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Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 29-May-1990

Edition: Late

Section: News and Features


Page: 11

Wordcount: 1417


E.M. FARRELLY E.M. Farrelly is the Herald’s Architecture Writer.

HUMANITY, we fondly recite, has survived on its wits. Other species, evolutionarily speaking, might have sunk or swum according to fur colour, talon size, venom strength, but human survival depends on nothing so visceral

Although blessed with that indispensable accessory, the opposable thumb, Homo sapiens possesses also, and more crucially, the motor that drives it: an enormous, languageforming, comparison-drawing, memory-holding, problem-solving brain.

That, at least, is The Brain’s story. And very convincing it has been, too

If the success of a species be measured by growth rate and/or environmental adaptiveness, the naked ape has been successful indeed – until now. Now the prospect looks rather bleaker. Our very success may be our downfall and, unless The Brain does something quick smart about it, we may end our collective days as grist in the mill of catastrophe theory.

Broadly speaking, there are two standard responses to this dilemma. One says “technology has ditched us, let us therefore ditch technology”; the other takes a more passive, but also arguably more progressive “technology got us into this mess, let technology get us out” stance.

Both are understandable emotional reactions to looming global ruin but neither promises efficacy in avoiding it because each is founded on the now widespread popular fallacy that holds technology itself, independent of any individual human will, actively responsible for our predicament. It is technology, not humanity, that controls us, oppresses us, fouls our nest. And while this, too – the singular determination to maintain optimism by shifting blame, and momentum by tidying such insolubles into the too-hard basket – may be inimitably human, it is time we recognised technology for what it is: no wild Frankenstein but a mere tool, strictly subject to human volition.

Urban architecture, so well boiled in the socio-political cauldron, makes our confusion on this issue very evident.

The tall building, the office block – what we used, in the heroic days of modernism, to call the skyscraper – has few defenders now; and, apart from the shadows cast and corporate behemoths represented, what people hate most, they say, about the office block is its regulated, air-conditioned internal environment. Not only that, but of the one-third of society’s total energy requirements that goes to run buildings, almost half is used by air-conditioning, not to mention the evil greenhousing by the refrigerants themselves. Ironically, global warming seems set to end the life of the air-conditioned city.

None of this, of course, has done anything to counteract the prevailing real estate wisdom, overwhelmingly the dominant shaper of our cities, which persists in regarding the mere notion of a non-air-conditioned office building as pie in some impossible sky. But, because it is equally clear that rather more than the mere ending of a minor foreign war will be needed this time to ablate the energy crisis, anything we can do substantially to cut our environmental deficits will be very much to the point, as far as life and death go.

So, is it possible to run a city without air-conditioning? Is it tolerable?What would happen if we tried it?

One of the answers, of course, is that it is not only possible but something for which there are thousands of years of precedents, many in climates far steamier than ours. Their builder-inhabitants used stone, water and shade for cooling, devised fans and draughts for air movement, wore sensible clothes, took siestas and, when all else failed, suffered. But that is not an end to it. We are not ancient Sumerians; we have traffic noise, carbon monoxide, fax machines and international money markets to think of. We wear suits and do not sleep after lunch. Nor do we take kindly to discomfort. Can we maintain all this, our all-important social edifice, without the comforts of air-conditioning?

Many experts think so. But it is not just a question of opening the windows.

The invention of air-conditioning is credited to Willis Haviland Carrier, who in the early years of this century discovered that you could cool and dehumidify air by passing it through a spray of water. For the first time, city buildings could be “hermetically sealed”, as Frank Lloyd Wright wrote of his 1906 Larkin Building in Buffalo, New York, ” … to keep the interior space free of the poisonous gases in the smoke from the New York Central trains that puffed along beside it”.

Air-conditioning, with the endless resources and expansiveness presumed by the age, provided an easy answer, allowing us simply to close the windows rather than redesign them.

Techniques exist to obviate airconditioning. Many – such as the ancient Indian device of wet gauze hung over the air intake, or the Egyptian malqaf(wind scoop) – have always existed; some are comparatively new. There is no doubt that a combination of sunshading devices – shutters, awings, verandas, even – smaller glass areas, higher thermal mass, careful orientation, air intakes fitted with standard filters and sound baffles, and individually controllable fans could keep conditions quite tolerable while reducing greatly both the capital outlay and energy requirements of our standard air-conditioning infrastructure.

We have the technique, but technique isn’t enough.

It wasn’t just the 20th century’s unwelcome industrial atmosphere that promoted the new technology’s immediate success. Cities, after all, had been noisy and polluted since Juvenal’s time and before. What air-conditioning also provided was uniformity and control, essential support for the burgeoning doctrines of Fordism and Taylorism, which may be held jointly responsible, by and large, for the standardisation, universalisation and anonymity that

became so closely associated with modernism and for which it has been so roundly rejected.

Post-modern theory, in reaction, bears the stamp of our sadder if not markedly wiser age. A consciously pluralistic affair, it counsels, in myriad ways, fragmentation, figuration, scepticism and retrenchment. That thin, perfunctory formalism – the modish fragmentation of plans and facades, the pasted-on pediments and arches – which has for so long passed for post-modernism in architecture, is strictly deckchairs-on-the-Titanic stuff.

But it is possible that post-modern thinking may help us yet. The real post-modern fragmentation – breaking-up and breaking-down modernism’s universalising drive – lies in its reinstatement of history, of small humanity, of regional cues. These, the architectural equivalents perhaps of privatisation and post-structuralism, return the possibility of an architecture that responds to individual site, individual climate and individual user.

In the past, before air-conditioning ironed out the differences, cities were shaped by their physical as much as cultural climates. Compare Helsinki, New Orleans, Singapore. Regionalism didn’t need a name then. This energy crisis, if we survive it, may be the making of our cities; for the first time we may see a post-industrial city which is unmistakably of its place, as well as its time. Picture Sydney with cool, shady streets, deep verandas, blocks scaled and lanes designed for air movement.

There is much talk these days of “intelligent” buildings, ever more sophisticated artificial environments controlled by ever more complex machines. But the truly intelligent building must take a larger view and again participate in the environment its shunning has helped to destroy.

There is nothing alternative about this. It is a question of survival. Technique is a necessary but not a sufficient condition. The crucial ingredient, as ever, is metaphysical; we have to want it enough. We need the political will. That should really put The Brain on its mettle.


ILLUS: Drawing By Rocco Fazzari


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