Over at Salon, Henry Grabar describes How air conditioning remade modern America. It is a subject we have been covering for years on TreeHugger; How air conditioning made the south habitable and changed the way we live, even the way we vote. He reminds us of the Millers (Arthur and Henry), two famous writers with opinions on the subject. He even notes that buildings used to be shaped like letters. I think he reads TreeHugger. He also notes that it is not just an American phenomenon anymore:
At this point, the cultural cooling of the United States may be little more than a history lesson. But as the Global South takes up its affair with air conditioning, we shouldn’t let the environmental consequences (serious though they are) deflect our attention from the potentially massive cultural transformations underway.
To be air-conditioned, in many countries, is to be modern. And to be Modern. The advent of cooling is often incompatible with traditional architecture — like the lattice walls of northern India, the courtyard homes of the Mediterranean, the narrow windows of the M’Zab, or the stilt houses of Thailand — developed to provide natural ventilation.
Over the years we have made many of the same points on TreeHugger. I have been seriously criticized for being against air conditioning. I am not. I am against bad design that forces you to use air conditioning all the time; things like floor to ceiling glass, no cross-ventilation, or lack of shading because as Cameron Tonkinwise put it,
The window air conditioner allows architects to be lazy. We don’t have to think about making a building work, because you can just buy a box.
In the end, it is all about moderation; about designing our homes better so they don’t need as much air conditioning, if any. It’s about reinforcing the cultural aspects of where we live instead of hiding inside. It’s about having a discussion, not a culture war.
Lloyd Alter/ minisplits in Changsha/CC BY 2.0
In China, almost every single apartment has a mini-split air conditioner hanging on the wall outside the unit. There are hundreds of millions of these things, absolutely indispensable because the air is so foul that you can’t open the windows, because of the pollution caused by the coal-fired power plants that are making the electricity needed to run the air conditioning. Call it a luxury or a necessity; the fact is, it is the design issue of our time.
Here is a round-up of TreeHugger’s coverage of the issues raised in Henry Grabar’s article:
Air Conditioning Is Like Driving; It Is Convenient And Our Society Is Built Around It.
Ephemeral New York/Public Domain
Arthur Miller on living without air conditioning:
Even through the nights, the pall of heat never broke. With a couple of other kids, I would go across 110th to the Park and walk among the hundreds of people, singles and families, who slept on the grass, next to their big alarm clocks, which set up a mild cacophony of the seconds passing, one clock’s ticks syncopating with another’s. Babies cried in the darkness, men’s deep voices murmured, and a woman let out an occasional high laugh beside the lake.
Architects: Go Back To The ABCs and Design Buildings Like Letters Again
There is probably a compromise to be found between Steingruber and modern architecture, between filling our buildings with high-tech “green gizmo” solutions and simply building with healthy materials, lots of light and lots of fresh air.
How Air Conditioning Changed How and Where We Live
Many of the central changes in our society since World War II would not have been possible were air conditioning not keeping our homes and workplaces cool. Florida, Southern California, Texas, Arizona, Georgia, and New Mexico all experienced above-average growth during the latter half of the 20th century — hard to imagine without air conditioning.
Is air conditioning a luxury or a necessity?
It’s not a new debate, it’s just marketing./Screen capture
I asked that question on Willis Carrier’s 110th birthday, and concluded:
As I have noted many times, the problem is not the air conditioning itself, which everyone acknowledges is a lifesaver, and for many, a necessity.
The problem is that we have forgotten how people designed before it, where the architecture of houses and buildings was adapted to climate. Now we just throw electricity at it. A house in a Florida or Phoenix suburb looks pretty much like a house in New England; office buildings and factories are indistinguishable. We made what was once a luxury into a necessity. That is great for the development industry and a whole lot of hack architects and engineers, but not much else.