Archive for July, 2011

Air Conditioning in Time

July 19, 2011

It’s going to be 90 degrees all week so let’s talk about air conditioning. Air conditioning is a technology that is more than a century old (air cooling is even older) but it has only become an everyday thing in the last 50 years. Most non-industrial buildings constructed prior to 1950 made little or no provision for air conditioning, leading to aesthetic wonderments such as

Actually, the aesthetic awkwardness of the window AC unit is probably a contemporary perception problem. In the 1960s, buildings FLAUNTED their newfangled air conditioning units by sticking them right on the facade.

Even on Lake Shore Drive in the Gold Coast. I did a piece for PURE magazine back in the 1990s about what I called “Air-Conditioner Architecture” which celebrated the window unit air conditioner. The ideal for this architecture in my (satirical) piece was that the key unit of scale and symbolism was the window-unit air conditioner and the most glorious and beautiful building was one in which the entire composition took on the appearance of an air conditioner. Here are some typical Oak Park examples from the 1960s and 70s:

I actually thought of this 1960s building on East Randolph – Harbor Drive – as a perfect example of the style. The cool pool was in the 1968 film Medium Cool.

You know, come to think of it, architects have NEVER figured out a way to make air conditioning aesthetic. I was at this super-cool contemporary (and also Modern) house this year which just had faultless lines and intriguing volumes and incredible views and of course a felicitous play of light and then stuck behind a fence in the back was this:

If you ever get in a high building in a downtown, your view of the city becomes a series of giant air conditioning units sitting on rooftops.

makes the old water tank look like a Bernini in comparison

But beyond aesthetics, more important than aesthetics in this case, is what has happened to our bodies in the last 50 years. Now we NEED air conditioning. Having someone pass out from the heat during an August wedding was acceptable in 1959, but is not acceptable today. Being able to work all the time every day during any weather is now the norm. Our bodies have come to expect air conditioning.

I am now going to rant about how air conditioning is overrated and overused. First, I have to admit that I grew up in a house built in 1933-34 that had central air conditioning from the beginning. But I have not lived in that house, or any other with central air, in more than 30 years. How do I survive?

Short answer: real brick walls and trees. Our current house was built in 1898. People walk in on a day like today and are glad to feel the cool blast they get entering the house. But there is no central air. We put two fans in the basement, which always stays cool, that blow air up the stairs. We have two window units in two bedrooms. Thanks to thick brick cavity walls and ginormous trees that shade our house, the first floor stays cool even when it is 90 degrees Fahrenheit (that is the peculiar measurement system used in the U.S. and nowhere else) out of doors.

Ever drive down the highway and look over at a farmhouse and see how it is surrounded by trees? That is air conditioning. And it is correct to call it conditioning, because what Willis Carrier figured out that day in Pittsburgh in 1902 was not air cooling but how to control the dew point by using water as a (non-oxidizing) condensing surface and draw the air through it, actually regulating not temperature but dew point and then temperature. But you can also do that with trees and building materials with natural thermal qualities, like brick.

hence the yaodong

But of course, these natural, non-fuel-burning air conditioning systems no longer meet the need our bodies have developed in the last 50 years. People lived in hot climates (I was born in one) for millenia without it, but now it is a necessity. We can crow all we want about how green and efficient our houses are today, but the standards have shifted dramatically from 1960 when air conditioning was not a requirement.

Yeah, I know. I don’t get cold either.


Got a response from a friend in France who notes that the French don’t like air-conditioning and consider it unhealthy – they in fact blame it for summer colds and other ailments.

Jan 2012 update:

Check out this highrise in Miraflores, Lima, Peru


Just had to add this air conditioning unit at a World Heritage site in my new hometown of San Antonio, at Mission San Juan de Capistrano.

Mission San Juan AC unit.jpg



Mayor Emanuel fumbles first landmarks test

July 8, 2011

Okay, so a couple years ago a career gadfly and scold sued the City of Chicago claiming the Landmarks Ordinance was vague and arbitrary, the sort of legal challenge first-year law students learn about before they move on to the real stuff. But this is Chicago, and this is Illinois, and three judges at the Appellate level agreed with the charge, mostly based on the fact that the criteria in the ordinance were “vague” because they used words like “significant” and “values” and “importance” which of course caused me to opine and label the whole thing “Appellate Nuttiness” at the time.

The case is still out there and now we have Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who is already facing the question of whether we should have three vacant city blocks in a row just east of Michigan Avenue in Streeterville (the Prentice Women’s Hospital issue) and he also gets to appoint people to the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, who are by ordinance “professionals in the disciplines of history, architecture, historic architecture, planning, archaeology, real estate, historic preservation, or related fields, or shall be persons who have demonstrated special interest, knowledge, or experience in architecture, history, neighborhood preservation, or related disciplines.”

Now, if you are concerned about a case that challenges your ordinance, you might follow the ordinance in selecting those professionals. But the Mayor fumbled. He named an obstetrician (who delivered the President’s daughters) and a chef to the panel and removed the last architect and architectural historian. This is a fumble in dry conditions without an excuse, and the Tribune’s Blair Kamin has done an excellent job reporting it today here.

Architects Ben Weese and Ed Torrez are off the Commission, as is National Park Service veteran Phyllis Ellin and longtime community preservationist Yvette LeGrand. Eleanor Gorski has succeeded Brian Goeken as the Deputy Commissioner and leader of the Commission staff, and she is an architect and Rome Prize winner so that is good. But how will this look to the courts questioning whether the ordinance is “arbitrary” in its application? A chef? How will the new commissioners deal with Prentice, a triumph of architecture united with engineering, if they are seeing it from the obstetrician’s point of view?

Oh, wait…

JULY 13 UPDATE: Ben Weese – one of the architects sacked from the Commission – sent a REALLY nice letter to the Mayor saying you know, you might want to have an architect on the Commission to like look at building permits and, like, architecture? See Blair Kamin today.

The PostAdvent of Emergent Technology

July 7, 2011

As a student of history, you notice a couple of patterns right away: Things were always better in the past and things today are worse than they have ever been and/or the apocalypse is looming. As a parent, you also notice: kids today are out of control/subject to evil influences/lazy and distracted/succumbing to technology. In both situations the patterns have great agency but limited accuracy.

Here is a nice meta photo of me filming with the already obsolete Flip camera and of course a damn panda

Memory is a sieve that is generally kind to history. As the full reality falls deeper into the linear past, positives move toward the foreground and negatives slide to the rear, or perhaps more accurately, move into the present as concerns and annoyances. So, yes, history repeats itself, especially in regard to how we appreciate and apprehend history.

But I am more interested today in emergent technologies, those cool things in our virtual and physical world that exhibit the sort of prescience that made 1980s postapocalyptic movies like the Terminator so persuasive. My architect friends have often talked about furnishings and buildings that anticipate our needs and come halfway to meet us in our desire to sit or interact or eat or whatever.

All ages can feed raw meat to this lion – this isn’t in a country run by lawyers worrying about things that haven’t happened ever or yet

So I have been traveling a lot the last few months (duh – see previous posts) and when you do that you become more automatic in your behavior and adjust to the world around you and its current state of emergent technology. So I was somewhere, I don’t remember which country or continent, or whether it was a hotel or a restaurant or an airport but I went into the bathroom and walked up to the sink and waved by hand in front of the faucet and waited for the water to flow. Which it did not. Turns out there were these two knobs or handles or whatever and you needed to physically turn them to get water to come out of the faucet.

You still need to manually fire the crossbow, but it does have a clip of six bolts. Only 15 yuan for 20 shots

Of course, I have ONLY those types of faucet at home, but the comparative ubiquity of automatic faucet technology meant that I had been trained to expect it. So, the interesting part is how the technology changed ME, which is of course what all technologies do, otherwise we would still be using our appendices to digest tree bark.

still can’t figure out the evolutionary benefit of leaning back and eating for hours with your belly exposed

What other emergent habits have I developed to cope with my technological expectations? Certainly opening this laptop everywhere I am to see if I can get a wireless signal. If I was really up to date (like EVERYONE in China) I would have an iPad and do the same thing with smaller biceps.

sorry I don’t have a picture of my biceps.

This also drove my instant behavior, which was to go to Starbucks, not for the coffee (that would be Intelligentsia) but for the WiFi which allows me to post this blog without going home or to work. Which reminds me of the prediction that electronic interconnectivity would make cities unnecessary because people can live wherever they want and of course they want to live in nice idyllic ruralish areas, right?

except in China, I guess

Yes, that prediction was made in the 1840s when a certain painter named Samuel FB Morse invented the telegraph. Ya think FB stood for Facebook?…

Shanghai Art Deco

July 4, 2011

So we are in Chengdu, scheduled to leave on an 11:30 flight to Shanghai. It is cancelled, stranding our group of 21. I have a lecture in the Peace Hotel in Shanghai at 7:45 PM, so China Advocates gets me on the 3:50 PM flight and then books a later flight (which will require at least two fight/negotiations by Huo Yujia (Nancy) our tour guide) for the other 20. I arrive in Shanghai at 6:25, get my bag at 6:35 and get in the waiting car, which delivers me to the Peace Hotel at 7:25. I check into the most FABULOUS 6-room suite I have ever seen, change my clothes and run up to the 11th floor Ninth Heaven room for the lecture.

My friends Professors Yang Li and Mei Qing, whom I met in Amherst at the ICOMOS conference in May, are already there, and the organizers are amazed at my composure, but this is hardly my first time for this sort of minor adventure. In the audience is Peter Hibbard, who literally wrote the book on the Bund and knows ten thousand things more about it than I do, and gives me a signed copy of his book.

The view right outside my lecture, in what was Sir Victor Sassoon’s private suite atop the Peace Hotel.
I talked about the similarities/connections between the Bund and Chicago’s Michigan Avenue, two landmark collections of buildings on one-sided streets facing parks and water, and built in basically the same materials and range of styles over a similar stretch of time, starting in the late 19th century and ending in the early 20th.

Peace Hotel, 1926-29, Bank of China, 1935-40, on the Bund
I later met with Global Heritage Fund’s Han Li and Will Shaw again, and got a chance to meet Professor Nancy Shao from Tongji University who did the excellent planning work with her students in Pingyao (see post before last). Professor Mei Qing suggested we collaborate on an article on Shanghai Art Deco which I think is a great idea, because there is TONS of it, especially in the old British and French Concessions, which are sort of preserved (unlike the American concession) and along the shopping street, Nanjing Lu.

Shanghai No. 1 Department Store
I of course was well aware of the Deco buildings on the Bund, and one of the fascinating things about Deco in Shanghai is that it continues well into the 1930s, long after the Depression has killed new construction in the States.

Bank of Communications, the Bund, 1937. Photo copyright Felicity Rich, 2006.
The more I looked around, the more Deco buildings I saw, not just along the Bund, which has more than its share of Neo-Renaissance, Neo-Classical and even Victorian buildings, but on side streets, and I recalled that on three of my trips to Shanghai I stayed in 1930s Deco hotels, Broadway Mansions just north of the Bund and Hengshan (1936) in the French Concession.

North end of the Bund – Broadway Mansions at far right
Deco buildings line the Bund, Nanjing Lu, Peoples Park and even the side streets, despite the rapid pace of redevelopment that has added HUNDREDS of buildings to the skyline on both sides of the Huangpu since I first visited seven years ago…

The challenge of course is to relate these buildings to their contemporaries and forbears in America and Europe. Just like today, international architects practiced in Shanghai in the 1920s and 30s, although many specialized there, like George Leopold “Tug” Wilson, responsible for six of the nine Palmer and Turner buildings on the Bund. He practiced in Shanghai for decades, and interestingly visited America and Europe in 1931 and declared that “there is not a great deal which Shanghai today can learn from elsewhere” (Source: The Bund, Shanghai by Peter Hibbard)

Tug Wilson’s Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank Building, 1923

Tug Wilson’s Cathay (Peace) Hotel, 1929

Tug Wilson’s Bank of China Building, 1937, with Lu Quanshou
I am looking forward to learning more about Shanghai Art Deco and am at least a little convinced that it is one of our great Art Deco cities, along with Miami and Mumbai and Tel Aviv. Will learn more soon….

I also got to go up in the “Bottle Opener”, the tallest building in China, officially the Shanghai World Financial Center, where I took this photo in an obvious but fun attempt to emulate that famous image of Le Corbusier’s godlike hand over the Plan Voisson model.

There is a scale to China that is overwhelming. Where we build a building, as a residence or an office or a hotel, they build 20, and they are taller, denser and more multiple. Shanghai especially has leapt into the modern world in architecture. When I was first there in 2004 we toured Adrian Smith’s excellent Jin Mao tower, the tallest building in Shanghai. This time we looked down on it.

Finally a view of the Bund and its counterpart, Michigan Avenue on Grant Park:

Back home – Fourth of July. Where are my beef noodles??