Summer 2001

Better than Weather

The Austin Air-Conditioned Village

Srdjan Jovanovic Weiss

The modern phase of the human struggle to make the interior independent from the exterior began in 1902 when Willis Carrier invented mechanical air conditioning. Fifty years later, a group of 21 houses in Austin, Texas—despite a master plan that resembled many other suburban developments—became famous as the site of a radical experiment designed to determine how best to expand the domain of air conditioning into private homes. This experiment in everyday living under mechanical conditions was a joint proposal in 1953 between the chairmen of two institutions—a US government housing agency called The National Association of Home Builders [NAHB] and the University of Texas at Austin. NAHB had established a body called the Committee on Air Conditioning, whose chairman, Ned A. Cole, an architect, approached Werner W. Dornberger, then chairman of the Department of Architectural Engineering at the University of Texas, to come up with a practical proposal for implementing fully integrated, “central” air conditioning in homes, instead of the simple window units in use until then. These large-scale systems had previously been available only in commercial and public spaces, not on the family scale.

The quest for man-made weather was part of a broader socio-cultural pursuit of liberty; a long harbored aspiration to autonomy from our utter dependency on the environment.[1]This ambition was finally fulfilled by way of America’s post–World War II industrial expansion, when air conditioning was reportedly the second fastest growing industry in the United States, after television.[2] During the war, air conditioning systems were taken out of theaters and department stores, their sole zones of use, to cool arms factories all across the country. In 1945, air conditioning returned to civil society. Thanks to technologies developed during the war, the production of air conditioning units boomed and they were once again cooling down customers at theaters and department stores with a vengeance.

Elevators made buildings taller, escalators extended the street level into a dense yet smoothly connected commercial zone, but it is air conditioning that made interiors deeper and less dependent on the outside weather. Rapid separation from the outside was welcome. Increasing the interior depth in theaters, the workplace, and shopping spaces in fact made the outside irrelevant. The perceived superiority of the air-conditioned world was reflected in the reception accorded it by the American public. Demand was so high that the American air conditioning industry could not keep up.[3] Merchants, for instance, immediately adopted man-made weather because it was so well-suited to their desire for controlled interior spaces and inescapable conditions. With the growth in air technology, commerce finally overcame its traditional obstacle—namely, an architecture that had always been held in check by the limited number of storefronts. The power to create larger and larger volumes of cool air made it unnecessary to be open to the outside in order to attract customers. This increasing volume of air meant increasing the volume of customer spending—commerce’s main objective.

But if public spheres like shopping could be successful in erasing the memory of the outdoors, residential housing could not. The main obstacle was Americans’ obstinate attachment to traditional individual housing. Unlike modern European urbanism, which literally took away the ground from below the feet of the middle class and replaced it with Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation, in American urban planning the traditional house mutated into the ubiquitous suburban house of today, a baffling hybrid of form and function. Such atomistic dwelling units could not be incorporated into one large air-conditioned system as had been the case in commercial zones. Residential housing remained the only “territory” in the 1950s on which the booming advances in air conditioning had had no effect. Instead, the omnipresent window air conditioning unit developed back in the 1930s—characterized by the authors of the Austin study as “one of the saddest chapters in the sordid history of air conditioning for dwellings”—remained the only viable option.[4] Since the population did not show any resistance to being lured in by the cool air of shopping and administrative spaces, they observed, the tremendous resistance to home air conditioning was in effect a psychological resistance to being physically sealed from the outside. Traditional architectural features that provided ventilation, like opening a window to get fresh air, remained indispensable.

In a mechanized building, openly welcomed in the commercial realm, traditional forms such as windows that opened were initially eliminated from new air-conditioned buildings. But where the windowless façade of the office gave no choice to the employees, the population at home was not ready to give up the window. Adapting technology to these diehard habits proved impossible and it became clear that the cultural behavior of throwing open windows had to be curbed. Instead of adapting air conditioning to the living world, the objective became to adapt the living to the air-conditioned world.

This involved the creation of a new kind of man and woman living in a comfortable indoor climate while still forming a traditional American post-war nuclear family. The fundamental change was that this nucleus had to be sealed. To be able to market the hermetically sealed indoors as superior to the outdoors, the industry had to elevate air conditioning from a luxury to a necessity and redefine the idea of comfort. That the only more productive branch of industry at the time than air conditioning was television was a coincidence that proved essential for co-marketing them. Functional windows were said to be inferior to picture windows, sealed so as not to interfere with the emerging Tele-comfort of information and entertainment. The iconic new middle-class house, essentially a tract house made cheaply from lightweight construction and with large picture windows, overheated. No surprise then that a “small house with its sealed picture window and low roof, is a TV-equipped hotbox that both demands and lends itself economically to a cooling system.”[5]

Graph of electrical usage in studies of air conditioning at the University of Texas at Austin.

In the foreword to a summary report on the Austin Air-Conditioned Village Project, the president of NAHB, Joseph B. Haverstick, commends the research taken up by the architects and scientists “in the interest of furthering knowledge about the design and construction of air-conditioned housing and the comfort and well being of people.”[6] In the Air-Conditioned Village, “the well being of the people” was approximated, as its architect Ned A. Cole wrote, by a series of technical, medical and psychological tests administered to the Village’s residents.[7] Announcing the Air-Conditioned Village Project, House and Home magazine wrote, “Families, too, will be studied. Physicians form the Texas Medical Association will see families periodically to determine how a cool house influences allergy sufferers. […] University of Texas psychologists will study how air conditioning affects the mental health and spirits of the occupants. Other studies may be made.”[8] “Do children eat better in air-conditioned houses?” was one of the questions that the “medical investigators” were trying to investigate “as they call[ed] on Village families to check human reactions.”[9] The published results from the research on the improvements in the “psychological well-being” of the Air-Conditioned Villagers showed that very little remained of the nostalgic desire for functional windows. Furthermore, it was reported that families in the Village improved their social skills. They cooked more, baked more, ate heavier foods, drank more warm drinks, and overall stayed inside the house more. They were less present for the outside; the outside, too, became less present for them. The families attended fewer movies, organized fewer picnics, and overall stayed at home more with, it was noted, no resulting weight gain. They also slept more hours, had more daytime naps, and in 19 out of 20 inquiries answered “Yes” to the question, “Do you awake rested?[10] The research also explored gender issues. It was reported that the hobbies of housewives in air-conditioned homes increased from four to nine, although what precisely the new hobbies were remained unreported.

Such social rituals within a family home were key to marketing residential air conditioning at a national level, as well as to the argument that a family should abandon traditional hot-weather strategies such as ventilation or the occasional opening of windows. Certain regions such as southern California which enjoyed a paradisiacal climate also posed a problem that needed to be addressed. Disrupting the view of California as a weather paradise became possible in 1959 with the appearance of the US Weather Bureau’s so-called Discomfort Index. The index measured human discomfort resulting from the combined influence of temperature and humidity.[11] The Discomfort Index popularized the idea of the “comfort zone” that had started in the 1920s. After the war the index met with harsh political criticism and the US Weather Bureau was forced to change its name into the more neutral “Temperature-Humidity Index.”[12]

In hot climates such as Texas, residential air conditioning was accepted quickly, but it remained difficult to convince families in other parts of the US that “indoor weather” was in any way comparable to the outdoors. The former would always signify a less natural or inferior version of the latter: “Some persistent element in people makes them want to open windows on a beautiful morning. Women, it seems, are especially stubborn about this.”[13] This resistance put the window on trial and necessitated severing its two functions: seeing through had to be separated from breathing through.

This is where the artificial cooling system reached its proto-paranoiac moment: It had to be made clear that even opening the window slightly and breaking the seal would lead to the collapse of the machine, understood here as both the air conditioner and as the mindset demanded by air conditioning. Technical experts had to encourage a new mode of correct behavior, which stood in direct opposition to traditional conduct such as opening a window or sitting outside on the patio. In the Austin Air-Conditioned Village, only 3 houses out of 21 abandoned control over the interior and gave in to the exterior. Only one family was reported to have talked about the indoor air as “stale.”[14]

When comparing air-conditioned weather to the outside weather, the former could not be identified as a version of the latter since that would imply inferiority. A term such as “fresh air” always implies the rejection of the interior. To emancipate the interior, “outside” had to be redefined, if not entirely deleted. This was a process that had started as early as 1923 when American heating and ventilating engineers had attacked the “imprecision” of the term “fresh air.”[15] Before the war, faith in fully mechanized everyday living had already split American public opinion in half, with the nostalgia for fresh air branded as having what some called “an anti-technical spirit.” Therefore, the air conditioning industry was pleased to hear news of the rejection of the term “fresh air” in the 1930s by the technicians of indoor air. The term “fresh” would no longer specify the outdoors. The attempt to launch the term “outside air,” however, also failed. When it became unclear how to address the outside, the only solution was not to address it at all.

Part of the strategy for commodifying and selling indoor weather required that it acquire some of the utopian veneer of technology. Soon the indoor climate was declared to be superior to nature.[16] Man-made weather was achieved with state-of-the arts technologies and could be promoted as cleaner and purer than any outside. No other means of marketing could correct traditional behavior such as opening a window more quickly than declarations about the purified state of man-made weather.

The reports from women at the Austin Air-Conditioned Village testifying to less dirt and dust in the house in turn translated into a language of visual purity. By virtue of being separated from outside dirt, white colors in bedrooms and living rooms became affordable. Previously seen as luxuries on the movie screen, white rugs, curtains, and upholstery became assets for a “perfect” bedroom, only available with the purchase of the air-conditioned house. These commodities became necessities; later reports showed that housewives at the Austin Air-Conditioned Village would spend more time at work in the house rather than less.

The air-conditioned American family slept 10% longer and soon air conditioning turned into a standard feature. Soon after the experiment at Austin, the standard definition of the middle-class family would include owning a washing machine, a two-car garage, and “central” air conditioning. By 1962, almost 6.5 million homes in the US, 60% of hotel rooms, and half of all office buildings were air-conditioned. A new design prophecy was spelled out. “Air conditioning will be a basic feature of modern home development” and the main factor in increasing work productivity.[17] Superiority became standardized. The air-conditioned family now looked forward to a future that promised a deeper and deeper interior, one liberated completely from the untamed exterior.

  1. In 1842, Dr. John Gorie (1803–1855) proposed to cool entire cities. See the proposal in a text attributed to him: “Refrigeration and Ventilation of Cities,” The Southern Quarterly Review, no. 1 (April 1842). Also see Gail Cooper, Air-conditioning America: Engineers and the Controlled Environment, 1900–1960 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998) pp. 8–9.
  2. “Air Conditioning: Booming Like Television,” Newsweek, 1 September 1950, p. 64.
  3. Robert Friedman, “The Air Conditioned Century,” American Heritage, no. 35 (1984), pp. 20–32.
  4. Department of Architectural Engineering of the College of Engineering, Bureau of Engineering Research, University of Texas, Austin, “Proposal for a Research Village Project,” October 1953, quoted in Gail Cooper, p. 155.
  5. Gilbert Burk, “The Air-Conditioned Boom,” Fortune, no. 47 (May 1953) p. 203. Quoted in Gail Cooper, p. 157.
  6. National Association of Home Builders, Research Institute, “Residential Air Conditioning: A Summary Report of the Austin Air Conditioned Village Project” (Washington, DC, 1956), p. i.
  7. NAHB, “Preface,” signed by Ned A. Cole, NAHB Research Institute Project Manager, p. iii.
  8. “What You Can Learn about Summer Cooling from NAHB’s Air-Conditioned Village,” in House and Home, vol. 6 (Aug 1954), p. 131.
  9. Ibid.
  10. “Residential Air Conditioning: A Summary Report,” op. cit., pp. 3–4.
  11. Cooper, p. 170.
  12. “Let’s Talk Humiture,” Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Business, August 1959, quoted in Gail Cooper, p. 171.
  13. Center for Research, “Consider the Air Conditioning Business as Your Career,” Careers Research Monographs no. 67 (Chicago, 1977), quoted in Gail Cooper, p. 172.
  14. Gail Cooper, p. 172.
  15. At the annual meeting of Heating and Ventilating Engineers, the members voted to delete the term “fresh air” from their official code. See Gail Cooper, p. 73.
  16. Gail Cooper, p. 108.
  17. “Free of oppressive heat and humidity, we sleep soundly through sultry nights and work at top efficiency on hot days. From the bristles in the toothbrush we use in the morning to the electronic alarm clock we set at night, thousands of everyday necessities are produced better and more economically because of air conditioning. Indeed, without air conditioning, many of these common products could not be produced at all.” See Carrier Bulletin, “Weathermakers: 75 Years” (Farmington, CT), p. 22.

Srdjan Jovanovic Weiss is an architect from Belgrade living in New York City. He is a founder of Normal Group for Architecture and one of the authors of the upcoming book Harvard Guide to Shopping with Rem Koolhaas and a group of thesis students from Harvard University. Jovanovic Weiss is a contributing editor of Cabinet.

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