This article originally appeared on Curbed as “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.
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,” says 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 Building, 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 everywhere.
Standing at the corner of Randolph and State streets, the Masonic Temple, then the world’s tallest commercial building, proudly proclaimed its dominance of the skyline. Designed by John 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 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 ventilation.
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 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 Everything by 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 air-conditioned buildings
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 Wright 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.