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May 27, 2024

Modern Architecture and Climate: Design before Air Conditioning

A central tenet of modern architecture was the hope of delivering an artificially managed thermal environment wherein the architect had the mandate to reconcile expressive and functional objectives. Daniel Barber’s selective history of modern architecture scrutinises this tenet with an account that begins with a focus on architectural design and ends with a capitulation to the global adoption of airconditioning.

Barber commits to telling “the story of climate as a design project”, where the concept of climate was initially conceived more by the spatial imagination of architects than by the mechanical calculations of engineers. The central thesis revolves around a dichotomy: the lost purity of a few early enlightened modernists, whose architectural ethos of the early days was tainted by the mechanical interventions of subsequent periods.

Modern Architecture and Climate: Design before Air Conditioning, by Daniel A. Barber
(New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2020).


Princeton University Press

The facade is the pivotal element in Barber’s analysis, representing perhaps the most evident limitation of the attempt to contextualise modern architecture within the complexities of contemporary discourse on climate. The anticipated outcome is that by rewriting the narrative of modernism, better alternative futures might emerge from re-evaluating the idea of comfort as adaptability and engaging with political and social dynamics that aspire towards a better “planetary interior”.

The relevance of this history for architects lies in its militant approach, which, perhaps involuntarily, draws from what Italian critic Manfredo Tafuri once termed “operative critique” – the biased instrumental use of history that architects are allowed to employ due to their professional mandate to work in the present. Nonetheless, Modern Architecture and Climate presents a novel scholarly perspective, revealing previously unexplored – or at least underrated – themes in the history of modern architecture.

Barber self-consciously acknowledges the ambivalence of such an approach, cautioning against the peril of conflating the modern foundations of climatic design with an anachronistic oversimplification of modernism as a proto-environmentalist movement. Indeed, the book recurrently emphasises the existence of conflicting facets of modernity that embraced climatic design strategies as opportunities to radically transform society as well as the built environment. The narrative unfolds in six chapters, each of which can be read as a standalone, supported by generous illustrations and meticulous research.

Following modern-heroic interests, readers will appreciate any of the opening chapters in the first part of the book, “The Globalization of the International Style”. Here, the analysis of Le Corbusier’s efforts to reconcile the brise-soleil with early flimsy curtain walls finds convergence in the work of Brazilian architects such as Lúcio Costa and the Roberto Brothers. Other readers may be drawn to the modern regionalism of Richard Neutra and Lluís Sert, who, in addition to their continued efforts to use the brise-soleil as a defining feature of climatic modernism, engaged in broader, humane environmental considerations of the interior-exterior continuum.

The book reaches its dialectical climax in the second part, “The Great Acceleration”. Here, Barber contrasts the emergence of conservative forms of modernism in postwar North America, exemplified by the Climate Control Project in the popular magazine House Beautiful of Elizabeth Gordon. One chapter is dedicated to the work and legacy of Hungarian-American architects Victor and Aladar Olgyay, whose groundbreaking research at MIT in the postwar period contributed to the birth of solar architecture. “The Great Acceleration” concludes with a critique of the pivotal moment when climatic modernism was eclipsed by the widespread adoption of airconditioning, a point of no return epitomised by the rise of ASHRAE (the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers) and the proliferation of tall office towers in the North American metropolis.

The aim of this book is certainly not to serve as an eco-modernist rehabilitation of the Modern movement. The most inquisitive and acquainted readers of architectural history may ponder whether presenting a pre-airconditioning history of modernism is, after all, a clever strategy to reiterate a familiar post-modern finale. The promising aspirations of the socially progressive pre-war era – as embodied by Le Corbusier’s avant-garde, the originality of Brazilian modernists, Neutra’s societal concerns, and the Olgyays’ proto-computational efforts to align architecture with climatic data – all encountered their demise in the face of capitalist forces symbolised by the usual suspects: the Lever House and the Seagram Building. Ultimately, Modern Architecture and Climate is not a celebratory recovery of modernist practice, but rather a pretext to allocate blame for contemporary planetary problems on the modernist notion of “comfort”, meant as a globally undiscriminating ambition to mechanically regulate interiors.

Conforming with widespread interest in the climate change activism of today’s academia, Barber’s primary aim is not to offer practical solutions but to underscore issues that might encourage architects to question the political economy of design. This is the indisputable merit and, at the same time, the limit of a history book that unapologetically strives to foster a new “planetary imaginary”, where focus on climate is the primary catalyst of design and means to enhance architectural practice.

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