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:
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.
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.
JULY 25 UPDATE:
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: