the practical dimensions of the utopian project.

John Hansman is a Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT, where he is also head of the Humans and Automation Division and Director of the International Center for Air Transportation


Posted on February 4, 2013 by Anya Ventura