The mall, office block, suburbs, museums, Hollywood, the Gulf cities – air conditioning powered them all. But has the time come to turn it off?
Cities have boomed in places where, previously, the climate would have held them back. In 1950, 28% of the population of the US lived in its sunbelt, 40% in 2000. The combined population of the Gulf cities went from less than 500,000 before 1950 to 20 million now. Neither the rise of Singapore, nor the exploding cities of China and India, would have happened in the same way if they had still relied on punkah fans, shady verandas and afternoon naps.
The most significant architectural effect of air conditioning, however, is in the social spaces it creates. In Houston, as in most southern American cities, you can progress from your air-conditioned house to your air-conditioned garage and then in your air-conditioned car to parking garages, malls and workplaces which are all, also, air-conditioned. In the city’s downtown area, underpasses and bridges link different buildings, so that you can go from one to another without exposing yourself to the exterior. It is possible, indeed habitual, to spend whole days and weeks in controlled weather.
In the brutal climate of Doha, Qatar (or indeed in Dubai, Shenzhen or Singapore) similar spaces recur. Buildings which appear separate from the outside (for the few, that is, who choose to be outside) are internally fused, a hotel turning into a mall into a food court into a multiplex via a series of lobbies whose décor of marble, carpet and timber veneer can’t decide if it is internal or external. The hierarchies and distinctions of European cities – between buildings and streets, and between degrees of public and private space – are bypassed and dissolved.
The architect Rem Koolhaas called this phenomenon “Junkspace”, a “product of the encounter between escalator and air conditioning, conceived in an incubator of sheetrock … always interior, so extensive that you rarely perceive limits.” In the Gulf and China as in much of the US, the mall became the principal gathering place, being a zone where large numbers could comfortably pass their time, leaving streets to be occupied by air conditioning’s mechanical ally, the automobile.
[however] If these principles are now better known, the challenge remains to expand the village-scale achievements of an architect like Hassan Fathy to large, fast-growing cities. Addressing this challenge is the promise of high-profile, government-backed projects such as Msheireb in Qatar and Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, which boast of their combinations of old forms – shady courtyards and arcades; narrow, breezy streets – with solar panel arrays and what Masdar’s architects, Foster and Partners, call “state-of-the-art technologies”.