How air conditioning shaped modern architecture—and changed our climate

During a conversation with the
New Yorker
, a window washer who worked on the
Empire State Building says that some of his toughest moments
have been cleaning the trash that tenants toss out the windows.
In his many years working on the Depression-era skyscraper,
he’s wiped numerous half-empty coffee cups off window panes,
and even scraped 20 gallons of strawberry preserves from the
building’s facade. Tossed out in the winter, it stubbornly
clung to the outside of the skyscraper.

Cracking a window open in a skyscraper seems like a quirk,
especially today, when hermetically sealed steel-and-glass
giants offer the promise of climate-controlled comfort. But
ever since Chicago’s Home
Insurance Building
, considered one of the first
skyscrapers, opened in 1884, the challenge of airflow,
ventilation, and keeping tenants cool has been an important
engineering consideration shaping modern architecture.

The great commercial buildings of the modern era owe their
existence, in many ways, to air conditioning, an invention with
a decidedly mixed legacy.

Home Insurance Building in Chicago,
Illinois.Library of Congress

Air conditioning enabled our great modernist buildings to rise,
but it’s also fueled today’s energy and environmental crisis.
AC helped create a new building typology, one that
environmentally conscious architects and designers are trying
to move beyond with new designs and passive-cooling techniques.

“Modern buildings cannot survive unless hard-wired to a
life-support machine,”
University of Cambridge professor Alan Short. “Yet
this fetish for glass, steel, and air-conditioned skyscrapers
continues; they are symbols of status around the world on an
increasingly vast scale.”

Classical solutions to an age-old problem

Early skyscraper design drew from classical architectural
references to help shade, cool, and circulate air. Classical
towers in cities such as Chicago and New York all take their
shape, in part, from the need to create a workable environment
before the advent of AC.

Like the vernacular buildings that formed our early
metropolises, the first skyscrapers were created with
ventilation and airflow in mind. Many of the same techniques
used on more earth-bound structures were simply adapted and
scaled up as these new colossuses, girded by steel skeletons,
arose in the commercial districts of New York and Chicago.

High ceilings, operable windows, and extensive perimeter
exposure helped to encourage ventilation and air flow. In
Chicago, early towers were designed with central open courts
and light wells; some, like the famous brick Monadnock
, a proto-skyscraper, were designed with a long,
thin profile in mind, while other structures suggested letters
when viewed from above, shaped like a “C” or an “E.” These
shapes ensured daylight and cross-ventilation were available

Standing at the corner of Randolph and State streets, the
, then the world’s tallest commercial building,
proudly proclaimed its dominance of the skyline. Designed by
Wellborn Root
of the firm Burnham & Root, the muscular,
21-story giant briefly towered above all others in the city
that birthed the skyscraper. But its height wasn’t the only
feature that made it exceptional.

The Masonic Temple in Chicago in
1901.Library of Congress

The secretive Masons used many of the uppermost floors for
their own rites and rituals. A glass-covered roof garden, a
steam-heated space decorated with oak panels, was available for
private parties and galas. But for the most part, guests
entered through the gilded lobby, took one of the 14-passenger
elevators to their floor, and got about their business. They’d
enter their office, designed with high ceilings to help capture
the natural daylight, and crack open a window to provide some

The early architects of these plans drew influences from
classical architecture, much like their facades took design
cues from historical references. One of the big names of
Chicago architecture at the time, Louis Sullivan, designed a
building in St. Louis, the
Wainwright Building,
meant to mimic the layout of the
Uffizi, a Florence, Italy, administrative building constructed
in the 17th century. Chicago skyscrapers even had specific
window designs, with a large, fixed pane surrounded by smaller
sash windows that could be opened for ventilation.

The Wainwright Building in St. Louis
in 1933.Library of Congress

The new class of white-collar workers who occupied these
upper-level offices suffered through humid summers not just
because they didn’t know any better, but because Victorian
social mores didn’t place much stock in personal comfort. In
fact, the adoption of mechanical ventilation systems, which
were invented by Benjamin Franklin Sturtevant in the 1860s and
became more common in taller buildings towards the end of the
19th century, was due in large part to the problems of heat and
light—coal- and gas-powered lamps and heaters quickly filled
rooms with toxic smoke—and the belief that poor health was
caused by miasma, or dirty air.

Still, at the time, ventilation was less about a comforting
breeze and more about sanitation—removing humid, fetid air from
crowded workshops and workspaces. By the mid-1890s, designers
and architects in New York needed to file their building plans
with the Bureau of Light and Ventilation. The 21-story American
Surety Building in New York, built in 1896, included a
ventilation system, but only for the lower seven floors.
Workers on these levels couldn’t open their windows due to the
dirt, muck, and grime of the city streets.

Roof gardens and ice pipes

Many early attempts at indoor cooling took place in theaters,
according to Cool: How Air Conditioning Changed
Salvatore Basile
, which could become unbearably stuffy
during late-summer performances. Pumping air cooled by ice, or
granting access to roof gardens, occasionally helped keep
theatergoers from being overwhelmed by stale, humid air, but
most failed, or made a barely noticeable difference.

That didn’t stop roof gardens from becoming a big part of the
entertainment circuit. In New York City, the Madison Square
roof garden could accommodate 4,000 people. Not to be outdone,
the Paradise Theater roof garden featured a faux village with a
windmill, waterfall, and two live cows with milkmaids. While
they couldn’t deliver true refreshment, they could offer at
least the illusion of cool. The nearby Victoria Theater
actually heated the elevator that took patrons to the roof, so
they would gain the illusion of relief.

Before reliable technology was invented, cooling was a much
more complicated affair, though that didn’t stop entrepreneurs
from trying. According to Basile, their attempts usually
involved relatively brute means of mechanically circulating
cold air. The Colorado Automatic Refrigerating Company set up a
“pipe line refrigeration” system in downtown Denver, running
two miles of underground pipes through the business district
and offering a hookup to local building owners looking for
ice-cooled air. In New York, the Stock Exchange opened a
comfort cooling system, a forced ventilation system, the
largest in the country at the time.

A few early pioneers tried their hand at other primitive forms
of mechanical cooling. Perhaps the first was the Armour
Building in Kansas City. Built in 1900, the packing plant,
designed by William Rose, the city’s one-time mayor, featured a
spraying room, which sent air through a misting system that
“washed” it, cooling it just a few degrees.

Willis Carrier’s invention of
artificial refrigeration
in Brooklyn in 1902 would prove to
be a turning point, but not immediately. He stumbled upon the
technology while trying to create a machine that would dry out
printing rooms so ink wouldn’t smear on the presses in humid
temperatures. Carrier’s machine “dried” air by passing it
through water to create fog, which had the by-product of
cooling the surrounding space.

Fittingly, the marvel had a wide range of industrial uses, and
Carrier focused on that market at the beginning. While Carrier
would eventually push for residential applications, also
targeting the new movie theater market, the adoption of
residential and office air conditioning was relatively slow.

The first

In 1913, Carrier had his first residential installation, the
Minneapolis mansion of Charles
G. Gates
. A rich man so free with his inherited wealth that
he was nicknamed “Spend a Million,” Gates wanted the best of
the best for his new 38,000-square-foot home, including a pipe
organ and gold doorknobs. He purchased a Carrier unit designed
for a small factory, according to Basile, but he sadly wasn’t
able to enjoy his gilded glory; he died during a hunting
accident before the home was finished (his wife would live
there only briefly, and the building was sold and finally
demolished in 1933).

Frank Lloyd
also made an early attempt at air conditioning with
the Larkin
Administration Building
in Buffalo. A breakout project for
the young architect, the new corporate headquarters for a
regional soap company showed his knack for making people
“comfortable” in his own particular way. The skylight atriums
added to allow in natural light just made the office
uncomfortably warm, and the awkward, custom-designed desks and
chairs he created were nicknamed “suicide chairs” for their
propensity to tip over. Architectural Record called it
a “monster
of awkwardness

Since the office was adjacent to the company’s factory, Wright
also decided to seal the structure from the clouds of dirty
exhaust. An air-circulation and cooling system, utilizing a
washing system similar to the Armour Building, was installed,
but like the Kansas City design, didn’t make much of a
difference, especially with all the solar gain that came from
Wright’s skylights. Proper air-conditioning equipment would be
added years later, but that didn’t stop Wright from rewriting
history to suit his purposes. He would later
repeatedly claim
this was the first air-conditioned
building in existence.

A new diamond in Manhattan's sky: The
Empire State building in a 1956 AP photo.Library of

While building technology improved and grander, taller
structures began to dominate skylines, cooling technology
didn’t change much in the prewar years, or add much to
construction. Even skyscrapers such as the Chrysler and Empire
State buildings relied partially on natural ventilation to keep
occupants cool, and in Chicago, the palazzo style of tall
towers remained. It would require bigger, postwar leaps in
construction and design to truly change how buildings were

Life behind a glass wall

The postwar housing shortage created a cottage industry of
dreamy new home designs, offering comfort and modern
conveniences to Americans clamoring for their own home and a
slice of the suburban dream. Some, like Buckminster Fuller’s

model, a $6,500 passive house prototype that
utilized “thermo-ventilation,” may have been technically
advanced, but were aesthetically a bit of a dud. Americans
wanted style, and the emerging school of California
architecture delivered.

A plan for Buckminster Fuller’s
Dymaxion House.Library of Congress

Most powerfully represented in the popular imagination by the
Study House
program started by Art &
magazine in 1945, the California modern home
was an aspiring homeowner’s dream, an effortless, breezy
layout, utilizing new construction techniques to promise
something distinctly modern. Inspired by the stark, angular
International school of architecture, these homes, mostly
flat-roofed, single-story construction with glass walls and
overhanging eaves, looked cool.

But for those not living in the supremely advantageous climate
of California, they also offered false hope. Relying primarily
on cross-ventilation to keep cool, and requiring little to no
insulation, these homes just didn’t work in other regions of
the country, especially those prone to muggy, humid summers.

The Farnsworth House in Plano,
Illinois.Library of Congress

The (im)perfect example of this would be the
Farnsworth House
, an aesthetic marvel that proved the
impracticality of glass house living. Designed by
Mies van der Rohe
, perhaps the figurehead of International
Style design in the United States, the glass box floating above
a forested glen in Plano, Illinois, was a beauty. It also baked
in the mid-day sun, due to a lack of shading, and at night, the
light-up cube became a beacon for bugs. The owner, Dr. Edith
Farnsworth, complained about the home, eventually suing van der
Rohe and even hiring a contractor to create custom brass
screens to ward off insects.

Building the sealed

While the midcentury aesthetic may have been sleek and modern,
it was also terribly uncomfortable without the ability to
create an artificial environment inside. But right as the
modern, International Style building became popular, air
conditioning and modern engineering suddenly made it possible
to design glass-and-steel structures with controlled
temperatures. Lewis Mumford once used the phrase “facade
demanded by air conditioning” to describe a modern office
building; that perfectly describes the relationship between
artificial cooling and the modern glass commercial building.

Some early experiments that paved the way; the
PSFS Building
in Philadelphia, a modernist gem designed by
William Lescaze and George Howe and built in 1932, is
considered the first International Style high-rise, and also
utilized air conditioning. Portland’s Equitable Savings and
Loans structure, constructed with an aluminum and glass shell,
was completely air-conditioned. But it was two blockbusters in
New York City, according to Basile, that popularized the glass
box style of commercial structures that dominated the last half
of the 20th century.

The first, the
UN Secretariat Building
, could actually be seen as much as
a cautionary tale as a groundbreaker. The high-profile
commission, designed by modernist master
Le Corbusier
in 1948, was to be an evolution of his own
past buildings, a striking—and smart—high-rise that utilized
sunbreakers, or brise-soleil, to cut down on heat
gain, as well as operable windows. Corbu had tried to seal a
glass structure when he designed his Cite de Refuge housing
complex in France in 1933, which ended up creating a heat trap
in the summer. He didn’t want to repeat his mistake.

“My strong belief is that it is senseless to build in New York
City, where the climate is terrible in summer, large areas of
glass that aren’t equipped with brise-soleils,” he said. “I say
this is dangerous, very seriously dangerous.”

Sadly for Corbu, the UN didn’t listen. The 39-story building,
on the east side of Midtown Manhattan, was coated in Thermopane
heat-absorbing glass. Despite operable windows, and the
installation of 4,000 Carrier units in the building, the
west-facing offices were roasted with constant sun exposure.
Shortly after moving in, the staff installed blinds, which
Corbu cursed as covering the building in a “morguish light.”
While the rectangular structure presented a sleek, modern
profile, the heat issue was a huge problem (the building now
costs nearly
$10 million annually
to heat and cool). Critic
Henry-Russell Hitchcock went so far as to say it showed why
glass walls shouldn’t be used for skyscrapers.

But just a few years later, a new project across town totally
changed the conversation about International Style office
towers. It presented a clean, pristine vision of cleanliness
and cool, and just happened to be funded by a soap company.

Finally, a cool modern office

The Lever Brothers company wanted a new headquarters in New
York City, and president Charles Luckman wanted the company’s
new home to make a statement. A former employee for
SC Johnson Company
, which famously hired Frank Lloyd Wright
to design its futuristic headquarters and research tower in
Racine, Wisconsin, Luckman knew how a new building could play
in the press. He decided that he wanted something au courant,
and that reinforced the company’s values.

The resulting glass box design, 1952’s
Lever House
, became a sensation. Designed by Gordon
Bunschaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the 24-story,
sea-colored glass box presented a total environment for work;
employees could enter through the large ground-level plaza or
underground parking garage, eat in the cafeteria, and work in
an office kept cool and clean by air conditioning and
mechanical ventilation. The first glass curtain wall building,
it was literally a revelation—passersby could glance near the
edges of the building and see out another glass wall around the
corner. Employees “didn’t have to breathe the same air as New
Yorkers,” and the hermetically sealed exterior cut down on
heating, cooling, and cleaning costs because less city
dirt and dust made its way through open windows.

Lever House in New York
City.Eric Hunt: Flickr/Creative Commons

Luckman didn’t miss a chance for self-promotion, either. The
massive walls of sealed glass couldn’t be cleaned from the
inside, so the company draped a $50,000 “window-washing
gondola” from the roof, a publicity stunt that used Lever-brand
Surf soap to scrub the windows clean every six days.

Beyond creating a new style for skyscrapers, the Lever House
became an icon that truly made the company mainstream. The thin
tower, set on a wide base, was also a quirk of New York City
zoning laws that restricted buildings from taking up the entire
lot (hence the setbacks often seen on older towers). But with
an air-conditioned interior and electric lights, suddenly tall
glass towers could take up the entire lot. Gone was the need to
create atriums or light wells; windowless deep space could fill
in those gaps and make a commercial development more

The Lever House represented a tipping point. Soon, other
buildings in New York City, including the Empire State Building
and the Woolworth Building, felt the need to add air
conditioning. Carrier noticed that as soon as 20 percent of the
buildings in a given market added AC, others felt pressure to
adapt or fall behind. Priorities changed: Whereas buildings of
the past focused on grand lobbies, with workplaces that were
spartan areas for getting things done, in modern buildings,
comfortable settings altered available layouts.

Since the
availability of air conditioning
meant workers didn’t need
to sit near a window, offices could suddenly have larger
floorplates, encouraging collaboration and denser construction.
Numerous building typologies adapted to this sudden freedom;
look at how the
Houston Astrodome
, an 18-story air-conditioned baseball
park in Houston, transformed the concept of a traditional
baseball stadium.

Blown over: The backlash and environmental costs of keeping

The confluence of new technology and expanding cities has
created scores of marvelous skyscrapers, from the Seagram
Building to the Willis Tower. But the proliferation of
air-conditioned space, and the types of buildings that have
flourished under this new technology, has shown the gleaming,
modern world it creates is far from utopian.

Air-conditioned construction quickly changed the urban
landscape. The adoption of the “windowless wall” created the
fluorescent-lit, dull and dim office spaces many workers abhor.
Malls became a dominant part of the late-20th-century built
Life magazine
didn’t mince words when it railed
against “unimaginative boxes of air-conditioned office space,
which increasingly dominated U.S. urban architecture” (the
article was titled “How to Make Any City Ugly”). Unhealthy air
quality inside closed-off buildings also was cited for major
health implications.

But the most damaging part of this shift has been the cost, in
energy and carbon emissions, of our cool new world. By 2014, 87
percent of U.S. homes had some form of air conditioning. The
cooling of buildings in the United States contributes to

half a billion metric tons of carbon dioxide
every year. We consume more energy for residential air
conditioning than all other countries combined, although, with
other countries such as China and India in pursuit of
glass-walled visions of modernity, that is going to change, and
not in a good way. Due in large part to indoor climate control,
buildings utilize
half of total U.S. energy consumption

Air conditioners in New York

Artificial cooling has become such an energy hog, and so
detrimental to efforts to fight climate change, that skyscraper
design has begun to shift back toward the vernacular techniques
used in the pioneering buildings of the late 19th century.

Frankfurt’s Commerzbank Tower
, a Foster & Partner’s
project that opened in 1997, was considered one of the most
eco-friendly towers at a time before LEED standards, utilizing
daylighting and the “new” concept of openable windows. The

Queen’s Building at De Montfort University in Leicester
from 1995, is naturally ventilated and passively cooled. Others
architects are playing with ideas of
bioclimactic architecture
, or utilizing
plants as natural cooling agents

Air conditioning promised a cooler, more modern environment
indoors. But unless architects and designers continue to
develop more green, efficient ways to keep our buildings cool,
it will be increasingly difficult to escape the warming
environment outside.

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