Over the coming two decades Asia will be the main driver of a 40% increase in global energy consumption. Ambitions for a more sustainable future in the region are severely compromised by the widespread and rapid take-up of energy-intensive methods for cooling the built environment. For the majority of Asia’s countries buildings account for more than 50% of all national greenhouse gas emissions. With around half that energy consumption typically associated with cooling or heating interior spaces, national carbon footprints have increased dramatically in recent decades through the introduction of electronic air- conditioning. This paper argues such trends are unsustainable and low-carbon alternatives for environmental comfort are required urgently. Air-conditioning is seen as pivotal to transformations in urban design and living, such that two phases of modernity are identified: preconditioned and conditioned. By foregrounding the need for low-carbon alternatives, the paper advocates for an alternative, low-carbon regime of thermal governance.

An uncomfortable truth

Any claims and ambitions for more sustainable futures in Asia are severely compromised by the widespread and rapid take-up of energy-intensive methods for cooling interior spaces. Where once AC was regarded as a luxury, in a few short decades it has become a highly common technology for regulating the temperature and humidity levels of interior spaces throughout the region’s tropical and subtropical zones, particularly in cities. With this trend set to continue, in Southeast Asia the mechanical cooling (and drying) of the built environment will be a significant factor contributing to a demand in energy that is outpacing much of the world. Examining the rapid adoption of AC technologies in India, China, and Indonesia, Harold Wilhite (1) notes “changes that took place over many decades in the US and Japan are happening at a rapid tempo.” If we carry these trajectories forward, their significance becomes starkly apparent in places like China where it is expected that more than 70% of the population will live in cities by 2050. Asia’s population will grow by 1.25 billion by 2025, and more than half will live in cities (UN-HABITAT, 2008). By situating the recent adoption of AC in these wider social contexts and trajectories, in this paper I argue that an alternative, less energy-intensive, climate-control paradigm is urgently needed. As Wolfgang Lauber et al (2) state in their contemplations on the future of architecture for tropical regions:

“The invention of air-conditioning has ensured that large buildings and high-rises can be supplied with fresh air as well as sufficient cooling and heating energy. From an environmental viewpoint, the use of 300–400KWh/sqm per year to provide this technically produced comfort is simply too high.”

Paradigms of built environment sustainability

Within the fast-growing discourse of sustainable design, efficient and alternative have been two guiding mantras for reducing the carbon footprint of construction. The component-based approach to this, largely advanced through the professions of building sciences and mechanical engineering, has focused on the constituent parts of building infrastructure such as water treatment systems, HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) systems, and so forth (Atthajariyakul and Lertsatittanakorn, 2008; Hwang et al, 2009; Mui, 2006; Mui and Wong, 2007). In the case of AC a highly technical field of expertise has emerged, advancing highly scientific, physiological standards of built environment comfort (Hindrichs and Daniels, 2007; Yik et al, 2001). And while much attention has been given to making HVAC technologies more efficient in using existing grid-based power supplies, the search for alternative cleaner, greener energy has primarily been advanced in tropical and subtropical Asia via solar panel technology. In the case of both domestic and commercial architecture, this has typically involved introducing in situ installations, whereby grid-supply electricity is supplemented, or in some cases even replaced. Equally important have been recent advances in the area of material technologies, with glazing, concrete, foam, and plastics all being branded as ‘high-tech’, ‘thermally responsive’, or even ‘intelligent’.

Alongside, and often operating in tandem with this component-based approach has been the field of ‘eco’ or ‘green’ architecture, which has attempted to forge a more holistic conceptualisation of design and construction for environmentally responsible and responsive buildings. The rallying cry of sustainability has given new impetus to the vocabulary of ‘tropical architecture’, whereby climate-sensitive materials and designs inherited from the past are combined with new ideas and construction technologies to create structures that require less energy in their provision of occupant comfort. In the context of Southeast Asia, the ‘eco-skyscraper’ has given the language of tropical architecture its most spectacular and grandiose form. Architects like Ken Yeang are among the pioneers in this field, whose ‘bio-climatic’ high-rise designs seek to offer a solution to an inescapable future of densely populated urban spaces. A philosophy of ecological design is made manifest through a mix of natural ventilation of spaces, sunshading, wind-scoops, vertical landscaping, natural lighting systems, and building orientation and material (re)usage considerations (Yeang, 1994; 2009; Yeang and Richards, 2007).

Sustainability can also be identified here as oriented by the philosophy of conservation, and the maintenance and reuse of the existing building stock. Indeed, in her notable volume, Sustainable Preservation: Greening Existing Buildings, Jean Carroon highlights the importance of calculating the ‘embodied energy’ of a building in relation to its lifespan. This notion of embodied energy seeks to capture the environmental debt incurred from the resource depletion and energy used in construction (3). Early research conducted by organisations like the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation in the USA in 1979 through to more recent United Nations Development Programme studies point unequivocally to the significant economic and energy savings that can be made from the adaptive reuse of buildings. Given the accelerated speed of construction, destruction, and redevelopment in regions like Asia—such that buildings often have significantly shorter lifespans —locally conducted studies demonstrating the environmental merits of building conservation and adaptive reuse would offer an important contribution to the conceptualisation of urban sustainability. More specifically, 20th-century buildings constructed prior to the widespread use of AC have the potential for making an important contribution to countering or mitigating the prevailing trends towards increased energy consumption.

As we have seen, responses to the challenges of built environment sustainability vis à vis energy in Asia have focused largely on issues of design, technology, and the materiality of construction. Russell Hitchings and Jun Lees’s study productively reveals connections between cultural and manufacturing shifts in clothing, the transformation of public spaces such as shopping malls, and the increasing affordability of AC in the home, to suggest Singaporeans now experience “interlocking layers of human encasement” (4). The approach adopted here builds on these studies by historically locating both contemporary practices and norms, and recent debates around architectural thermal comfort. It does so by attending to the wider social, political, and cultural contexts within which buildings have evolved, and the ways in which that emplacement has shifted over time. While many of the examples cited here are cities, the analysis pertains to the built environment of tropical and subtropical across Asia more generally. However, in aiming to chart such futures more broadly, the focus here is the various sociocultural shifts that come to bear upon, and in so doing reshape, the built environment over time; in the making of history.

Preconditioned modernity

To render the invisible more visible it is helpful to differentiate between two distinct, albeit overlapping, phases of a modernity in Asia, what I want to refer to here as the preconditioned and conditioned. In their conceptualisation and historical dating, modernity, modernism, and the even more circumspect notion of the ‘modern world’ are inherently contentious and evasive terms. Different fields of scholarship have considered a wide variety of historical trends, ruptures, and turns—in manufacturing, architecture, literature, art, technology, religion, or philosophy—in order to proclaim the arrival (and subsequent death) of modernity and the modern. A more detailed picture is emerging of how the modern emerges in different ways in different places and over different timespans. The arrival of new technologies, shifts in political systems, economic transitions, freak encounters, the incorporation of new ideas, and so forth all mean the history of a modern idiom for the built environment, and what might be identified as modernism, is chaotic, haphazard, and largely incoherent.

Jeffrey Cody (2003) and Edward Denison and Guang Yu Ren (2008) are among those that trace key transformations in the built environment and the arrival of Modernism in China from the mid–late 19th century onwards. Together they highlight a series of external influences that would have a catalytic affect on Chinese society, creating a series of political, social, and intellectual shifts which would bear upon architecture and the planning of cities. Throughout much of China traditional forms of construction relied heavily on wood. Tradition-based architecture was, in the main, designed around load-bearing wooden columns and beams. Interior spaces were created by linking together units (jian) of four columns with interlocking horizontal beams. As Denison and Ren state, “timber was abundant, cheap, easy to work, flexible, strong, pleasing to the eye, and tactile. The one thing it lacked was permanence” (5). They suggest, however, that, as the 19th century progressed, the construction and design of buildings began to alter in significant ways. Engineers would lead the way through the incorporation of metal, concrete, and glass. Ideas would arrive from Europe and, as Cody (2003) highlights in substantive detail, from the United States. At the beginning of the 20th century the American skyscraper ‘invaded’ countries across Europe, Central America, Africa, and East Asia. It was a form of construction that came to increasingly rely upon the marriage of steel and concrete.

The first architects in China came from engineering backgrounds. But equally important was the boom in factory construction, the development of such large-scale, industrial designs, and the mass production of the technologies and materials required to build them. The arrival of foreign architects and engineers would greatly accelerate the speed and scale of industrialised urbanism, a landscape characterised by multistoried reinforced concrete and great expanses of glass. Shanghai’s first office building constructed entirely from reinforced concrete was completed in 1908. With such construction taking place in a pre-AC era, designs continued to incorporate ideas about natural ventilation and shaded interiors wherever possible. Traditional forms of clothing remained prominent in the workplace; reflecting seasonal and climatic fluctuations, with natural, lightweight fabrics being the common attire of hot and humid office spaces (Tsang, 2002).

Throughout much of Asia there is also a long tradition of fanning, which remained prevalent through the early decades of the 20th century. The personal fan would also be accompanied by the ceiling fan. While the spread of such technologies is difficult to historicise, we do know the punkah—a term denoting a swinging blade system attached to the ceiling—is associated with Arab culture. At some point in the 18th century the Indian subcontinent adopted the technology, with the punkahwallah becoming a feature of colonial rule. The wallah, or servant of the house, would operate a pulley system to maintain the flow of air in the room. While the arrival of electricity enabled ceiling and desk fans to become more efficient and regular, cooling throughout the first half of the 20th century was still a process of moving air, rather than introducing new cooler, dryer air into the room. Fanning, both electric and manual, thus remained localised, directional, momentary, and a perceptively sensorial experience.

As a parallel to China, transformations in India’s built environment at the beginning of the 20th century were also heavily shaped by the ideas and technologies of foreign engineers and architects. British rule played a definitive role in defining the styles, designs, and construction methods, which together constituted modernism in cities like Delhi, Calcutta, and Bombay. Although built on an altogether different scale, the colonial bungalow offered another example of the Anglo-Indian style of architecture that emerged under the British. As Anthony King (1984) highlighted, the constant reinvention and reproduction of the bungalow in different contexts meant it became one of the most recognisable examples of what latterly came to be known as ‘tropical architecture’.

It took some time for European architects to learn how to build and design for the cultural and climatic conditions of tropical and subtropical Asia. Indeed, considerable scholarship has been dedicated to the ‘evolution’ of the ‘tropical architecture’ typology, one that came to be increasingly oriented around verandahs, overhanging rooflines, perforated screens, as well as an accumulated knowledge of the need to design in accordance with orientation, shade, cooling breezes and water (Coles and Jackson, 2006; Fathy et al, 1986; Ford et al, 1998; Fry and Drew, 1964). More recently, however, by attending to the connections between politics, governmentality, and technological advances that existed across great distances, authors like Jiat Hwee Chang (2011) have offered new insights for interpreting this form of colonial and tropical architecture as an unfolding ‘situated knowledge’. But as Jon Lang (2002) points out, experimentation and the importation of new design themes and ideas were not merely dependent upon foreign architects and engineers – local architects also shaped design trends and theories.

During those mid-century years of Independence across South and Southeast Asia architecture and urban planning were the vanguards of ambitious claims of national sovereignty and progress. In Cambodia, for example, from 1953 onwards Norodom Sihanouk channelled his vision of a modern, independent nation into a particular style of urbanism, coined ‘New Khmer Architecture’ (Grant Ross and Collins, 2006; Lim and Chang, 2012). Conceived at a time when air-conditioning was prohibitively expensive to install and run, this predominantly public and commercial architecture was designed to facilitate airflow and natural cooling to counteract the tropical heat. The chief architect of this movement, Vann Molyvann, undertook carefully planned, well-considered research, referencing the various Cambodian urban centres of the past 2000 years (Vann, 2003). The heritage of these long- lasting, structured societies was one of the reference points for the development of a style of architecture and planning that would form the physical environment for new urban centres. Cooling features such as the iconic, fanned concrete roof tops, and double-brick walls shielded Vann Molyvann’s buildings from the tropical heat. Windows were positioned in order to avoid the path of the sun. The use of stilts, also demonstrated his regard for the practical heritage of cooling found in the Cambodian vernacular. These implementations of local knowledge were combined with innovations enabled by modern scientific research.

Panning back out then, what we see across Asia in the first half of the 20th century is a steady shift towards the adoption of new technologies and facilities for large-scale construction, new idea(l)s about architecture, urban planning and the role of cities, as well as the uptake of new building materials that dramatically transformed the scale and form of the built environment. At first, and right through to the 1950s and 1960s, the uptake of AC was slow and it remained a rare technology due in large part to its extremely high installation, operational, and maintenance costs. The real beginning of the end of the preconditioned modernity, however, came in the 1950s with the arrival of a more technoscientific language of climatic design in the United States. Chang (6) argues the development of reliable, science- based climatological and meteorological data at that time provided a basis for a new paradigm of architectural practice. It would be some years before the instruments for collecting the indices of climate—like wind speed or effective temperature—would be in common usage across different parts of the world. Nonetheless, a new science of thermal comfort was now filtering outwards from the US, one that divided the world into certain ‘zones’, with the tropics being subcategorised into three principal climatic types: warm and humid; hot and dry; and upland.

Conditioned modernity

The precise origins of electronic AC in Asia are difficult to trace. As an emergent technology in the decades of the mid-20th century, its high costs meant it was frequently associated with spaces of luxury. International hotels were among its early proponents, creating temporary respites of comfort from the heat and humidity of the tropical climes. AC’s transformative properties become manifest if we look at the ways in which it enabled new social practices and rhythms. In the case of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew’s admiration of the technology as one of the “signal inventions of history” related to the benefits it delivered in workplace efficiency. Quotidian and annual routines such as siestas and hill-station retreats were interruptions in the Southeast Asian work-day that could be removed through electronic cooling. The maintenance of ‘optimum’ temperature and humidity levels throughout the day was also linked to productivity gains, and a marked increase in the attractiveness of cities like Singapore to expatriates originating from temperate climates. It was a powerful logic that saw the work, leisure, and homely environs of daily life increasingly move indoors, and the widespread emergence of what Steven Connor has referred to as “the many enclosures of the air, artificial atmospheres and sealed environments” (7).

As both the equipment and cost of electricity decreased in relative terms, HVAC systems and domestic AC units became an increasingly common feature of commercial and domestic buildings across the tropical regions of South and Southeast Asia from the 1960s onwards. Right across the Asia region conditioned modernity gave a new legitimacy to glass as a construction material. The adoption of this new ‘light’ architecture was most apparent in the design of Asia’s skyscrapers, where glass began to replace concrete for their outer skins from around the 1970s onwards. In effect, glass had become a pivotal construction material of a conditioned modernity, at once bringing nature indoors in a visual sense, yet simultaneously withholding it in other ways.

Interestingly, where AC has enabled a ‘lighter’ architecture it has also made possible a culture of heavier furniture and furnishings. AC has underpinned a transformation in interior design in regions like Southeast Asia, in that previously climate-sensitive furniture designs and materials employed to allow ventilation and the dissipation of heat away from the body have been replaced by deep-pile cushions and heat-retaining textiles. In the last thirty years or so, the adoption of AC has been closely followed by a style of furnishing more familiar to the temperate climates of Europe and North America. More specifically, with the ‘West’ continuing to act as the principle point of reference in the material culture of ‘modern’ living in Asia, items like duvets, mattresses, and living room seats filled with insulating feathers and foams are symbolically coded and circulate and often act as the focal point of desires and aspirations. Indeed if we recall Shove’s (2003) arguments concerning the historical trajectories of comfort and luxury, we are reminded how sinking and snuggling into the soft, malleable fabrics of home furnishings become the embodied practices through which modern, middle- class urban life is marked, felt, and lived; a symbolic, sensory dyad enabled by and dependent upon electronic AC.

In a few short decades AC has also had a profound transformative affect on the clothes of Asia. Across the region the history of clothing is one deeply rooted in local climatic conditions. In thousands of offices across Asia the standard business attire for both men and women has become the dark-coloured suit made from heavy cotton or wool. But perhaps most intriguingly, AC has also transformed the material imagination of the body itself in such contexts. Despite the year round temperatures of cities like Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, AC has deemed the productive human body of postindustrial, knowledge economies to be clean, dry, and free of any signs of climatic response. The issue of clothing points towards a larger cultural history of the body under the conditions of late modernity, and various threads related to this, warrant pursuing.

Stepping back from these various examples, I wish to suggest then that, together, they add up to two broad trends—what might provocatively be referred to as ‘epidemics’—which have now secured a firm hold across many of Asia’s societies, particular in the hot and humid countries of Southeast Asia. The first is the widespread, and somewhat viral like, emergence of electronic AC as a powerful socioeconomic and technological complex, one that now both breeds and sustains itself as a seemingly vital component of contemporary life. In many cities, ideas of public space underwent a transformation, and the contemporaneous rise of consumer economies meant the indoor shopping mall came to the fore as the rarified ecosphere of modernity. In the creation of the other ‘modern’ spaces of public leisure—cinemas, restaurants, hotels, and galleries— designers and architects created a new world of indoor capitalism predicated on comfort and convenience. Today, the amount of networked, seamlessly cooled space is continuing to expand rapidly, meaning that, if desired, residents of Bangkok, Shanghai, Bangalore, and Singapore can now move between the office, classroom, home, restaurant, shopping mall, and other climate-controlled environments with minimal exposure to the ‘outdoors’.

Such trends also speak of a second, and closely related, phenomenon that has emerged in recent decades, that of a subtle, yet discernible, form of agoraphobia. Like elsewhere in the world, in Asia there is a growing fear about the outdoor environment (see Hitchings, 2011). For many, the outdoors has become a space of contamination and risk, whereby science and associated cultural shifts have rendered air pregnant with concerns about pollution, crime, vector-borne diseases, skin cancer, ageing, and bodily discomfort and impurity. Inhabiting public space is to be walking, commuting, dwelling in the crowd, and whilst many in Asia today continue to live and work in densely occupied indoor spaces as well, a sense of privacy, security and comfort therein arises from the proximity of the familial and familiar. My argument here is not that the conditioned modernity is a totalising one. It is, like all modernities: incomplete, always in a state of becoming, and a process that inherently produces counter-movements and the interstitial spaces that foster alternatives to the dominant paradigm. But it is to this broader trend that I wish to point, a process where an increasing number of daily activities in Asia are moving indoors; a rapid and broad-based shift towards ‘hermetic’ interior spaces, ones that are both conceived and perceived as safer, more hygienic, more convenient, and of course more comfortable than the outside world.

Conclusion: towards an unconditioned modernity

The possibilities and limitations for a more sustainable built environment thus need to be seen through this prism of inhabited spaces. Indeed, what I have suggested here is that the electronic cooling of interiors in Asia in recent decades has been far more significant than merely a feature of building technology, and instead should be read as the catalyst for a new form of built environment modernity. In considering the global rise of AC, authors like Shove and Wilhite assert the need for approaches to thermal comfort that unlock us from the AC paradigm, and the urgency of less energy-intensive approaches that respond to, and build on, local climatic and cultural conditions. If a more sustainable built environment is to be developed in Asia, we need to move towards a more unconditioned modernity. By unconditioned I am not advocating a position of abolishing AC, a proposal that would be rightly met by a rebuttal of naivety. Rather it is a proposition concerning its decentring in the name of creating alternative, low-carbon trajectories of thermal governance. To be clear, by unconditioned (rather than non), I am arguing for a questioning of AC as a (pre)condition of modern urban life, rather than proposing its exclusion. An unconditioned modernity seeks to unhook AC as the axial technology and culture of indoor living. It gives greater attention to AC as a highly pervasive sociotechnical system, that has unforeseen and unpredictable influences and impacts (Abbott, 2001; Dennis and Urry, 2009).

The invisibility and intangibility of air is a significant factor in its absence from public debates about climate change and sustainability. An unconditioned modernity is one where this imbalance is better addressed, where understandings of the climate of the everyday, quotidian are pursued much more rigorously. Following Hitchings (2010), it is a move towards reflecting upon those routines and social practices that can easily become unthinking. The themes explored here illustrate how the discussion of cooled interiors also extends out to questions about furniture, clothing, furnishings, and the politics of the body. Certain assumptions and norms about these now have to be reassessed and destabilised, in ways that open up alternatives to electronically conditioned interiors. To achieve this we need to revisit the prevailing thermal governance paradigm which has now taken hold across many of Asia’s cities, exploring where and when less energy-intensive alternatives to AC might be implemented. This means, more specifically, attending to the institutions and social mechanisms by which expectations and norms of bodily thermal comfort are created, and harnessing the opportunities for the introduction of low-carbon, tradition-based alternatives to electronic AC.

Indeed, there is real benefit in gathering together and highlighting the material culture of tradition-based, low-energy thermal cooling and comfort in a way that reveals the interconnections and mutual dependencies of different histories of tropical architecture and passive cooling design (including vernacular, colonial, and early-modern architectures), hot climate furniture and clothing, low-energy environmental technologies (sun shading and ventilating devices, such as blinds, ventilators, and fans), the fabric and design of outdoor spaces, and traditional uses of nature as an agent of cooling (eg, water and vegetation). Of critical importance, though, is constructing a conceptual frame for critically appraising the possibilities and obstacles for maintaining and reinserting such tradition-based alternatives within the current energy-intensive, climate control paradigm. Understanding the technical, architectural, political, legal, financial, and cultural factors, which together bear upon built environment sustainability vis à vis thermal comfort, is vital if we are to better anticipate where and when less energy-intensive alternatives to AC might be implemented.

This is a condensed version of the article 'An Uncomfortable Truth: Air-conditioning and Sustainability in Asia' that originally appeared in the Journal Environment and Planning A, Vol.45, 2013.


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