As summer falls on us like the proverbial wet blanket (that just happens to be a giant electric blanket heated to the point that moving, let alone working, seems like an expendable activity) we flee into air-conditioned comfort. After an all-too-brief spring of outdoor fun and social activities, most of us have retreated to the cocoons where we work and live, protected by air conditioning and connected to the invisible webs of water, sewage, electricity, and digital signals that keep us alive as part of a larger social construct.
Without air conditioning, large parts of this country would be considered uninhabitable by most of us. You could call it laziness or a lack of toughness, but why else would people go to arid terrains where there is little water and little else to keep you there, unless they could flee from poolside to chilled bedroom? Arizona and Nevada would be once again as empty as they were until the decade after the second World War.
Where I live—in a city that, though technically in the Midwest, is just across the Ohio River from the South—houses used to be designed to maximize shade and breezes, so that you could live here without any artificial means of cooling. Unfortunately, our midcentury modern house was designed by an architect, Carl Straus, who already assumed that we would be using central air and heat—and that oil was cheap. The flat-roofed structure has single glass and no insulation in its flat roof. In addition, I work in a 19th century structure that remains sealed all day long, so that I do not know what the weather really is until I go home in the evening.
What is missing from this equation are those spaces that brought us from our houses and offices and into the streets. They range from the small-scale extensions of the house, such as the screened porch, to the yard and the street where we could play as children or just socialize as adults, to the places of communal gathering such as riverfront parks and beaches. What air conditioning and, to a lesser extent, central heating, killed, in other words, was what we nostalgically think of as public space.
Public space is not completely dead, of course, but it has become a rarer thing to go to a street festival or an outdoor concert, or to chat with your neighbors outside. Writing this in air-conditioned luxury, I am as guilty of the retreat as anyone.
The first task for architects is clear: Design structures that use natural ventilation and shading, that store and release heat as well as cold, and that make use of such natural resources as geothermal wells. But I am not so sure that the opening up of our closed boxes, however necessary, will provide a solution. In a society in which we are bowling alond—and, eating, drinking, working, and surfing the Internet alone as you are right now—those porches might not get much use unless you sit there surfing on your netbook.
So, is there a solution? I would argue that architects need to be part of thinking about what it means to reinvigorate public space as much as they need to use their technical expertise to make more sane environments. If architects really know how to make places and spaces, can’t they do something about public space? Can’t they reinvigorate the places where we might gather so that we might want to actually be there? On the fringes and in other fields, models are developing. Practices such as Raumlabor in Germany are attempting to do this, and the Indianapolis Museum of Art this next weekend opens a sculpture park full of reasons to get out of the cool to see some hot art. Solving the cooling problem is only a start: making it worth being with others in the real world is the real task for architecture today.