Where did Beijing go and will it come back?

When we saw this photo, we were shocked.

In the press, Beijing has stood out for the levels of pollution. Before the 2008 Olympics, visitors and athletes alike voiced concern over the quality of the air. Since then, by the US State Department data, it has become worse.

Diving into the data we noticed that Beijing’s air quality is not as simple a story as it is sometimes reported. There is wide variation in the air quality and visibility in Beijing. One of the most startling differences was experienced in September of 2015 when the Chinese government held the “largest parade it’s ever held” to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Japan’s defeat in WWII. During the celebration, factories were closed and cars were banned from roaming the streets. A few days after the bans were put into effect, the smog cleared and people saw blue skies in Beijing for once.

We wanted to recreate that experience and to inspire the younger generation to take some action to decreasing their carbon footprint. The air quality is inherently a sensory experience. Pollution can be seen, but it can also be felt. For this reason, our group thought physicalizing the information about air quality trends would make an impression that pictures on a page wouldn’t be able to. We want visitors to try to find images of the Beijing skyline in different pools of water that represent the level of pollution. On a clear day like in September 2015, it’ll be easy to spot those images since the water is clear. But on the worse days, such as in the winter when the coal plants are fired up to provide heating, the water is dark and feels viscous so it’s difficult to find the Beijing skyline. The reality is no different; the smog can swallow up the entire skyline and it’s difficult and dangerous to breathe in the air.

Fighting pollution will be a multi-generational challenge, so our chosen audience is children in China. We present this concept for an installation in the museums in Beijing, preferably in the children’s area. Some of them might have never witnessed blue skies so we want to show them that the environment they live in now can be improved. We also want them to leave with a physical image of the clear skyline of Beijing and on the back of that image, have more information about air pollution and steps they can take to limit their carbon footprint.

By Caroline Liu, Alicia Ouyang, Arturo Chavez