In the latter half of the twentieth century, technological advancements in the electrical and structural sector – most importantly the invention of air conditioning – led to the creation of a more internalised lifestyle. Everyday activities that were once played out in response to the outdoor climate and temperature, such as shopping, commuting, working and sleeping, no longer required consideration of the external environment, instead individuals were able to obtain ideal comfort levels within the enclosed indoors and its artificial cooling or heating mechanisms. In the Southeast Asian tropics specifically, the ability to maintain a sense of cool and comfort in the face of heat and humidity completely changed the urban landscape of many cities, closing in office towers, shopping plazas, transport hubs – even entire outdoor streets – as a means to preserve a sense of expected comfort, and in the minds of many, a higher level of functionality. Not only did the physical landscape alter, social behaviours of many residents also adjusted in response to the ability to uphold constant cooling. Time was no longer stipulated by the heat of the day, instead individuals could work 9-5 without stopping for siestas, or leaving for the countryside in the height of summer, people could shop whenever they liked instead of the cool of the morning and the evening, and sporting and leisure activities could be carried out at any time if able to moved into the cool of the indoors. As Steven Connor comments, life has increasingly moved indoors, into “the many enclosures of the air, artificial atmospheres and sealed environments.” Thus, the introduction of air conditioning to the tropics has reconfigured the way people interact with the external world far beyond the concept of climate – it now takes into consideration the contexts of social, work, health, services and home lifestyle. For this particular piece we will focus on the nation of Singapore, a country shaped heavily by the implementation of artificial cooling. Dependent on air conditioning for more and more of it’s development, Singapore presents the quandary of exactly how far can the outdoors be enclosed?

Before the invention of air con, people in the tropics utilised the outdoor climatic conditions to cool the interiors of their houses. Ventilation and shading was key to comfortable internal spaces, with many houses in the region of Southeast Asia incorporating large openings, protected from the sun by blinds or lattices to allow maximum ventilation and dissipation of humidity; floors built off the ground on stilts to obtain better exposure to breezes; holes at the top of roofs to allow hot air to escape; and accentuated roof eaves to provide shading to the interior and what we now know as the verandah. The indoors and outdoors worked in unison to create thermal comfort for occupants, unknowingly forcing individuals to engage with their external environment. Over time, new inventions to ease the oppressiveness of the outdoor heat came about in the tropics. The ‘punkah’ was one example of a cooling device that became very popular in India with the British and wealthy Indians. Initially made from palm fronds or a cloth-covered wooden frame, the structure was attached to the ceiling and operated using a series of pulleys by a ‘punkah wallah’, a boy servant who controlled the speed of the punkah by the use of his hands and feet. Only implemented in the homes and offices of the well to do, the punkah created a constant breeze for the inhabitants, providing them with the ability to work and sleep indoors in comfort. Come the twentieth century, the electric fan, in particular the ceiling fan, became the preferred option of cooling indoor spaces. Although cooler than without, the electric fan tended to still only move air around, creating the sensory perception of being cooler when in direct contact with the airflow. Thus, interaction with the external environment, via open windows, fans on balconies or verandahs and water misters were still the best for fans to maximise breezes and the experience of cooling. Ever improving technology saw the invention of the air conditioner and from the 1950s and 60s onwards, its popularity soared across Southeast Asia.

Enabling the mechanical cooling of interiors meant, all types of facades, including glass, could now be utilised in the tropics, without the threat of overheating. Window openings could be removed all together in skyscrapers, forming a complete reliance on air conditioning to provide comfort. All at once furnishings deemed inappropriate to the tropics (such as deep pile cushions and heat retaining textiles) could be used, western suits of thick synthetic materials could be worn and even artificial lighting and over crowded office spaces could be implemented all thanks to the ever consistent utilisatino of mechanical cooling. The combined affect of glass facades and air conditioning closed in occupants, severely separating, although not visually, the indoors and the outdoors, the controllable and the uncontrollable. The advancement of technology in the sphere of air conditioning has enabled globalised architecture and an expectation of virtually equal comfort levels, in all kinds of spheres, anywhere in the world. Beyond altering the urban landscape and the social behaviours of individuals in relation to interior / exterior interactions, air conditioning has also influenced the thermal expectations of individuals, incrementally pushing the divide between the ‘comfortable’ indoors and ‘uncomfortable’ outdoors. In Singapore, this divide was cemented by the introduction of the shopping centre, an impressive enclosed space known in Singapore as ‘cities’. Marina Square (1986) and Suntec City (1995) are just two examples of these ‘cities’, comprising of large atriums to allow for the exterior to shine in, internalised pedestrian streets for shoppers and interconnected walkways to neighbouring structures – all within the comfort of air conditioning.

As Tim Winter and Jiat-Hwee Chang comment, the ‘real’ external city was rejected whilst another privatised, self-contained ‘city’ was created. This phenomenon of creating what we once knew as external spaces into interior spaces, all in the name of comfort, was stepped up a notch at Singapore’s Bugis Junction. Noted as Singapore’s ‘first glass covered air conditioned mall’, Bugis Junction is comprised of three streets of shop houses, enclosed within glass roof canopies, structurally embedded directly into the shop house to open up the internal walkways and create the feeling of being on a streetscape. Marketed as an ‘all weather activity location, Bugis Junction enables the charm of the outdoors without the discomfort of heat, humidity, rain and artificial lighting. The external world can simply be appreciated through the glass of a façade or an internalised streetscape - climate no longer has to interfere with social behaviour. On a lesser scale, Clarke Quay has not fully enclosed the outdoor space of the shopping complex – instead they have implemented transparent umbrella like structures that reflect solar radiation over the walkways and roofs of the surrounding shophouses and installed a number of whale-tail slow speed fans that generate gentle breezes at street level. Even though a far more sustainable form of cooling, Clarke Quay affirms that thermal comfort expectations within Singapore have expanded so far as to include the cooling of outdoor spaces – the significance of the external as its own entity now lies in the shadows of the necessitation for‘all weather comfort’. The stark divide between the internal and the external only grows as developers and designers create new ways to enclose the outdoors and further manipulate interpretations of comfort. In the sphere of Singapore, this can only be seen as an achievement – a nation efficiently thriving economically and socially in the tropics, in many ways due to the role mechanical cooling has played in enabling all citizens to live, work and play in ideal comfort.

Cooling techniques have made it so design no longer has to act in response to the environment, rather the environment can be altered to fit within the design

Although the divide between internal and external has been clearly established in the name of comfort, Singapore has developed a means to overcome this distinction – by bringing the outdoor environment inside. Technological advances in structural design and climate control have enabled developers to build internal gardens and green walls through to entire rainforests – all within the confines of a mechanically cooled space. Individuals are now able to experience the wonders of the outdoors, within the indoors. Singapore as a highly urbanised nation has worked hard to build its identity as a ‘city within a garden’, understanding the benefits that green space and ecological diversity can provide to individuals well being. The inclusion of such green space within the internal confines of buildings can also enhance the aesthetic appeal of a space, improve air quality, act as acoustic insulation and subtly cool down interior areas. As one commenter describes, it provides a seamless transition of greenery from outdoors to indoors. On a larger scale, Gardens by the Bay is a star attraction of Singapore, known for its indoor gardens and global plant displays. Environmentally responsive in its design, Gardens by the Bay’s ‘Flower Dome’ and ‘Cloud Forest Dome’ are cooled via high performance glass, external shading and biomass generated cooling devices, primarily to ensure human thermal comfort whilst in the domes and upkeep plant wellbeing. Even though the end result is a completely zero carbon conditioning system, the entire experience contributes to the shift in an individuals perception of comfort, reinforcing the idea that the actual external environment is much warmer than what it may actually be – a perception that most definitely influences air conditioning energy consumption. Similarly, the new terminal at Changi, ‘The Jewel’, has as its central attraction a forest enclosed within a glass and steel atrium that includes walking trails through the vegetation, terraced gardens stretching down 30 metres to a central amphitheatre that will also act as green walls to offset the overall emissions output, a 40 metre high waterfall that originates from collected rain water and is later dispersed throughout the building and a collection of tree like columns that will be arranged in a ring around the edge of a roof garden to provide additional support for the roof. Visitors can experience the tropics of Southeast Asia – a place known for being humid, hot and sticky – instead in the cool of air conditioning, close to food and retail outlets and comfortably transition to their next destination without ever leaving the interior of the airport. Cooling techniques have made it so design no longer has to act in response to the environment, rather the environment can be altered to fit within the design. Even with sustainable measures in place, the enclosing of the outdoors into internal spaces highlights the extent to which urban cities have sealed themselves away from the natural environment – preferring to recreate artificial outdoor environments that depend upon mechanical cooling to provide comfort, than experiencing the real outdoors and its tropical climate. Although interior greenery is beneficial to individuals on a number of levels, the fact remains that comfort expectations now drive the way people choose to experience the external world and as a result the outdoors may continue to be absorbed into an internal world.

It is becoming more and more possible in some places to move through the external world through cooled internal channels – public transport systems, private vehicles, interconnected under or above ground walkways – individuals are more and more able to avoid the outdoors for long periods of times. Subsequently, the reliance on mechanical cooling to consistently provide comfort across a vast range of interior spaces only becomes more ingrained, forcing more and more locales to keep up with thermal comfort expectations and in some cases, internalise….. A by product of this is ever increasing energy consumption, carbon emissions and long term threats to environmental sustainability. Coupled with the threat of global warming, increasing temperatures and dangerous levels of pollution, it is no wonder more and more people feel safer indoors – if the outdoor experience can also be enclosed and still provide the comfort levels people have come to depend on, the distinction between indoors and outdoors is only set to grow. It isn’t necessarily all negative though. In a place like Singapore, converting what once was the exterior into the interior, in collaboration with air conditioning, has enabled higher levels of efficiency and functionality in both the work and social spheres; shopping centres such as Bugis Junction have ensured the preservation of significant heritage listed shop houses; and indoor gardens and bio domes such as Gardens by the Bay educate individuals on ecological well being and environmental sustainability while allowing people to enjoy foreign and local landscapes they may not ever get the opportunity to experience outside of Singapore. The key then is to find the balance between comfort and the experience of the external. Thermal expectations of cool interiors is now the norm and should very much be allowed to continue, but not at the expense of barring the external world altogether or recreating within an internal space. The negative impact (environmental, social, health etc) of continuous mechanical cooling should be weighed against the benefits of confining the outdoors - in between there should be a compromise that can begin to see the overturning of uncomfortable as external and comfortable as internal.


Image References


How to air-condition outdoor spaces - TEDx Talk by Wolfgang Kessling from Transsolar