Multiple air-conditioning units on a Tokyo roof.
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.
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.
Shoppers inside the Avenues mall in Kuwait City. Photograph: Alamy
Cities have boomed in places where, previously, the climate would have held them back. In 1950, 28% of the population of the US lived in its sunbelt, 40% 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.
With air conditioning goes a new kind of architecture, one in which traditional hot-climate devices such as porches, cross-ventilation or pools of water, which create both layers and permeability between inside and out, have given way to sealed boxes. Persian wind-catching towers, or the fountains of the Alhambra, or the humble dogtrot house of the southern US, in which living and cooking quarters are separated by a passage open to the breeze, all proceeded by negotiation between built fabric and the environment. Now it is a matter of technological conquest.
Building services – their heating, cooling and ventilating systems – came to eat up larger proportions of their total budgets. The people who designed them, services engineers, became influential if underacknowledged officers in the shaping of cities. By the 1980s, buildings such as Richard Rogers’ Lloyds building gave formal expression to the ducts and extracts that until then had been hidden. In the Die Hard movies they become a crucial setting of suspense and action, being large enough to accommodate the body of Bruce Willis.
Air conditioning enables people to move from their homes to their cars to a shopping mall, or office – all conditioned environments. Photograph: Alamy
The most significant architectural effect of air conditioning, however, is in the social spaces it creates. In Houston, as in most southern American cities, you can progress from your air-conditioned house to your air-conditioned garage and then in your air-conditioned car to parking garages, malls and workplaces which are all, also, air-conditioned. In the city’s downtown area, underpasses and bridges link different buildings, so that you can go from one to another without exposing yourself to the exterior. It is possible, indeed habitual, to spend whole days and weeks in controlled weather.
In the brutal climate of Doha, Qatar (or indeed in Dubai, Shenzhen or Singapore) similar spaces recur. Buildings which appear separate from the outside (for the few, that is, who choose to be outside) are internally fused, a hotel turning into a mall into a food court into a multiplex via a series of lobbies whose décor of marble, carpet and timber veneer can’t decide if it is internal or external. The hierarchies and distinctions of European cities – between buildings and streets, and between degrees of public and private space – are bypassed and dissolved.
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.”
There is also an absence of what a European might consider public space, that is somewhere in principle available to everyone, open to activities both unprogrammed and not necessarily retail. It has been observed that the climate-controlled networks of Houston or Jakarta or Dubai can serve not only to exclude heat and humidity, but also those considered undesirable or insufficiently profitable. In such places there is a clear divide, social and often racial, between those inside the conditioned cocoon and those outside. The street becomes actively hostile, the effects of weather compounded by those of motor traffic and indifference to the needs of pedestrians. Here are the people you don’t see in the malls – the blue-uniformed migrant workers in the Gulf, the homeless and luckless in America.
Environmentally speaking, air conditioning is anti-social. It buys its owner comfort at the cost of shifting the surplus heat somewhere else, on to surrounding streets and ultimately into the atmosphere of the planet. The night-time temperature of Phoenix, Arizona, is believed to be increased by one degree or more by the heat expelled from its air conditioning. This is, you could say, the perfectly neoliberal technology, based on division and displacement. According to one theory, air conditioning helped to elect Ronald Reagan, by attracting conservatively inclined retirees to the southern states that swung in his favour.
Air conditioning units in Shenyang, China. Photograph: VCG via Getty Images
In pointing out the shortcomings of air conditioning, it is easy to overlook its achievements, to ask, in the style of Life of Brian, what it ever did for us. Considerable reductions in the loss of life through excess heat is one answer. Increased productivity and economic activity in hot regions of the world is another. Or better-functioning hospitals and schools. Most of us would be grateful for its contribution to computing and movies. Few people who have spent time in hot and humid climates would not sometimes want the refuge of artificially cooled air.
One defence of air-conditioned cities is that they are more energy-efficient than very cold cities – Minneapolis, for example – that need to be heated up in winter, and if the statistics of energy consumption sound terrifying, they can also be put in perspective. The US expends more energy on air conditioning, for example, than the whole of Africa does on everything. Then again, it expends even more energy on hot water, which doesn’t get the same rap.
The question then is not whether to condition climate, but how. As long ago as the 1940s the Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy demonstrated, with his village of
New Gourna near Luxor, how traditional techniques of orientation, ventilation, screening and shading could be revived. Many contemporary architects are following his lead – the Nigerian Kunlé Adeyemi, for example, whose new Black Rhino Academy in Tanzania tries to optimise the conditions for its users by finding the best location, environmentally speaking, on its site.
If these principles are now better known, the challenge remains to expand the village-scale achievements of an architect like Hassan Fathy to large, fast-growing cities. Addressing this challenge is the promise of high-profile, government-backed projects such as Msheireb in Qatar and Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, which boast of their combinations of old forms – shady courtyards and arcades; narrow, breezy streets – with solar panel arrays and what Masdar’s architects, Foster and Partners, call “state-of-the-art technologies”.
There has been some scepticism, about Masdar in particular, that these projects’ purposes might be more symbolic than truly environmental. But the places they create are incomparably more pleasurable than the downtowns, mechanised by cars and air-conditioning, of the cities in which they are placed. They are, at least, steps forward in what is an essential task for the 21st century: to develop new forms of public space in hot climates, not the city-scaled habitable fridges of the 20th.
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.