Technical advancements have always guided architectural trends. Some advances have been more significant than others, and few of them have had quite as much of an impact as air conditioning. That may seem surprising, but it actually addresses several of the most important concerns that architects have when they work on large projects.
Why It Mattered
Ventilation and cooling have always been major challenges for architects. They are absolutely necessary for keeping the inhabitants comfortable, but natural options for getting them are limited. That is especially true of large buildings, which meant that only the most cunning architects could work on those projects.
Before Air Conditioning
Architects did have a few tricks at their disposal prior to the development of air conditioning. Many of them were quite old, with origins that dated back to Greece and Rome. Most of the buildings were designed with very long perimeters, which maximized their exposure to the environment. Architects relied on that technique because it gave them plenty of space for external windows that allowed air to flow in and out of the building. That encouraged both ventilation and cooling throughout the entire building, although the internal rooms did not benefit as much as those that were along external walls.
Unfortunately, these techniques restricted the size and shape of the buildings. Many of them had long, protruding segments to lengthen their perimeter, but that isn’t an efficient use of space in a cramped city. Many of those shapes are also incapable of supporting a tall building, which prevented them from compensating for their inefficient use of space by building upward. Even so, the techniques remained popular because there were no superior options at the time.
How Buildings Changed
AC systems changed everything for modern architects because it meant that they could properly cool and ventilate their buildings without designing the entire structure around that goal. Since they were no longer restricted to a small set of shapes, they could optimize their buildings to make the most efficient use of the available space. The shift began in the 1910’s and 1920’s, and continued for many years.
That simple change led to the development of the modern skyscraper. Instead of relying on long protrusions to ventilate the building, architects started to build square or rectangular structures that used machines to provide ventilation. That allowed them to squeeze every inch of space out of their properties. When they needed a way to get more space, they used the structural advantages of that floor plan to support taller buildings. Many of them still made use of natural methods to support their primitive air conditioning systems, but it was enough to start the trend.
Air conditioners continued to improve over time, which allowed buildings to rely on them to a greater extent. The first buildings that successfully depended on purely mechanical ventilation and cooling developed in the 1950’s, with the Lever House as the most famous early example. Those buildings were the first modern skyscrapers, and the newest examples are simply further developments of the style.