• Instituto de Resseguros do Brasil (IRB), MMM Roberto, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Architectural Forum, 1944. - photo courtesy Princeton University Press

Modern Architecture and Climate: Design Before Air Conditioning
Daniel A. Barber
Princeton University Press, 2020

Those who shape the built world and consider it their obligation to move humanity toward social, climate, and economic change will appreciate the analysis presented by Daniel A. Barber in his exhaustively researched book, “Modern Architecture and Climate: Design Before Air Conditioning,” published by Princeton University Press in July 2020.

Barber is an associate professor of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania Weitzman School of Design, where he is chair of the Ph.D. program. His teaching and research focus on the development of a “revisionist history of Architectural Modernism” tied directly to environmental concerns. Through his academic research, he intends to “provide a theoretical framework for architects and others to engage the climate crisis.”

The historical analysis Barber brings forward with this book could not have been released to an audience more primed to receive the message. Many of the events of 2020 have made it impossible to remain blind to the interconnectedness of our cultures, or to the link between our social and economic structures, the climate, and our health.

In prior writing, Barber has issued a very clear call to action for designers to engage their power, both material and cultural, in order to address the human relationship to climate by expanding notions of “comfort” to include those that need not be accomplished through mechanical means or by reliance on fossil fuels. Although it is present throughout “Modern Architecture and Climate,” this point does not always read clearly. In the pursuit of academic ambitions, the need to underscore this practical intent within this text has been overlooked. As a result, a reader may be left with the feeling of having read an atlas thoroughly without knowing where they are headed. 

“Modern Architecture and Climate” maps the recent history of our discipline in relation to climate by re-contextualizing the significance of the facade in modern architecture. In making the argument that the development of the facade was driven by the desire to control human comfort by working with specific climatological factors, Barber provides a new way to understand where architecture stands as a cultural actor, how this reality came to be, and how this knowledge might be used to identify new ways to address both global warming caused by human-generated carbon emissions and the social and economic inequity that has resulted.  

“Climate can only be understood through representation,” Barber writes. “The facade is drawn (literally) as a means to indicate a specific cultural relationship to climate…. The complexity of this interior/exterior relationship … was experimented with and materialized as a new kind of image — technical images that conceptualized the thermal interior and aimed to optimize the conditions of this interior according to perceptions of health and productivity, of culture and progress, and of a universal norm.”

“Modern Architecture and Climate” presents an extensively illustrated history of representational techniques developed to codify and instrumentalize normative ideas about interior comfort. Global standards for the control of interior comfort were originally based on studies done on a group of young, white European men wearing the standard office attire of the day. One consequence a reader may recognize is the standard office thermostat setting that sometimes results in portable space heaters below (most frequently, women’s) desks. Barber makes a well-supported argument that through the propagation of this very specific set of cultural and comfort ideals, modern architecture became an instrument for globalization, economic development, and postwar colonialism. 

With the book over 300 pages long, consideration of individual case studies moves well beyond illustration into detailed and focused analysis that unfolds additional considerations. “Modern Architecture and Climate” does not want to be read quickly, and the arguments are thoroughly made.

A necessary chapter is spent outlining in a thoughtful narrative the fundamental and ongoing influence of Victor and Aladar Olgyay, whose pioneering 1963 book, “Design with Climate: Bioclimatic Approach to Architectural Regionalism,” was recently returned to print. Hungarian architects who emigrated to the Unites States in 1947, the Olgyay brothers focused their careers on researching and designing climatological architecture. Their research at MIT and Princeton represents “an apex in the midcentury interest in architecture-climate design methods.”

Barber draws a single graphic line that connects Corbu’s section sketches for the unbuilt Barcelona Lotissements to Victor Olgyay’s “Schematic Bioclimatic Index” to the development of the very biased ASHRAE (American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers) standards. Corbu’s drawings of the facade as a climate-mediating device represent the beginnings of concepts the Olgyay brothers later embraced in the development of a set of controllable scientific principles. Their experiments and representational methodologies became the foundation for the calculations embedded in our contemporary global standards.

By the time Barber finally turns to directly address the subject of mechanical air conditioning in the final chapter, “Modern Architecture and Climate” has already shown how the data generated and documented in research such as the Olgyays’ allowed for the conceptual adoption of “ideals” in interior comfort which by matter of course became mechanized. When fossil fuel energy became cheap, architectural means to mediate the climate, such as sun-shading and wind-harnessing facades, began to be evaluated against the relative cost of the energy consumed and the relative level of control conferred by mechanical means to condition interiors. The consequences of these developments form the ethic of the book: “In many ways the climatic determinists have long since won the day — a racially, geographically, and gender determined norm for climatic conditions of habitation has spread around the globe, at great cost and with epochal consequence.”

In attempting to draft a new historical narrative about architecture’s recent relationship to climate, Daniel Barber delivers information architects need in order to consider pre-air conditioning ideas about comfort and responses to climate, and a history of the ways these have been represented and instrumentalized. “Modern Architecture and Climate” outlines a critical understanding of the global consequences of the imposition of a universal standard of comfort that was made possible by graphic representation, and supports the idea that there is a role architects continue to play in the creation of “new cultural desires” and the evolution of our relationship to climate. 

Given the significant contribution of building climate control to the burning of fossil fuels that drive global warming and the social and economic inequity this perpetuates, this reader finds optimism in Barber’s assertion that “we are now, or soon will be, past air conditioning.” He has presented a strong argument that novel architectural intentions can be found in looking again at early modern architecture’s use of the facade as a culture- and climate-mediating device.

Kristin Schuster, AIA, is founding principal of Inflection Architecture and an adjunct professor at the University of Houston College of Architecture and Design.

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