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How Air Conditioning Shaped Cities Throughout the World

Article and photos from The Cultural Tutor (@culturaltutor) on Twitter...

If we couldn’t keep them cool, then glass skyscrapers and megacities in the desert would be impossible. This is how air conditioning changed the world — and influenced architecture everywhere we look.

In 1901 a New York publishing company needed to solve a major problem: the varying humidity in their factory made it very difficult to print in color. An engineer, Willis Carrier, solved it for them by inventing a machine which controlled both humidity and temperature.

Carrier realized the potential of his invention — though it was another inventor, Stuart Cramer, who created the term “air conditioning” — and founded a company to mass-produce these climate control machines. The world would never be the same again.

For almost all of human history one of our biggest challenges was to ensure that buildings were suited to their climate. Whether houses, castles, temples, granaries, or anything else, they had to deal variously with scorching heat, freezing cold, rain, snow, and wind.

The Ancient Roman architect and military engineer Vitruvius wrote about this over 2,000 years ago. He explained that it would be impossible to build the same sorts of buildings in every part of the world, because architecture always had to account for local conditions.

Think of Scandinavian churches or German houses with their steep roofs — to prevent snow building up and causing a collapse. We may think they look charming now, but this was architecture and design responding to and developing in accordance with the local climate.

The traditional crofters’ cottages of Scotland were built with thick walls, small windows, and a big thatched roof to keep the rain out and the heat in. This was about staying warm and dry in a region that is wet and cold for most of the year.

Then you’ve got hotter regions, where the challenge is arguably even greater. For thousands of years people harvested ice from mountains or glaciers and used it to cool their houses, water, or food; in the 19th this became an international industry. How did architects and builders deal with the demands of hot and humid climates? Big windows, high ceilings, balconies, open spaces, and rooms below ground level. Think of a traditional Moroccan house with its large central courtyard, or the subterranean stepwells of India.

The porticos and colonnades of Ancient Greece and Rome provided shade during the day, while Indian jalis — intricately carved, perforated windows made from wood or stone — compressed the air which passed through them and, thanks to the Venturi effect, cooled it down. It was also important to design buildings and cities according to other environmental factors, not least water sources and prevailing winds. Dinocrates, the architect who planned Alexandria in 332 BC, ensured harsh northerly winds wouldn’t blow directly through the streets.

But this doesn’t even tell the full story. In the past people were also restricted by knowledge — it was a less globalised world — and, crucially, by whatever construction materials were locally available, be that pine, oak, limestone, marble, slate, reeds, clay, mud, turf…

And so, all over the world, from region to region and town to town, different styles of architecture emerged as a result of the need to address the local climate, as restricted by available materials and local cultural practices. This is where traditional architecture came from. Things started to change with the introduction of modern construction methods and materials, such as concrete, plate glass, girders, and steel. But the problems of dealing with local climate still necessitated differences in design and appearance. That is, until air conditioning.

In the 1920s a private air conditioning unit cost the modern equivalent of several hundred thousand dollars, but by the 1950s smaller, cheaper units had been invented. Increasingly, architecture and urban design didn’t need to account for the local climate. Suddenly traditional architecture — which first arose from necessity rather than choice — was no longer necessary. We could build the same sort of building everywhere in the world. And, aided by the forces of globalisation, that’s exactly what we’ve done.

Remember what Vitruvius said: once upon a time architecture had to be different everywhere in the world. Without air conditioning it would have been impossible to build the same form of huge concrete tower block in every region and city on earth. But air conditioning didn’t only change how buildings looked; it also revolutionized where they could be built and how big they could become. A city like Dubai could not exist without air conditioning — those colossal glass towers would be unbearable for living or working.

Between 1995 and 2005 the number of residential buildings in China with air conditioning rose from 8% to 70%. Other inventions, from modern plumbing to elevators, have also played a role in these changes. But the global homogeneity of architecture would not have been possible without air conditioning, because it solved the problem which for millennia had forced us to build differently.

The effects of air conditioning extend well beyond architecture and amount to something like a total revolution in the politics and economics of the world. To give but one example, how would server rooms function without it? The knock-on effects are endless.

So that’s air conditioning, which revolutionized the world of architecture and, among many other things, has completely changed how the world looks. And notwithstanding the rise of megacities and a single global style, it’s also responsible for these white boxes everywhere…

Alabama Locations

Anniston (256) 241-3026 105 E D St, Anniston, AL 36201
Auburn (334) 734-8011 2295 1st Ave, Opelika, AL 36801
Birmingham (205) 250-7714 516 31st St N, Birmingham, AL 35203
Dothan (334) 836-1035 205 Wedgewood Dr, Dothan, AL 36303
Gulf Shores (251) 968-2660 820 Commerce Dr, Gulf Shores, AL 36542
Huntsville (256) 859-2691 391 Nick Fitcheard Rd NW, Huntsville, AL 35806
Loxley (251) 964-2707 30020 Co Rd 49, Loxley, AL 36551
Mobile (251) 476-2220 5522 W Commerce Blvd West, Mobile, AL 36619
Montgomery (334) 262-4855 861 Plantation Way, Montgomery, AL 36117
Muscle Shoals (256) 383-6904 107 Commerce St, Muscle Shoals, AL 35661

Georgia Locations

Albany(229) 432-5254205 Baldwin Dr, Albany, GA 31707
Athens(706) 548-2563105 Whitetail Way, Bogart, GA 30622
Atlanta(404) 875-77551290 Tacoma Dr NW, Atlanta, GA 30318
Augusta(706) 651-19503618 Wrightsboro Rd, Augusta, GA 30909
Brunswick(912) 265-5193275 Rose Dr, Brunswick, GA 31520
Columbus(706) 322-38706201 W Hamilton Park Rd, Columbus, GA 31909
Conyers(770) 918-9132335 Gees Mill Business Pkwy NE, Conyers, GA 30013
Forest Park(404) 361-24745158-C Kennedy Rd, Forest Park, GA 30297
Gainesville(770) 297-93352472 Hilton Dr, Gainesville, GA 30501
Lawrenceville(678) 442-10602111 Cedars Rd SE, Lawrenceville, GA 30043
Lithia Springs(770) 948-3451320 Thornton Rd #106, Lithia Springs, GA 30122
Macon(478) 474-85445527 Thomaston Rd, Macon, GA 31220
Marietta(770) 426-05511060 Triad Ct, Marietta, GA 30062
Newnan(770) 239-210570 Enterprise Ct, Newnan, GA 30265
Peachtree Corners(770) 239-21006675 Jones Mill Ct, Peachtree Corners, GA 30092
Savannah(912) 232-1228103 Central Jct Blvd, Savannah, GA 31405
Statesboro(912) 764-8841126 W Parrish St, Statesboro, GA 30458
Valdosta(229) 245-8200363 Connell Rd, Valdosta, GA 31602
Warner Robins(478) 953-3727110 Byrd Way, Warner Robins, GA 31088

South Carolina Locations

Hilton Head(843) 689-34043715, 21 Hunter Rd, Hilton Head Island, SC 29926

Florida Locations

Fort Walton Beach(850) 244-201776 Beal Pkwy SW, Fort Walton Beach, FL 32548
Panama City(850) 913-05853012 Lisenby Ave, Panama City, FL 32405
Pensacola(850) 438-10054405 N. Palafox Street, Pensacola FL 32505

Mississippi Locations

Hattiesburg(601) 579-96701851 Lincoln Rd, Hattiesburg, MS 39402
Ocean Springs(228) 497-5090Sunplex Industrial Park, 5717 Suntec Drive, Ocean Springs, MS 39564

Commercial Sales

Norcross – North Georgia Hub
(800) 282-4911

Birmingham – North Alabama Hub
(205) 250-7714

Macon – Southwest Hub
(800) 342-9250

Loxley – Gulf Coast Hub
(800) 239-7419

Savannah – Southeast Hub
(800) 822-7617

Commercial Parts

[email protected]
(844) 99-CHILL

 CompanyWeb AddressDescription
Airzonewww.airzoneinc.comCustom and Underfloor Air Handlers
Aladdin Metal Productswww.aladdinmetalproducts.comCurb Adapters and Roof Curbs
Aprilairewww.aprilaire.comIndoor Air Quality Products
Autaniwww.autani.comBuilding Automation and Controls
Bardwww.bardhvac.comHeat Pumps,Gas/Electric, and Wall Mounted Air Conditioners
Bryantwww.bryant.comCommercial, Industrial, Residential Heating & A/C Products and Controls
Carrierwww.commercial.carrier.comCommercial and Residential Heating & A/C Products
Data Airewww.dataaire.comPrecision Air Control for Data Processing Centers
 DXairwww.dxair.comPool dehumidification systems
 First Companywww.firstco.comFan Coil Units
Global Plasma Solutionswww.gpshvac.comAir Purification and Bi-Polar Ionization
 Hayes Fluid Controlswww.haysfluidcontrols.comHose Kits and Control Valves
 iAirewww.myiaire.comCommercial Air Purification using ionization with energy savings
 IslandAirewww.islandaire.comPTACs, Vertical Units, Water Source Heat Pumps
 i-Vuwww.commercial.carrier.comBuilding Automation and Controls
 Magic Airewww.magicaire.comFan Coil Units
 Micro Metlwww.micrometl.comRoof Curbs, RTU Accessories, & ERVs
 Modinewww.modine.comGas-Fired Unit Heaters, Duct, Furnaces, Hot Water Cabinet Unit Heaters, Makeup Air, and Dedicated Outdoor Air Systems
 Network Thermostatwww.networkthermostat.comInternet Thermostats, Wifi Themostats, Ethernet Thermostats
Paynewww.payne.comResidential Heating & A/C Products
Rawal Deviceswww.rawal.comContinuous Capacity Modulation and Dehumidification for DX Systems
Renew Airewww.renewaire.comFixed-Plate ERVs
Totalinewww.totaline.comCompressors, Parts, and Supplies
United CoolAirwww.unitedcoolair.comModular All-Indoor HVAC Systems
 Warren Technologywww.warrenhvac.comElectric Heaters
 Wilo Pumpswww.wilo-usa.comPump Systems for HVAC and Water Supply and Sewage