For example, a theme in architecture…

[from a chapter on architectural atmospheres, a short look at air conditioning. . . ]

The ambient began as embrace by air, or as the ancients expressed it, “aer ambiens.” Now many fields have rediscovered this embrace. Air itself is “in the air.” The built world reshapes attention sensibilities not only through its configuration but also through atmospheric comfort. Architecture encloses air, conditions it, and, in the process, conditions attitudes too.

For example, few technologies have been so expressive of modernity on the whole, and yet so inexpressive in themselves, as air-conditioning. Here is an extreme case of technology so successful that it disappears into everyday life. Indeed, many of the places developed since air-conditioning came into everyday use in the mid-twentieth century would be uncomfortable or even uninhabitable without it.[1]

Air-conditioning has been an attentional technology from the start, with the purpose of forgetting the climate and accomplishing more work. Willis Carrier foresaw a brave new world where “every day would be a good day.”[2] Not only the temperature of air but also its humidity and purity were to be conditioned. There was design appeal in the fact that one airstream handled all of these problems.[3] But there was appeal as well in command and control itself, especially of productivity. Le Corbusier, architecture prophet of the hermetically sealed building, foresaw one temperature to fit all, 18°C (64°F).[4]

Like many technologies on which humanity has become dependent, air-conditioning began as a luxury. Even into the 1960s, most cars still lacked it. Specialized workplaces were the early adopters, first in manufacturing operations and then in offices, where the consistency of output depended on environmental conditions. In sultry Washington, the House and Senate chambers got air-conditioning in 1928, the White House in 1929, the new Supreme Court building in 1932, and the remainder of the capitol complex in 1935. Movie theaters and department stores first brought air-conditioning into public use in the 1920s and 1930s, and they made an attraction of it. The atmosphere was a goal in itself; on some summer evenings, it became the main reason to go to the movies.

Meanwhile, architects experimented with the technology. The Philadelphia Savings Fund Society building (1932) was the first fully air-conditioned office tower on the East Coast, the first to integrate technology in ceilings, and among the first to display its huge text logo (PSFS) on the skyline.[5]

The systems integration of the climate-controlled glass tower of the post–World War II era soon fueled fantasies, epitomized in the television cartoon sitcom The Jetsons (1962–63), and immortalized for architects in the 1964 exhibit Living Cities, by the London-based the futurist group Archigram. With unlimited actuation and boundless cheap energy, comprehensive mechanical systems became not just fittings to preconceived structures but buildings in themselves. Although the age lacked embedded computation, these futuristic visions of a fully responsive architecture were nevertheless computationally inspired, according to the cybernetic agendas (and fantasies) of the time.

To open The Architecture of the Well-tempered Environment, (1969, and an enduring a classic in this field), architectural technology historian Reyner Banham apologized for architecture’s neglecting the “whole of the technological art of creating habitable environments.” “In a world more humanely disposed, and more conscious of where the prime human responsibilities of architects lie, the chapters that follow would need no apology, and probably would never need to be written.”[6] That said, Banham saw air-conditioning as the key to full architectural expression: “Firstly, by providing almost total control of the atmospheric variables of temperature, humidity, and purity, it has demolished almost all of the environmental constraints on design that have survived the other great breakthrough, electric lighting. For anyone who is willing to foot the consequent bill for power consumed, it is now possible to live in almost any type or form of house one likes to name in any region of the world that takes the fancy.”[7]

Charting the history of steam heat, sanitation, elevators, huge buildings, and technology outside the workplace, developments catalyzed by that most truly fundamental agent of modernity, electrification (without which there would be no air-conditioning), Banham found the origins of a machine aesthetic in the early twentieth century. Much as electricity moved work away from the furnace, and light and materials to the work site, so pervasive computing is moving work away from the office and desktop, and into the very sites to which it applies. Much as electric motors were embedded invisibly into things not considered “electric motor applications,” such as the refrigerator, so computer processing and memory are now embedded into things not considered computer applications, such as vehicles. And much as electrification gave rise to building environmental control technologies, so pervasive computing is giving rise to adaptable, socially networked versions of those technologies. Smart green buildings do more with less. They promise escape from dulling atmospheric uniformity.

In Thermal Delight, another classic text from the era when architects began to question the sealed glass box, and one that still captivates nonarchitects curious about contextual attention, Lisa Heschong explored adaptations to climate, whether through migrations, protective furs, shells, and skins, or the building of structures. This is natural. Moreover it is intrinsic. “When our thermal senses tell us an object is cold, that object is already making us colder. If, on the other hand, I look at a red object it won’t make me redder, nor will touching a bumpy object make me bumpy.” The sense of touch, she explained, recognizes heat flow and not static temperature: “If I touch a piece of metal and a piece of wood that are both at room temperature, the metal will feel colder because it absorbs the heat from my hand more quickly.” There is delight in these differences. By contrast, Heschong likened the “standardized comfort zone conditions” of climate-controlled buildings to the prospect of nourishment by pills, injections, or “astronaut’s nutritional goop.” For, even though “eating is a basic physiological necessity, no one would overlook the fact that it also plays a profound role in the cultural life of a people.”[8] So does thermal delight. Many of the adaptations we have made to different thermal conditions, such as different spaces for different times of year, layers of clothing, and, of course, human-operated layers of buildings themselves involve the pleasure of using them. It feels good to put on a sweater, to open a window, to move in and out of the shade as you walk down a street.

The rise of the ambient invites new integrations of high and low tech, and of thermal with other delights, even as the rise of energy costs makes uniformity far less affordable anyway. Indeed, advances in building technology and in the understanding of air currents themselves make the quest for uniformity seem naive scientifically, compared to what designers can now accomplish with fluid mechanics, boundary layers, and passive cooling systems. “Good-bye, Willis Carrier,” wrote architectural technology critic Michelle Addington. “Hello to we know not whom.”[9] But, in this age of smarter materials, surfaces, and buildings, and of ever costlier energy, that might be hello to personal environmental management, socially networked, shared sensor fields, and ever higher levels of actuation. And good-bye to the project of total technological control, disregard for timeless low-tech solutions, and amnesia for the ambient delights of the unmediated world. Good-bye, in short, to what renegade writer Henry Miller writing fairly early in the history of the one technology that most epitomized his gripe with America, called the “Air-Conditioned Nightmare.”[10]

[1] On a warming planet, demand for cooling technology might only increase, even as the electricity it consumes contributes to still more warming.
[2] Marsha Ackerman, Cool Comfort: America’s Romance with Air-Conditioning (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002), 35, 44. Several advertisements from the Carrier Corporation highlight this excellent social history.
[3] Michelle Addington, “Good-Bye, Willis Carrier” (1997), reprinted in Kim Tanzer and Rafael Longoria, eds., The Green Braid (New York: Routledge, 2007), 160.
[4] Le Corbusier, as quoted in Addington, “Good-bye, Willis Carrier,” 160.
[5] Reyner Banham, The Architecture of the Well-tempered Environment. (London: Architectural Press, 1969), 209–12.
[6] Banham, Well-tempered Environment, 12, 11.
[7] Banham, Well-tempered Environment, 187. This passage is highlighted in my vintage copy from undergraduate years, amid the first oil crisis of the 1970s.
[8] Lisa Heschong, Thermal Delight in Architecture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1979).
[9] Addington, “Good-bye, Willis Carrier,” 160.
[10] Henry Miller, The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, 1945 (San Francisco: New Directions, 1970).