How Air Conditioning Impacted Global Design

Published on
June 3, 2024
May 23, 2024

Before the introduction of commercial air-conditioning in the early 20th century, buildings had to be designed so that they would naturally regulate temperatures inside. Due to the diverse climates around the world, local architecture adapted to the environment. Wind catchers in the middle east seen in Yazd, Iran directed wind down chimney-like structures to cool down buildings.

Wind catchers in Yazd, Iran
Wind catchers in Yazd, Iran

In India, buildings incorporate Jaali, a latticed screen or frame that helps keep sun and rain out, while cooling the air that passes through it.  By constricting airflow through the perforations in the Jaali, the airflow gains velocity and drops pressure lowing the temperature of the air.

White marble Jali of the Tomb of Salim Christi, India
White marble Jali of the Tomb of Salim Christi, India

Early skyscrapers before AC had high ceiling sand promoted cross ventilation and operable windows, which remained the norm for half century. Though these buildings could often get quite hot and humid, making it uncomfortable to work inside. However, social values and expectations were also different, people were more accustomed to coping with the heat, and catering to personal comfort wasn’t as valued as it is today.

Historic Skyscrapers, New York
Historic Skyscrapers, New York

Along with numerous other building features that developed over time to assist with temperature regulation, buildings were designed more strategically, considering things like window placements, material choice and positioning to the sun. Besides the functional elements of these designs, architecture around the world maintained local cultural identities, as buildings reflected the environment they were situated in.

 

The Introduction of Air-Conditioning

With the introduction of air-conditioning, the ability for buildings to naturally regulate temperatures was no longer necessary. Along with the modernist architectural movement that pushed for functionality over form, air-conditioning influenced the 20thcentury standard of building design.

Buildings no longer had to enable natural airflow, windows no longer had to be operable and buildings could be sealed off from the outside. This was often viewed favorably as pollution and poor air quality was a growing concern in cities, as it remains today. In addition, minimalist design principals advocated for the use of materials like concrete and glass, feasible because of air conditioning, where before floor to ceiling glass was impractical because of the sun it let in leading to unbearably hot temperatures. Further than floor to ceiling glass walls, seen in the likes of the father of modernist architect Le Corbusier’s work, buildings began to adopt glass curtains where concrete remained only for structural integrity and wall-less facades were wrapped in glass.

While initially floor to ceiling glass walls were conventional for modernist skyscrapers, seen in the likes of the father of modernist architect Le Corbusier’s work, architecture evolved further where no solid exterior walls became common and instead designs opted for glass curtains/ facades that wrapped around a skeleton of structural concrete.

Example of early modernist architecture, The UN headquarters, New York
Example of early modernist architecture, The UN headquarters, New York

As air-conditioning became more commonplace in commercial and residential developments, along with the modernist architectural movement, cities around the globe have adopted similar styles, creating a global style where a buildings design does not identify itself with any particular environment or location. Critics say this is the death of expression, that these buildings are cold and lack contextual sensitivity.

However, as contemporary architecture has evolved from the traditional modernist principles, we see more examples of ornamentation and styles in buildings built for a purpose more than just the functionality of the space. In addition, we are seeing a trend of retro styling or adaption of heritage styles of local regions, where architectures are promoting regional culture while nodding to heritage architecture.

At The Proptech Connection, we believe that although air conditioning enabled a period of rectangular and minimalist architecture, future design and architecture does not have to follow suit and that designing for not only space use but for the well-being of the space users is the key for future building design. Incorporating architectural features and materials used in the past can also help reduce the environmental impact of abuilding by reducing the reliance on air conditioning. The future of architecture should be the best of both worlds, styles informed by cultural identity and designs that promote wellness, comfort and sustainability.

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