Keep Cool With Culture, Not Contraptions


Image credit Renoir, Luncheon of the boating party

I have been doing some over-the-phone consulting on Graham Hill's Lifeedited project, and the subject of air conditioning is on the table. I asked if the apartment he is renovating was going to be air conditioned, and one of the designers involved said "the program calls for being able to serve dinner for 12, and it's hard to do that in summer without air conditioning."

OK, but is that necessarily something you want to do in summer? I remembered a wonderful article by Barbara Flanagan in ID Magazine a couple of years back. (PDF here) She describes how people do summer in Barcelona without air conditioning.
Paris: Dining in the park. Image credit Lloyd Alter

Barcelona is a hot, humid seaside town where people have been deferring to heat for thousands of years....rather than rely on machines, and wreck their old architecture with window units and ducts, they design their habits, hardware, clothes, and attitude to cool themselves off. Now their deference seems sustainably avant-garde.

The secret to Catalan comfort is not a gadget, but a self-induced, mind-body state of discomfort suspension: heat tolerance. Accordingly they plan their seasonal vacations, daily routines, food, drinks and wardrobes for maximum cooling. In other words, it is the culture that cools, not the contraptions.



Paris: Dining in the streets. Image credit Lloyd Alter

Flanagan notes that they start work early, take a break in the afternoon, work some more, shop for dinner and then eat really, really late.

It is the antithesis of American life, which offers up every day as a shapeless continuum of snacking, working and shopping at 24-hour stores with season-free air.

Now I am not certain what would happen if Graham threw a dinner party at 10 PM and told everyone to come in undershirts and eat gelato, but I suspect that the few people who showed up would have a lot of fun.


Muskoka, 9 AM this morning. Image credit Lloyd Alter

It would be completely hypocritical of me to give advice about living without air conditioning in New York City, especially in a summer like this. I do what a lot of rich New Yorkers used to do, namely get out of town to the Adirondacks or as far away as Muskoka, Canada, where I write this from. I am not suffering.

But I cannot help but feel that Barbara Flanagan is right, that we should keep cool with culture, not contraptions. I will let her conclude:

What happens when humans treat themselves like dairy products chilled behind glass?
Civilization declines.

The proof is in Barcelona. Spend five glorious weeks in its barely mitigated heat, as I did last summer, then return home and refrigerate yourself in the relentless mono-temperature now anesthetizing the continent. Conclusion?

A/C is the killing frost sure to wilt the last fragile shoots of American culture.


More on Air Conditioning:

Quotes of the Day: On the Evils of Air Conditioning
How Air Conditioning Changed How and Where We Live
The Deluded World of Air Conditioning Revisited

Follow me on Twitter! @lloydalter

Tags: Air Conditioning | LifeEdited | Urban Life

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