Through the exploration of the architectural history of air-conditioning in Singapore, we shall ask if air-conditioning is indeed an indication of the domination by universal technique. Singapore is chosen as a case study in this article because of two main reasons. The first is that it is located near the equator so it has a hot and humid climate that is different the temperate examples we discussed earlier. The second and more important reason is that Singapore is in many ways the paradigmatic global city, both metaphorically and literally, addicted to air-conditioning.
The early architectural history of air-conditioning in Singapore is not very different from that of the North America other than a time-lag separating the developments in Singapore from those in North America. The earliest buildings to be air-conditioned were the cinemas, with Cathy Cinema to be the first purpose-built air-conditioned cinema in Singapore. In the immediate post-War years, we began to see air-conditioned office towers. The Asian Insurance Building is the second fully air-conditioned office tower, after the McDonald House. Not only were similar types of buildings first air-conditioned, these buildings also employed machines and systems manufactured in the United States, such as the Carrier Conduit Weathermaster system.
It was only in the post-independence years that the architectural history of air-conditioning in Singapore witnessed rapid transformations and significant differences. The first Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Kuan Yew regarded air-conditioning as “a most important invention for us; perhaps one of the signal inventions of history.” He argued that air-conditioning “changed the nature of civilisation by making development possible in the tropics…Without air-conditioning, you can work well only in the cool early morning hours, or at dusk. The first thing I did upon becoming prime minister was to install air-conditioners in buildings where the civil service worked. This was key to public efficiency” (Han et al. 2011, 343-344).
Air-conditioning was thus bound up with the socio-economic development imperatives of the post-independent state. That was most evident in the urban renewal proposal by the state planning agency. In the proposal, the “slums” in the old downtown – i.e. old shophouses – would be replaced by large modernist buildings of the podium-tower typology. The only way the environments of the large interior spaces of these podium-tower blocks could be habitable was through air-conditioning.
The National Development Building is an air-conditioned building and one of the earliest podium-tower blocks to be completed in Singapore. In some ways, it encapsulates the relationship between air-conditioning, architecture and the post-independent state’s socio-economic development imperatives. Deemed Singapore’s “most modern Government building,” designed by architects working for the state’s housing agency and completed in 1969 to house all the departments of the ministry, it has a “clean façade as well as an equally clean and shiny interior.” In contrast to the dirty streets and dark dingy interiors of the “slums” it dislocated, the building projected the image of a modern, efficient and progressive state. While it might resemble other air-conditioned modernist slab blocks around the world, the National Development Building was not a universal form. It was driven by and deeply entangled with the post-Independence Singapore state’s developmental agenda of modernizing, sanitizing and rationalizing the built environment.
The connections made between climate, development and civilization, or more specifically between hot climate, the inability to develop and the lack of civilization, by a post-colonial elite like Prime Minister Lee has to be understood in the context of colonial discourse on the tropics. The tropics was constructed by the Europeans colonizers as the environmentalal “other” to the norm of the temperate “self.” For example, in the nineteenth century under the miasmatic theories of disease transmission, the tropics was seen as pestilential other where the Europeans suffered high mortality and morbidity rates.
When the miasmatic theories of disease transmission were discredited and replaced by germ theories in the early 20th C, the tropics was in turn seen as unfavourable to the comfort and productivity of the Europeans. For example, tropical fatigue became a field of research in tropical medicine. This was further developed into climatic determinist theories on the correlation if not causality between hot climate, low energy and the lack of civilizational achievements by the like of Ellsworth Huntington in his book Climate and Civilization and Sidney Markham in Climate and the Energy of Nation. Implicit in these theories was that climate control, particularly cooling through air-conditioning, could potentially change the destiny of these nations (Markham 1947 (1942), Huntington 1924, Ackermann 2002).
As the 1970s unfolded, many of the podium-tower buildings stipulated in the urban renewal program of Singapore became multiuse complexes in which the podiums housed shopping arcades and the offices, residences or hotels were housed in the towers. These complexes promoted the interiorization of urban lives. They replacing shopping in traditional open streets that were subjected to the vagaries of weather conditions with shopping in the all-weather comfort of air-conditioned interiors. Again, this is a development that air-conditioning made possible.
Over the course of the 1980s, a newer form of larger interiorised air-conditioned development emerged. Referred to as “cities,” a notable example of this newer form of development is the Marina Square. Built on a large parcel of reclaimed land of 90,000 sq m, Marina Square housed hotels, shopping centers and offices. Designed by John Portman, Marina Square reinvented the atrium and brought about a new form interiorized “exterior” space to Singapore. It included the region’s tallest and largest atria.
Air-conditioned spaces in Singapore continued to expand in the 1990s to the extent of colonizing traditional outdoor spaces, such as the streets in the case of Bugis Junction development, and transit spaces like bus interchanges and pedestrian connections at public transportation nodes.