Aerial view of multiple air-conditioning units on a Tokyo roof. Photo: Franck Robichon / EPA

By Rowan Moore
14 August 2018

(The Guardian) – Once, when I was staying in Houston, Texas, my host was showing me round her house. It included a mighty fireplace.

“How often does it get cold enough to light a fire?” I asked, as what little I knew about the city included the fact that it is mostly hot and humid. Maybe once or twice a year, she replied, but her husband came from Wisconsin. He liked a log fire. So they would turn up the air conditioning and light one.

This was climate as television, to be summoned with the twiddle of a dial, the outcome of a century which started in 1902, when Willis Carrier was simply asked to find a way to prevent heat and humidity from warping the paper at the Brooklyn printing company Sackett-Wilhelms. But the air-conditioning that he helped develop has changed buildings, and the ways they are used, more than any other invention: more than reinforced concrete, plate glass, safety elevators or steel frames. Its effects have directed the locations and shapes of cities. They have been social, cultural and geopolitical.

The shopping mall would have been inconceivable without air conditioning, as would the deep-plan and glass-walled office block, as would computer servers. The rise of Hollywood in the 1920s would have been slowed if, as previously, theatres had needed to close in hot weather. The expansion of tract housing in postwar suburban America relied on affordable domestic air conditioning units. A contemporary museum, such as Tate Modern or Moma, requires a carefully controlled climate to protect the works of art.

Cities have boomed in places where, previously, the climate would have held them back. In 1950, 28 percent of the population of the US lived in its sunbelt, 40 percent in 2000. The combined population of the Gulf cities went from less than 500,000 before 1950 to 20 million now. Neither the rise of Singapore, nor the exploding cities of China and India, would have happened in the same way if they had still relied on punkah fans, shady verandas, and afternoon naps.

There are, of course, other factors, such as the presence of oil reserves in both Houston and the Gulf, but the mitigation of otherwise unbearable temperatures radically changed the way the stories of these cities played out. And so, in the 21st century, we reached the point where a ski-slope with “real” snow could be built in a Dubai shopping mall and air-conditioned football stadiums could be planned for the 2022 Qatar World Cup, epics of refrigeration whose USP was their outrageous – and hitherto unfeasible – inversion of nature. […]

The architect Rem Koolhaas called this phenomenon “Junkspace”, a “product of the encounter between escalator and air conditioning, conceived in an incubator of sheetrock … always interior, so extensive that you rarely perceive limits.” In the Gulf and China as in much of the US, the mall became the principal gathering place, being a zone where large numbers could comfortably pass their time, leaving streets to be occupied by air conditioning’s mechanical ally, the automobile.

The result is a form of sensory deprivation that almost everyone now accepts without question, in which the active interplay of body and atmosphere becomes homogenised and passive. The stimuli of scent, touch, sound and sight are almost entirely at the discretion of the mall management: “a low grade purgatory”, as Koolhaas called it, “overripe and undernourishing at the same time … like being condemned to a perpetual jacuzzi with millions of your best friends.” [more]

An inversion of nature: how air conditioning created the modern city

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