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Buildings may be lost in the murk but every cloud has a silver lining

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There is a lot of research going on into clouds these days. At one level, we have New York architects Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, who are experimenting with a prototype building that could look like a cloud: something that they hope to have working in time for the opening of Expo Switzerland 2002. By then, if all has gone well, their Blur Building, as it is known, will be hovering over the waters of Lake Neuchatel, disgorging and receiving visitors through its own artificially generated murk. Or at least it would be hovering inscrutably if it were not for a few technical hitches that need to be cleared up, and what might be a long-term threat to clouds in general posed by the activities of a certain Peter Cordani in Florida.

Cordani runs a cloud-seeding business, and has just developed a substance called Dyn-O-Gel that, far from creating clouds, actually makes them disappear.

In an experiment reported in the New Scientist last July, some 4 tonnes of Cordani's Dyn-O-Gel was dropped from a military aircraft onto a storm cloud, 1,500m long by 3,900m high, over Palm Beach International Airport. It caused the cloud to vanish from radar screens and deposit itself on the ground as a harmless gel.

Any residue falling on water dissolved immediately and the rest fell biodegradably on land.

Thus, even as Diller and Scofidio struggle to make clouds for aesthetic purposes, using not only pumps and an array of thousands of pipes and nozzles and, it must be emphasised, a large grant from the MacArthur Foundation - the first ever awarded to an architect simply for being a genius - Cordani - who is no academic, holding only a tenured position in the great university of life - is moving ahead by leaps and bounds in the opposite direction.

Daily he discovers more and more commercial applications for his magic powder, which is not only capable of absorbing 2,000 times its own weight in water, but holds promise of one day disarming the rain-laden hurricanes that bear down so ominously on the Florida peninsula.

If Dyn-O-Gel can be seen as the anti-cloud of matter, Blur Building is the apogee of philosophical obscurity. 'To blur is to make vague, to obfuscate, ' the New York Times reported Diller explaining of the project recently. 'In our visuallyobsessed, high-definition culture, blur is equated with loss.'

This state of affairs is clearly wrong, so, to compensate for the loss of definition caused by her battery of 12,500 fog nozzles, she and her partner propose to allow 400 visitors at a time to enter their 90m-long fog-cloud at Expo '02, all of them wearing special, socalled 'braincoats' programmed to reflect their personal likes and dislikes. Perhaps a trifle predictably, these 'braincoats' will glow red when approached by another 'braincoat' wearer with similar ideas.

Cloud studies today run the gamut, from the manufacture of obscurity - on a scale not attempted since the use of smoke-generation during the Second World War to hide targets from bombers, through the destruction of rain-bearing cloud cover by chemical means - to the use of artificial clouds as a backdrop to a new kind of dating agency.

Confronted with such energy, ingenuity and variety, the simple question of what will be left for architects to design when facades disappear and even the blur of enamel frits on glass is denied them seems to have been left behind.

Perhaps the best that can be expected is an end to the interminable wrangling about elevational details and height limits that wears down so many projects at the hands of statutory and advisory bodies.

Clouds, after all, are amorphous. What you get is not what you see at all.

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