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Environmental Architecture (MA)

Qiran Wang

Qiran Wang is an artist and passionate advocate committed to environmental justice. Her educational background in architecture and art allows her to bridge the gap between indigenous knowledge and public understanding through observation and comprehension.

In the project ‘The Weight of The Air’, Qiran works with the team to actively communicate and collaborate with experts, researchers and local residents, gathering valuable insights and engaging in interdisciplinary dialogue to effectively communicate the complex relationship between pollutants, ecosystems and the well-being of all living things, working to create awareness, promote dialogue and advocate change through their dedication to environmental architecture.

Olive flowers blooming under the smoke.
União Cooperativa Agrícola, Alvito, Portugal

The project at hand is centred on investigating the impact of industrial emissions on air quality and public health caused by the olive pomace factories in the Alentejo region of Portugal. The objective is to identify the sources of pollution and quantify the levels of toxic particles present in the air, with a particular focus on how these particles contribute to the weight of the atmosphere. This research has an eco-centric focus, as it aims to promote the well-being of humans and nonhumans living in the Alentejo region by raising awareness about the harmful effects of industrial emissions on the environment and public health. By understanding the sources and dispersion patterns of industrial emissions, policymakers and stakeholders can take informed decisions to reduce emissions and promote a healthier environment for the community. Our objective is to identify the witnesses undertaking the weight of the air in this environment and gather various testimonies from them. By amplifying the voices of those affected, we strive to create awareness and foster dialogue, and then to use these testimonies to advocate for change.

The Alentejo region in Portugal has seen a rapid expansion of monoculture olive cultivation in the past two decades, resulting in changes to the landscape and widespread pollution of the air, water, soil, flora, fauna, and human inhabitants. The main product of olive agriculture is olive oil, and the region now boasts one olive oil factory and three waste disposal factories.

One of the main ways the project achieves this goal is by capturing and recording testimonies from a diverse range of people living in the region, including farmers, factory workers, and residents. To understand and address the issues of our project, we find testimonies provide insight into the ways that different individuals and communities are impacted by the weight of the air. This is also placed on the relationship of stickiness across objects of concern, shown from a micro-scale perspective. By capturing these testimonies, the project is able to amplify the voices of those who are most affected by industrial emissions and bring attention to the ways that their livelihoods are being impacted. One of the key goals of ‘The Weight of the Air’ project is to highlight the impact of toxicities on the region's human and non-human beings. This includes the impact on local flora and fauna, as well as the ways that toxicities are impacting the cultural heritage and traditions of the region. By documenting the impact of toxicities on non-human beings and cultural heritage, the project is able to emphasize the importance of preserving and protecting these important aspects of the region.


Burning, emitting, falling. Smoke permeates into the air, traveling with the wind and leaving particles behind. The air in Alentejo seems much heavier because of the toxic ingredients inside.

In the past 20 years, the scale of monoculture olive cultivation in the Alentejo region has expanded rapidly, changing the original landscape and polluting the air, water, soil, local flora and fauna and inhabitants. The main product of olive agriculture is olive oil, and within 20 years there have been one olive oil factory and three waste disposal factories settled in this area. Lagar do Marmelo, in Ferreira do Alentejo, belongs to Sovena group and is the only one factory in Alentejo producing extra virgin olive oil.

União Cooperativa Agrícola

Range of Smoke Dispersion

Through analyzing the factory satellite images of different months, we discovered that not only is the smoke influenced greatly by the wind direction and speed, but also it is highly related to the seasons. In February, all the factories show a much more intense smoke production than other months and the reason is probably the olive harvest and olive oil production time. Since it is very difficult to calculate an exact range of the distribution of smoke, we decided to overlay these satellite images to see an overall situation of smoke permeation. And the result could be seen as a vague estimation of the area might be affected by the industrial emissions. Compared to the other two, União Cooperativa Agrícola, near Alvito which is a village could be affected by its smoke according to image analysis, has the largest production scale with 3 chimneys who are able to work at one time.

Olive flowers blooming under the smoke


During each shoot of field trip, the smoke from the factory was always in the adjacent olive groves, a phenomenon that could be clearly seen with the eye, between the rows of olive trees, where the smoke was so thick that the air felt like it was sticky, invading the mouth and nose and occupying the respiratory tract. How do the olive trees and the various creatures that grow and live in the smoke for long periods of time feel and how are they affected? A concept of stickiness will be presented here to reflect the relationship between them.

Definition of "Stickness"

For this chapter, the speculative link between the concepts is the result of the situation description, suggesting that one can understand alternative possibilities for adhesion relations.

This concept is derived from the temporal and spatial sharing of the particulate matter of smoke with the seasonal flowering of olive trees in the previous chapter section of the study. At the same time, the flowering olive pollen then acts as a force that makes adhesion possible, and the substance pollenkitt again gives it the ability to spread and carry, so that the term adhesion is first introduced in this project.

As the complexity of the relationship between the objects under study has been explored, the meaning it conveys has been constantly updated and refined, and we now seek to elaborate it as a state in which a substance or surface is sticky and adhesive, which describes the ability of objects and surfaces to hold together or adsorb other objects after contact, a state that can be caused by the chemical properties of the substance, surface tension or adhesives, charge attraction, etc. conditions.

In a broader conceptual and semantic sense, the concept of stickiness can be extended to mean the characteristic (property) of something having an appeal, permanence and influence in people's thinking or actions, which implies the ability to generate attention and engagement and have a long-term impact on individuals and groups.

In this project we have highlighted the relationship of stickiness across objects of interest and the use of different visualisations to demonstrate this micro-scale perspective. Stickiness relationships do not only occur in organic matter, but also carry more causal links, so when we focus on the effects of stickiness states on non-human organisms, we find that there is a lack of attention to biological groups in this area. And our work is an attempt to articulate the occurrence of such processes and to offer a new theory of stickiness.

The coloured part of the picture shows the olive growing area in the Alentejo, which is expanding year by year.
Scales of  different types of particles

Possibility of Adherence

Typically, olive pollen has a particle size of about 25 µm, whereas the different smoke particles in the air have particle sizes ranging from 0.01 µm to 5 µm, and they are very different in size, thus offering the possibility of attachment relationships. Observation of olive pollen under microscopic electron microscopy reveals a finely striated surface with small pores between the stripes and irregularly shaped rough protrusions on the surface of the particles, with the special structure of spines and ridges providing a vehicle for attachment to other particles.

In addition, pollen grains are covered by an important sticky substance called "pollenkitt", which is produced by the glands in the anther and consists of a mixture of lipids and waxes. Their main function is to provide a lubricating layer between the pollen grain and the stigma of the female flower, making it easier for the pollen grain to reach the stigma and germinate. In addition to this it protects the pollen from water loss and also adheres more easily to insects.Guillermo J Amador et al. published a study on pollenkitt being essential for pollen capture, in which they washed pollenkitt from pollen grains with a special mixture and then wrapped it around the bees ( They observed that the washed pollen did not stick to the bees, and when the pollenkitt was removed, the amount of pollen accumulated by the bees was reduced by a factor of two. This experiment could be taken as strong evidence that pollen adhesion is made stronger by the presence of pollenkitt.

The links between smoke, pollinators, olive trees, flowers ...... all the objects of study are linked by the emergence of pollen as a medium, establishing a new relationship of communication.


Voices being Smothered

AZPO Azeites de Portugal(37°59'36.0"N 8°15'42.7"W) is built just 500m away from Fortes Novos and only 200m away from Rosa Dimas’s house. The people who live there have their environment and well-being devastated by a factory that appeared “suddenly”, without “anyone” having consulted them. 

Says Maria Joaquina Camacho through her Facebook account. She lives in that village and records the emission activities of AZPO factory regularly and shares them with the public. Also, Rosa Dimas, who lives under the smoke everyday and suffers the illness due to the pressure of the heavy and intense air, shares a much closer perspective of the living environment covered by ashes and dusts.

However, their voices are being smothered because of the indifference and irresponsibility of the government, inspection authority and of course the factory. Our research and work can be powerful to increase their accountability and let their voices be heard. Like José Macário Correia wrote in the end of his article,

Our voice and other voices cannot be silenced. What you see, feel and smell is too serious for such permissiveness. The Ferreira do Alentejo Chamber and the Ministry of the Environment have the floor. We don't need complicit silence, we want action.

Estimation of PM10 falling area between October and February from AZPO factory
Estimation of PM10 falling area between October and February from AZPO factory

Interdisciplinary dialogue

In order to know the actual air conditions near the factory, we contacted Ismael Casotti Rienda, a researcher focusing on air pollution, who did monitoring jobs near Rosa Dimas’s house to see the PM concentrations caused by AZPO factory. He mentioned that the concentration of particulate matters is not only affected by the wind direction, it is very hard to predict and analyze pollution situations based merely on wind effect. According to the wind rose and pollution rose, combined with the geographical relations between the factory and Rosa’s house, we can infer that the PM concentration reaches to its highest level on WSW direction. However, the total concentrations from all directions do not show much differences as we think, because the pollutants may come from different factories namely Parque Agro Industrial do Penique in Odivelas or even União Cooperativa Agrícola in Alvito. So, again, we use our previous calculation results to estimate the spread range of PM10 and find that it is highly possible the 3 factories have an integrated impact on one spot, which also shows the comprehensive influence of the 3 factories on the whole Alentejo area. Another thing worth noticing is even the monitoring results are done directly in Rosa’ house which is only 200m away from AZPO factory, they are still within the legal limit set by EU regulations although they are already much higher than what we can search on online platform. So, the thresholds in these regulations become questionable.

Royal College of Art