Opinion

Climate Change and the Possibilities of Architectural History

The relatively unknown history of climate design strategies, the new types environmental media they produced, and how architectural discourse contributed to the growth of global knowledge of the environment.

As historians confront the geographic and epistemic changes of climate change and other environmental threats, the forces seen to condition the development of modern architecture are being re-conceived. The history of design methods to regulate ‘thermal comfort’ – the internal climatic conditions of the built environment – are increasingly relevant. From the 1930s to the 1960s, before mechanical systems of heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) were widely available, architects explored design methods to manage seasonal climatic changes and to provide comfortable living and working conditions in extreme locales. My recent research explores the relatively unknown history of these climate design strategies, and looks both at the new types environmental media they produced, and at how this architectural discourse contributed to the growth of global knowledge of the environment.

The post-war years saw extensive experimentation in how architectural practices could project buildings with a more precise relationship to their surrounding ecological conditions – in the efficiency of production, in the use of solar power, and, the primary subject of this book, in the alignment of the form, orientation, and materials of a building to its climate. As part of these new methods, forms of representation were developed that sought to clarify the possible social, material, and economic relationships that could result. It was through these images, as much as through the buildings that were constructed, that new design methods sought to conceptualize new relationships and encourage new ideas about how to live. The drawings, diagrams, and photographs produced in this methodological discourse, quasi-technical in nature, led to new parameters for how architecture could operate in the social milieu, and also encouraged design professionals to consider new criteria for their designs.

The visual and technical strategies looking at relationships of architecture to climate not only had effects on the profession, but they were also essential to a broader understanding of how economies and ecologies interact. The way in which we conceive of, imagine, and represent the relationship between humans and the environment was seen as central to the social patterns, material conditions, and professional processes that allow us to live comfortably within it. Architecture became a primary discursive site through which discussions about the environment could take place. The images, concepts, and buildings developed out of these methodological discussions simultaneously allowed for productive engagements between architecture and adjacent fields, and also emphasized the importance of research to architectural innovation.

The architecture profession is currently undergoing a very interesting transformation. Many assumptions that have guided innovation in the field – in particular, the use of digital platforms for the production of novel form – are beginning to be questioned by practitioners, students, and scholars. An important goal of this research is to begin to substantiate an alternative history for the field, one that is focused on careful attention to environmental patterns, and on architecture as a means to interrogate and adjust the place of the human within these patterns.

The promise of reframing architectural historical knowledge in light of environmental pressures solicits an engagement with a wide set of epochal shifts. It is self-evident that architecture will look differently now that there is wide recognition of the impact of fossil fuels – including those burned to manage the air-conditioned interiors of modernism – on the planetary climate and the future of the species. Narratives and methods of architectural history offer a potent window into the environment as a constellation of historical agencies, especially insofar as scholarly engagement with methods and intentions evident in the built environment offer compelling evidence of cultural attempts to understand and shape collective relationships to earth systems. In other words, architecture has long been an essential site of conceiving of and enacting social relationships to the biosphere, and architectural histories open up opportunities for carefully tracing these relationships and their effects.

Environment and sustainability are, in this sense, ciphers for a number of ideas focused on rethinking relationships between political, cultural, and biotic systems. The architectural historical discourse can greatly expand and enrich this discussion by recognizing that architectural activity (broadly considered) has registered, if not in fact directly engaged, environmental issues both by professional necessity and as an expression of cultural desire. Much as the architectural history of the early and mid-20th century looked to the emergence of architectural modernism, in its myriad forms, as evidence for new conceptual and cultural approaches to modernization and industrialization, so does the architectural history of the early 21st century see, in the recent and distant past, evidence of how environmental considerations have had profound political and social effects. The specific opportunity here is not to add “environment” to a list of sub-issues for the field to engage, but to participate in a wide-ranging environmentalization of humanist and scholarly discourses.

Thus also the means by which architectural history can substantiate the promise of the emerging framework of the environmental humanities: at stake is not the reframing of courses or canons according to a new set of objects but, rather, the integration of knowledge about environmental conditions, their impact on social collectives and behaviors, and the symbolic means through which they are mediated into the production of knowledge. An important distinction of the environmental humanities, relative to familiar systems of knowledge, is a subtle yet pervasive instrumentalist imperative, by which these histories and the frameworks for historical understanding that they open up can also be attentive to the specific dynamics of, means of operating upon, and clarifications of the prospects for environmental and cultural change.

On Thursday 9 March 2017, 6.00 – 7.30pm Daniel will be presenting at a public lecture called the Environmental Histories of Architecture – Case Studies and Consequences. For details, click here.


Daniel A. Barber is an Assistant Professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design. He is an architectural historian researching the relationship between the design fields and the emergence of global environmental culture over the 20th century. His first book A House in the Sun: Modern Architecture and Solar Energy in the Cold War has just been published by Oxford University Press. A second book Climatic Effects: Architecture, Media, and the Great Acceleration, is forthcoming. He has published articles in Grey Room, Technology and Culture, The Avery Review, and Public Culture. He lectures internationally, including recent keynotes for Que Fait l’Énergie à l’Architecture? at ENSA- Paris-Belleville and at the symposium on Global Architecture in the 1970s at the Wellington University of Wellington. Daniel is involved in a number of collaborative projects including the Global Architectural History Teaching Collaborative, the Penn Program in the Environmental Humanities, and the Architecture and Environment Interest group of the EAHN. He is on the Advisory Board of the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians. He has held fellowships at the Harvard Center for the Environment, the Princeton Environmental Institute, the Courtauld Institute, and currently, at the Humboldt Fellowship at the Rachel Carson Center.