The following article will explore the post-war architectural history of air-conditioning, when air-conditioning became not just a ubiquitous technology but its architecture also took on a particular aesthetic. Le Corbusier, who came up with the brise soleil and designed a series of climate responsive buildings, was also exploring another architectural aesthetic with its attendant environmental management system of dealing with the building envelope during the pre-World-War-II years. When the concrete frame structural system replaced the traditional masonry wall structural system, the traditional massive masonry wall was replaced by lightweight and even dematerialized infill. When that happened, the environmental performance of mass and substance associated with traditional masonry wall in terms of thermal mass, thermal insulation and sound insulation were lost. Corbusier proposed two types of envelope solutions to address these losses in environmental performance. The first was the introduction of additive elements like the brise soleil that we have seen in earlier lectures in this series. The second was to introduce a new system that combined la respiration exacte, a controlled mechanical ventilation, and le mur neutralisant, a neutralising wall that consisted of double glazing with hot or cold air circulated in the space within the two skins. This new system enabled Corbusier to conceive of “one single building for all nations and climates” with interior temperature set at eighteenth degrees Celsius in 1930 (Quoted in Banham 1984, 159).
A building that foregrounds the challenges of realizing Corbusier’s idea of a single building with la respiration exacte and le mur neutralisant is the Cité de Refuge, Paris, France, 1932. The building has a hostel block with a large South-facing glass façade. Corbusier originally intended to apply his ideas of la respiration exacte and le mur neutralisant to the glass façade but due to budgetary considerations, the glass façade is a single glazing and there was no cooling equipment in the ventilation system. The hostel block became overheated during the summer months and Corbusier had to install brise soleil later to shade the glass façade.
One could argue that Corbusier’s vision of a single building for all nations and climates was later realized through the hermetically sealed glass skyscraper, with the assistance of air-conditioning. One of the prototypes for that was unsurprising realized in the United States, the home of air-conditioning. It is the United Nations Headquarters, New York City, completed in 1950. Its office slab block has long sides covered with glazed curtain walls, oriented to East and West, and thus exposed to the largest possible thermal load. This is a case in which thermal management relied solely on the power-operated solution – unless we consider the venetian blind behind the glazed curtain walls – of the Carrier Conduit Weathermaster air-conditioning system installed. Following PSFS building we discussed earlier, the office slab block of the United Nations Headquarters has intermediate floors dedicated to services and plants. However, instead of the single intermediate floor of services and plants at the PSFS building, this building has three intermediate floors at 6th, 16th and 28th, most probably due to the very large thermal load.
Another prototype of the hermetically sealed glass skyscraper is the Lever House by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, with Gordon Bunshaft as the lead architect. However, unlike the office slab block of the UN Headquarters, the long sides of the office slab block of the Lever House were oriented North-South. And the mechanical core of the building is arranged at the west end of the slab.
When he was discussing the Larkin Building by Frank Lloyd Wright, Banham praised the architectural form of the building for “keeping pace with the transformation of the interior economy of the building type.” Banham was referring to how the monumental volumes on the exterior of the Larkin building expressed the workings of theventilation, heating and cooling system. According the Banham, it was unlike many other buildings that had innovative environmental management technologies in the interior but had conventionally conceived architectural forms. Despite that, Banham felt that the Larkin Building was “[a] design whose final form was imposed by the method of environmental management employed, rather than one whose form derived from the exploitation of an environmental method” (Banham 1984, 92, 91).
What is a building whose form is derived from the exploitation of an environmental method? According to Banham, air-conditioning is “portent in the history of architecture… it has demolished almost all environmental constraints on design that have survived the other environmental breakthrough, electric lighting… it is now possible to live in almost any type or form of house one likes to name in any region of the world that takes the fancy… All precepts for climatic compensation through structure and form are rendered obsolete” (Banham 1984, 187). Is the UN Headquarters a building whose form is derived from the exploitation of the environmental method of air-conditioning?
For a technophile like Banham, air-conditioning is liberating for architectural form. He provocatively suggested that we could dwell in “un-house”, an environmental bubble – a transparent bubble dome inflated by air-conditioning output. This is a house that has no form in the traditional sense and one that has little more than a service core.
For other architectural critics and theorists such as Kenneth Frampton, air-conditioning together with architecture is not liberating at all. Instead, Frampton argued that “the main antagonist of rooted culture is the ubiquitous air-conditioner, applied at all times in all places, irrespective of the local climatic conditions which have a capacity to express the specific place and the seasonal variations of its climate. Wherever they occur, the fixed window and the air-conditioner are mutually indicative of domination by universal technique” (Frampton 1998 , 27). Together with other critics and theorists such as Alexander Tzonis and William Curtis, Frampton advocated for a return to regionalist architecture that relies primarily on structural solutions for environmental management because these architectural forms were deemed to be more responsive to local climatic conditions and thus representative of rooted cultures.