Thermal modernity is emerging as a new space of critical debate on the back of demands for more sustainable built environments. In those hotter parts of the world, most notably desert, tropical and sub-tropical regions, much of the twentieth century was about building cool, comfortable spaces, through increasingly sophisticated forms of mechanical air conditioning. The critical challenge thus lies in departing from this energy-intensive paradigm, and cultivating alternative thermal modernities that prioritise low-carbon design and social practice. While important work is now being done in this area, there is little doubt a thermal modernity oriented by air conditioning remains dominant, even hegemonic in the ways built space is perceived and inhabited. To understand better why and how this situation of dominance exists it is important to understand the historical trajectories through which an air-conditioned thermal modernity gained its ascendency. Authors have directed their attention to the broader histories of air conditioning, the socio- political dynamics that have advanced its growth across different forms of public and private space, and how comfort norms and practices have altered in dialogical ways. Undoubtedly highly instructive, these accounts have paid less attention to the ways in which air conditioning has acted as an agent of architectural transformation.

In line with the arguments of Oldfield, Trabucoo and Wood concerning the importance of properly historicising energy and architecture, this paper attempts to offer a more detailed understanding of air conditioning and the historical role it has played in transforming urban and built space. To help address the privileging of North America and, to a lesser extent, Europe in the annals of air conditioning, we focus on the experiences of Singapore. With the case of Singapore, a country popularly referred to as the ‘air conditioned nation’, reveals particularly vividly, more so than we see in the experiences of the US or Europe, are the powerfully post-colonial socio- cultural meanings and political values—such as productivity and national development—that come to be invested in a technology such as air conditioning. This paper presents a more rigorous account of the role this technology has played in the city-state’s development and nation-building, particularly since Independence; an historical narrative that has, somewhat surprisingly, hitherto been overlooked by scholars.(1)


Colonial tropicality, climate control and the arrival of air conditioning in Singapore

To understand the take up of air conditioning in post-independence Singapore, it is useful briefly to discuss colonial discourse about climate and comfort in the tropics in general and about early air conditioning in late-colonial Singapore in particular. Many scholars have argued that climate and comfort are as much socio-technical or socio-cultural constructions as they are simply, for the former, a natural phenomenon or, for the latter, a physical state. David Arnold and Felix Driver have suggested that ‘the tropics’, where most of the British colonies were located, was positioned as the environmental alterity to the norm of the temperate climate. When the miasmatic theory was discredited and replaced by germ theory in the early twentieth century, the tropics was in turn seen as unfavourable to the comfort and productivity of the European. The tropics was not merely an environmental alterity, it was also entwined with other socio-cultural alterities and seen as the zone that was backward and which lacked civilisation.(2) The negative perception of and the attendant concerns with the heat and humidity of the tropics meant that the European colonists invested large amounts of intellectual and material resources to develop various urban planning strategies, architectural design principles and environmental technologies to ameliorate their own health and comfort.(3)

When air conditioning was invented in the early twentieth century, Singapore awaited its arrival with much anticipation. In 1929, for example, a lecture given in Hong Kong by C. A. Middleton-Smith, Taikoo Professor of Engineering, University of Hong Kong, was deemed newsworthy, with the author cited as stating that ‘the twentieth century ... would be famous in history for the civilisation of the tropics… that the introduction of air conditioning and its ‘manufactured weather’ would make the tropics more healthy and prosperous, transforming such regions from backwardness to civilisation.(4) The anticipation and excitement that surrounded the prospect of replacing electric fans and other older forms of environmental technologies like the punkah and thermantidote with more ‘active’ forms of cooling led to various experiments with other pre-AC cooling technologies.

AC was finally introduced in Singapore in the late 1930s. Its use was very limited, primarily restricted to spaces of consumption such as the cinema and the hotel in the pre- Second World War years and, in the years immediately after the war, to prestigious office buildings. The first buildings in Singapore that had AC installed were two of the city’s cinemas: the New Alhambra Theatre in 1938 and the Cathay Cinema in 1939. The association of luxury with comfort within a context of hospitality caused hotels soon to follow suit. Across colonial Southeast Asia, hotels were typically the first buildings to have electricity, offering electric fans and electric light, among other ‘modern conveniences’ to their guests. By 1950, the Raffles Hotel, one of the region’s premier colonial hotels, advertised air-conditioned rooms. As a Raffles Hotel advertisement noted, better cooling technology made European social rituals such as gala dinners and balls more bearable.(5)

Beyond such spaces, other early adopters were the early post-war office towers. The first building in Singapore to be fully air conditioned was MacDonald House, a nine-storey office tower completed in 1949. The building was regarded by the local newspaper as setting the standard for post-war building in Singapore and hailed as ‘the forerunner of this city’s plan for rehabilitation as it turns towards the establishment of a new and more beautiful city’.(6) Some years later, the Asia Insurance Building, completed in 1955, was also fully air conditioned. Indeed, these two buildings, as mechanically cooled exceptions in a landscape of largely naturally ventilated buildings, were more significant as lavish symbols of confidence in Singapore’s future than as symptomatic representations of the austere naturally ventilated ‘architecture of economy’—such as low-cost housing, schools and medical buildings—that were erected in the immediate post-war years.(7)

Cathay Cinema

Cathay Cinema

These early air-conditioned buildings bore little resemblance to those glazed curtain-wall towers that became the near ubiquitous symbols of post- war global capitalism. Both the Cathay Cinema and the Asia Insurance Building were designed in the architectural language of tropical Art Deco, with horizontal sun-shading fins projecting over windows. Unlike glazed curtain-wall towers, which easily overheat due to large expanses of unshaded glazing, both structures featured a higher pro- portion of solid surfaces and thus helped protect interior spaces from solar radiation and external ambient conditions. Not unlike modern tropical architecture, the shallow floor plan interiors of these buildings could be naturally illuminated and ventilated by means of operable windows. Indeed, such elements formed part of a wider understanding at that time of climate-responsive design in the tropics.(8)

Looking back at this period, what becomes apparent is that considerable debate and attention was given to the merits of utilising both ‘passive’ and ‘mechanical’ cooling techniques. Throughout the 1950s, considerable attention was still given to the use of sun- shading.(9) Otto Koenigsberger, for example—one of the best-known architects and educators in modern tropical architecture—noted in a lecture to his students at the Architectural Association’s Department of Tropical Studies (DTS) that only a ‘privileged minority’ could afford air conditioning and it thus should not be considered as a sufficiently economical means of providing thermal comfort for all.30 Drawing from Markham’s theory, Koenigsberger, for example, proposed to his students at DTS that early civilisations took root in regions around 21 degrees Celsius (70 degrees Fahrenheit), but that with the invention of technologies or materials of heating, civilisations moved northwards towards colder regions. It was a narrative that provided the justification for climatic design. Accordingly, he argued, ‘the historical role of architecture [as the] controller of climatic environment ... influences the fate of nations’,(10) adding in a subsequent lecture ‘if this historical analysis is correct, it is time for architects to learn to master hot climates to restore the “balance of power”’.(11) Instead of having the destiny of their nations being over-determined by hot tropical climates, people in the tropics could exercise agency and shape their own fate by mastering the control of their hot climates. This powerful idea would prove to be influential in post-Independence Singapore.

Post-independence development and the new air-conditioned modernity

Air-conditioning was a most important invention for us; perhaps one of the signal inventions of history. It 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. Lee Kuan Yew.(12)

The quotation above, taken from an interview that Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew gave in 1999, illustrates the latent influence of colonial ideas on climate, development and civilisation. Equally, however, it also reveals the critical importance he placed on AC in the socio-economic development of the city-state after Independence.(13) AC was installed in many of the offices of the newly formed Singapore civil service in the 1960s. The high cost of installation, building modification and operation during the 1960s caused AC to remain a privilege for those deemed most critical to the proper functioning of the state.

An important aspect of urban renewal was for the state to acquire shophouses—which were regarded as insanitary and overcrowded ‘slums’—clear them and consolidate the land that they occupied into extensive plots suitable for the construction of large modern office buildings to serve the industrial economy.(14) On these large tracts of land that subsequently made up a major proportion of the Central Business District, the old colonial shophouse typology, that housed the ‘slums’, and its urban fabric of narrow streets and backlanes, were demolished and replaced with a new air-conditioned urban typology—the podium-tower typology—and its urban fabric of big urban plots, wide roads, large open spaces. If the previous AC installations were restricted to a few isolated examples initiated and funded by private capital, the new installations were much more systematic as they were implicitly mandated by the building types stipulated by the state planning agency. An exemplar of this trend was the twenty-two storey Ministry of National Development building. Its design centred around a slab block that rested on a two-storey podium; one of the earliest built manifestations of a podium-tower typology that required mechanical forms of cooling. The slab block featured a relatively flat façade, and with a typical floor plate of the slab block spanning nearly twenty metres, cross ventilation was minimal. The building was fully air conditioned at great expense (1.8million Singapore dollars), with the installation of two centrifugal compressors capable of producing 400,000 cubic feet of cool air per minute.(15) The air-conditioning technology was an inextricable part of spatialising and projecting the modern image of a centralised, efficient, clean and shiny new state, unshackled by the bounds of tradition. As a design form, such large windowless interiors were only possible through centralised air- conditioning.

Figure07_TCR 1975 vol3 p11.jpg

The design of these buildings might be similar in form to the air-conditioned office towers in other parts of the world but the socio-political context in which they were erected and the socio-cultural meanings they had engendered were significantly different. Thus, the hermetically sealed air-conditioned office tower in Singapore was not simply a universal form. It was also a typology driven by and deeply entangled with the post-Independence Singapore state’s developmental agenda of modernising, sanitising and rationalising the built environment. This new environment was in turn conceived by the state as a part of the larger project to socially engineer and discipline the population to turn them into modern subjects and productive workers. What we see at this juncture then is the emergence of a complex system of interdependent socio-technical and built-environmental components, including the developmental state and its planning policies, the urban typology of podium tower, air conditioning and other building services, building envelope systems, thermal comfort and social practices.

In the 1960s–70s we begin to clearly see the inter-dependence between building typology, architectural design, constructional systems and air conditioning. The introduction of the podium- tower typology locked the builders into the use of mechanical cooling, just as the proliferation of air- conditioned buildings led many designers to discard the external sun-shading devices and to use glass curtain walls as building envelopes. Inter- dependence was not only restricted to material and technological artefacts, it also affected social practices (Fig. 10). For example, in the case of AC, people might start to dress differently in order to feel comfortable in an air-conditioned workplace. As Winter has noted, changes also occur in the material culture, along with the daily routines and habits of occupants.(16)

From complexes to ‘cities’

In the decade or so from 1965 to 1974, Singapore’s per capita electricity consumption increased three- fold.(17) During that time, three new power stations were built to increase generating capacity, and the power network was greatly expanded.(18) Although the large increase in electricity consumption could be attributed to various factors—including the ambitious post-Independence industrialisation programme—the increasing pervasiveness of air conditioning was undoubtedly one of the main causes. As air conditioning consumed a large share of the available electricity, making mechanically cooled buildings more efficient was one of the main foci of energy conservation efforts. In a speech to conference delegates, the Minister of National Development, Lim Kim San, noted that ‘most of the multi-storey buildings in Singapore had been built without sufficient thought for minimising recurrent costs on power consumption in air-conditioning’.(19) He offered the example of his ministry’s buildings—in which a 15–20% energy reduction had been achieved through the installation of sun-breakers—as a template for others to follow. Examples of energy conserving initiatives were few and far between.(20) Instead the dependence on AC grew even more, cementing its position as the one and only solution to discomfort and heat in modern architectural designs.

Indeed, over the course of the 1980s architects looked to supersede existing buildings by creating ever more impressive and spectacular interior spaces. To that end, a new form of development emerged, one that came to be referred to as ‘cities’. Marina Square (completed 1986) and Suntec City (completed 1995) were notable examples of this shift. Marina Square was initially proposed to house 2,000 hotel rooms, a 59,000 square metre ‘shopping city’ featuring four department stores and a super- market and parking for 2,400 cars.(21) The design included the region’s tallest and largest atria. The Pan Pacific Hotel included a 36-storey-tall atrium and the floor plan of the Oriental Hotel’s lobby was equivalent to one and a half football pitches. Portman’s spectacular atria thus established a new trend for creating dramatic interior spaces for shopping arcades and hotels across the city.(22) While the ‘real’ city was rejected, another privatised, self-contained ‘city’ was created within Marina Square. Once shoppers were drawn into the development, they could move to various parts of it without setting foot again on the roads and pavements. In North America, such an insular and interiorised urbanism was part of the phenomenon of ‘splintering urban- ism’ that arose from the ‘fear of the traditional street as a place of crime, disorder, poverty, insanity and danger’.(23) In Singapore, however, given the orderly and safe nature of the urban environment, we would argue it is more appropriate to read this interiorised urbanism as one of the key manifestations of a thermal modernity.

In the mid-1990s Marina Square was joined by another mega-development, Suntec City. Perhaps as a response to the way Marina Square undermined ‘street life’, the architects of Suntec City received a brief from the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) that focused on bringing street life back to the area. The architects’ response was to relate and enliven the streetscape by enclosing those interior spaces that faced onto the ‘streets’ with glass, thus providing visual connections that enhanced the transitory spaces between indoors and outdoors. Indeed, the complex required a $400 million mechanical and electrical system with a central chilled-water plant of 23,500 refrigeration- ton capacity, the largest in Singapore and one of the biggest to be installed anywhere in Asia at that time.(24) The use of glass-enclosed privatised public space and the planning authority’s new interest in enlivening street life were also manifest in Bugis Junction. Instead of demolishing the old shophouses on the site, they were rebuilt, weather-proofed and air- conditioned. The ‘streets’ between the reconstructed shophouses were covered with a glass canopy and turned into an arcade. Instead of increasing the interiorised ‘exterior’ spaces within a building, Bugis Junction represented an attempt to colonise existing exterior space. More specifically, it is a phase of development that is notable for attempting to ‘preserve’ through air-conditioning the type of streetscape for which Singapore was famous.

It could be argued that the expansion of the scale of air-conditioned spaces, including the colonisation of exterior spaces, would reach its peak in the mid-1990s through the URA’s proposed master-plan for the new downtown in Marina South. One of the most distinctive features of the new master-plan was the seamless pedestrianised connections between major transit nodes, such as the underground stations and the elevated walkways, which were in turn linked to individual developments. These connections were not only seamless, they also allowed pedestrians to move in ‘all weather comfort’(25) – an air conditioned haven from the outside world. Crucially, such large-scale use of air conditioning was made possible by the adoption of district cooling, a technology first implemented in several North American and Japanese cities. In the early 2000s, a new $100 million district cooling plant came online, enabling chilled water to be pumped across a large number of buildings for the purposes of air conditioning. Proclaimed ‘efficiency gains’ of around 15–20% over conventional methods and the on-going centralisation of cooling infrastructures thus continues the trend of recent decades for ever-larger enclosures of comfort across the city.(26)

Entangled modernities of thermal comfort

As the 2000s progressed, and as debates around urban sustainability have continued to gather momentum, the case for building spaces less reliant upon mechanical air conditioning became ever more compelling. The push towards bio-climatic architecture and urban greening has found its most spectacular and grandiose forms in the work of architects such as Ken Yeang whose high- rise designs seek to offer a solution to an inescapable future of high-density development. Such ecological design has led to an architectural signature combining naturally ventilated spaces, sun-shading, wind-scoops, vertical greening, natural lighting systems and the use of recycled materials.(27) But whilst the construction of a number of flagship buildings undoubtedly constitutes an important development, we would argue that the thermal modernity of air conditioning remains hegemonic in Singapore and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Beyond the ‘conventional’ spaces of conditioned comfort such as offices or homes, the diversity of cooled interiors continues to increase across the urban environment. Over a number of decades air conditioning has become deeply entangled in both the everyday and abstract political realities of Singapore as a nation state. It has formed part of the socio-technical matrix, folding the ideologies of economic development, post-colonial nation-building and state-citizen relationships into an urban development programme oriented towards ever-greater levels of indoor comfort. Indeed we would suggest that a social contract has formed between the state and the Singaporean citizen around the provision of what might best be described as ‘comfort security’. In invoking such a term we point towards the production of an urban civic culture over time that has pivoted around concepts of ‘modern, safe, comfortable, efficient and productive’. It is a convergence between the aesthetic and the political, the domestic and the state, which has placed technologies such as air conditioning at the heart of the nation- building process in Singapore since the 1960s. Only by analytically elevating AC beyond its role as a technological component of modernist architecture, can we read it as a crucial constituent of a thermal modernity that has, in effect, come to transform how built environments and urban spaces are conceived and inhabited.

This is a condensed version of the article 'Thermal Modernity and Architecture' that originally appeared in The Journal of Architecture, May 2015.


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