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Natural history of architecture

How climate, epidemics and energy have shaped our cites and buildings

The history of architecture and the city as we’ve known it since the second half of the twentieth century has more often than not been re-examined through the prisms of politics, society and culture, overlooking the physical, climatic and health grounds on which it is based, from city design to building forms.

40,000 B.C. - First Upper Paleolithic settlements

How our homeothermic nature gave birth to architecture

[BUILDING  TO RECREATE A CLIMATE] Evolution of the first constructions, from the so-called [BUILDING TO RECREATE A CLIMATE] Evolution of the first constructions, from the so-called "primitive" huts to the orders of classical architecture. Plate by William Chambers, in A Treatise on Civil Architecture, London, 1759, pl. 1, Royal Collection Trust. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2020
To understand the origin of architecture, we must return to our «homoeothermic» condition and our need to maintain our body temperature at 37°C. In order to do this,  regardless of external conditions, the human body regulates its internal bodily functions related to thermoregulation (vasodilation, sweating, muscle contractions, catecholamine secretion) and external means, in particular food, clothing, migration and, of course, architecture. In order to take shelter from the winds that cool the skin by convection, to get protection from the rain that accelerates the cooling of the body by conduction or to hide from the sun whose rays burn by radiation, humans erect roofs and walls.

6,000 B.C. - Appearance of agriculture

How wheat gave rise to the city

[ABBEYS AND MONASTERIES  AS GRANARIES] Plan of the E-nun-mah temple of the city of Ur, drawn up by Sir Charles Leonard Woolley, archaeologist in charge of the British excavations carried out between 1922 and 1934. In Ur Excavations, vol. VI: The Buildings of the Third Dynasty, British Museum and University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 1974, pl. 58. Courtesy of the Penn Museum, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. DRDinocrat [ABBEYS AND MONASTERIES AS GRANARIES] Plan of the E-nun-mah temple of the city of Ur, drawn up by Sir Charles Leonard Woolley, archaeologist in charge of the British excavations carried out between 1922 and 1934. In Ur Excavations, vol. VI: The Buildings of the Third Dynasty, British Museum and University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 1974, pl. 58. Courtesy of the Penn Museum, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. DRDinocrat
The very first cities were born along with agriculture, at the turn of the Neolithic, dating back 10,000 BCE. Humans went from living in societies of nomadic hunter-gatherers migrating with the seasons, to a life of farmers and pastoralists. Underlying this change is a milder climate. Moist air from the Atlantic and the Mediterranean caused heavy rainfall in the western Middle East: in Egypt, as far north as Mesopotamia, and Sumer and Babylon to the east. The plains of this sunny and humid “fertile crescent” were covered with vegetation. The city then played the role of a fortified granary, in which the peasants deposited their harvest to ensure it was protected from looting and weather hazards.

250 B.C. / 400 After J.C - Optimum climatique romain

What public space owes to the search for coolness

[THE BASILICA, A REFRESHING PUBLIC SPACE] The Pantheon in Rome, commonly referred to as the “Rotonda”, 126 CE. Engraving by Francesco Piranesi, circa 1790. University of Melbourne Library Coll. (Australia), Baillieu Print Collection.
In Ancient Rome, the civil Roman basilica, which was a vast covered space with various functions, including trade, justice and leisure (as a place to go for a stroll), served as a public place as much as the open space of the Forum. Its ability to offer a haven of coolness during the summer heat naturally gives it a unifying status. The public desire to provide each district with a cool place seems to have increased starting in the Renaissance: in Rome in particular, there are more than nine hundred churches dating from the Baroque period..

950 - 1315 - Medieval agricultural revolution

How pulses caused the rise of gothic architecture

At the fall of the Roman Empire at the end of the fifth century, the inhabitants of Western Europe were scattered in some of the most remote lands. They sought refuge from the constant looting, and experienced great physical weakness as a result of food shortages and famines. The perpetual state of hunger and these weak muscular capacities brought about a pithy, low-rise architecture, carried out without unnecessary expenditure of energy. The Revolution of the year 1000, which featured the invention of the plough and the development of three-field crop rotation, introduced legumes into the diet. Their high protein content provided the muscle strength that helped elevate the cathedrals that have been preserved to this day. These buildings reflect the direct and fundamental link between built form and the tools and energy required.

14th century - Little ice age, first phase

When decorative arts weren't just decorative

[AT THE ORIGINS  OF DECORATION] « À mon seul désir ». Sixth tapestry in The Lady with the Unicorn tapestry series, around 1484–1500. © RMN-Grand Palais (musée de Cluny-musée national du Moyen Âge)/Michel Urtado. [AT THE ORIGINS OF DECORATION] « À mon seul désir ». Sixth tapestry in The Lady with the Unicorn tapestry series, around 1484–1500. © RMN-Grand Palais (musée de Cluny-musée national du Moyen Âge)/Michel Urtado.
[FABRIC, A BARRIER  AGAINST THE COLD] Princess Mathilde’s Living Room in the Mansion on Rue de Courcelles. Oil on canvas by Sébastien Charles Giraud, 1859. © RMN-Grand Palais (domaine de Compiègne) / Gérard Blot / Christian Jean. [FABRIC, A BARRIER AGAINST THE COLD] Princess Mathilde’s Living Room in the Mansion on Rue de Courcelles. Oil on canvas by Sébastien Charles Giraud, 1859. © RMN-Grand Palais (domaine de Compiègne) / Gérard Blot / Christian Jean.
Up to the advent of modern thermal regulation technologies, interior decoration played a key role in providing coatings for the internal surfaces of buildings, including the tapestries of the Middle Ages, the boiseries of the Renaissance, and the fabric-lined walls of the nineteenth century. During the twentieth century, the improved efficiency in heating, lighting and ultimately, cooling appliances, allowed for just about any creative whim in even the most hostile climates, and thus also the so-called “decorative art”, “decorative style” or “interior decoration”. That is to say, anything that comes under the finishings and fittings of the building, or even under finishes and artworks, as they are not load-bearing nor structural.

16th century - Rediscovery of Hippocratic medicine

What light dome owe to the fear of stagnant air

The conception that good health is linked to the air we breathe is believed to come from Hippocrates, a Greek physician born in the fifth century. It was rediscovered in Italy during the Renaissance, when his texts were first translated in Latin, especially On Airs, Waters, and Places. A real treatise on town planning, it explains where and how to build cities, depending on the prevailing winds and the quality of the water. Priority is then given to the symmetry of buildings and the alignment of windows in order to promote ventilation. Concurrently, with the neoclassical rewriting of architectural forms in the eighteenth century, «building mechanization» techniques concerned with air renewal appeared. Domes served to draw up miasmas in hospitals, before being generalized to all large public buildings. The theory of “bad air”, which was solely responsible for contagion, remained widespread until the early twentieth century, and has influenced the way collective housing is configured.

1771 - Discovery of photosynthesis

How a sprig of mint invented the urban parks of the 19th century

[WHEN CITY AIR  WAS COAL-BLACK]Factory smokestacks in an industrial city in England. Wood engraving by Roth, circa 1880. ©  INTERFOTO / Alamy Stock Photo. [WHEN CITY AIR WAS COAL-BLACK]Factory smokestacks in an industrial city in England. Wood engraving by Roth, circa 1880. © INTERFOTO / Alamy Stock Photo.
[PARKS TO LIVE LONG LIVES] Victoria Park, London (UK), Sir James Pennethorne, architect, 1842–1845. Plan showing the proposed layout for Victoria Park, circa 1840. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. [PARKS TO LIVE LONG LIVES] Victoria Park, London (UK), Sir James Pennethorne, architect, 1842–1845. Plan showing the proposed layout for Victoria Park, circa 1840. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
In the eighteenth century, Scottish physician and chemist Joseph Black, established that air consisted of two gases that would be later referred to as oxygen and carbon dioxide. Calling CO2 “fixed air”, in 1756, he found that it extinguished candles and killed animals. English chemist and physicist Joseph Priestley observed that mice can live longer under a closed bell containing plants than under a bell without any. He also observed that all plants (he first used a sprig of mint) have the power to “clean” the air of that part which was then believed to be toxic, that is to say, to transform the fixed or mephitic air (carbon dioxide) into dephlogisticated air, later identified and named oxygen by Antoine Lavoisier. This major discovery formed the basis for the understanding of photosynthesis and influenced scientists at the time, who immediately drew a number of lessons in terms of land planning. The creation of city parks is due primarily to this health concern: trees are “devices” for “improving the air”.

1815 - Eruption of the Tambora Volcano

When a volcano eruption created the modern city

[VOLCANO ERUPTION: A YEAR WITHOUT A SUMMER] “The march of cholera-morbus from India to Europe, 1831”. Bibliothèque nationale de France Coll. (Paris, France).
In 1815, the cataclysmic eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia projected a mantle of dust into the stratosphere that decreased solar radiation for several years and destabilized the global climate ecosystem. In the Bay of Bengal, the disruption of the monsoon season resulted in a formidable mutation of the cholera germ, and the epidemic soon reached Moscow. The disease spread throughout Europe, starting in 1832. To overcome the disease, which was thought to be ensconced in the stagnant air of narrow alleys, and in order to dispel their stench, metropolises such as London and Paris initiated major urban transformations that shaped the second half of the nineteenth century, in particular the planning of wide «windswept boulevards». Though it only caused a drop in temperatures of 2 °C, as revealed by Gillen d’Arcy Wood in Tambora: The Eruption That Changed the World (2014), the eruption of Mount Tambora changed the course of history and the makeup of cities at the eve of the twentieth century.
[BEHIND HAUSSMANN’S RENOVATION OF PARIS, CHOLERA] Boulevard Haussmann, close to No.4, 8th arrondissement of Paris. Photography by Charles Marville, circa 1877. © Charles Marville/BHVP.

1820 - Discovery of the therapeutic value of iodine

How iodine caused the urbanization of more territories

[URBAN DEVELOPMENT  AND THE QUEST FOR OCEAN SPRAY] Le casino municipal et les bains de la grande plage de Biarritz, Photographie, vers 1901 © Neurdein / Roger-Viollet [URBAN DEVELOPMENT AND THE QUEST FOR OCEAN SPRAY] Le casino municipal et les bains de la grande plage de Biarritz, Photographie, vers 1901 © Neurdein / Roger-Viollet
The beach and the Kursaal in Ostend (Belgium). Felix Laureys and Joseph-Jean Naert, architects. Photograph, circa 1890-1900 © Neurdein / Roger-Viollet The beach and the Kursaal in Ostend (Belgium). Felix Laureys and Joseph-Jean Naert, architects. Photograph, circa 1890-1900 © Neurdein / Roger-Viollet
The beach and the Grand Hotel de Cabourg, Charles Bertrand, architect, 1907. Photograph, circa 1900 © Neurdein / Roger-Viollet The beach and the Grand Hotel de Cabourg, Charles Bertrand, architect, 1907. Photograph, circa 1900 © Neurdein / Roger-Viollet
Dieppe’s beach and casino, Alexandre Durville, architect. Autotype, 1884. © Historical image collection by Bildagentur-online/Alamy Stock Photo. Dieppe’s beach and casino, Alexandre Durville, architect. Autotype, 1884. © Historical image collection by Bildagentur-online/Alamy Stock Photo.
In the nineteenth century, the discovery of the healing properties of iodine transformed territories that had been relatively sparsely populated until then: seashores and mountainous regions. To allow patients to reach these naturally iodized sites, rail networks were developed. The real estate developers of the seaside resorts worked in agreement with the then still private railway companies and were sometimes even one and the same party—up until nationalization of rail in 1937. For instance, the Pereire brothers, Parisian bankers and the promoters of many Haussmannian works, founded the Compagnie des chemins de fer du Midi in 1852, connecting Bordeaux to Arcachon among other places, and funded the construction of the Arcachon seaside resort in 1860. As early as 1936, the French coast, which represents 4% of the national territory, is almost three times more populated (193 inhabitants per km2) than the rest of France (77 inhabitants per km2 on average). Between 1968 and 1999, it experienced twice the national average population growth rate.

1887 - Marketing of white ripolin

Why modern architecture is white in colour

Following an unexpected analogy with the air-dried meat of Graubünden, which is preserved from rotting through exposure to direct sunlight and the outside air, modern architects seek to replicate the virtues of the sanatoriums of the early twentieth century in their constructions. Their buildings are painted white, for two reasons that are also related to hygiene. Firstly, because it has been known since the beginning of the nineteenth century that whitewash, which is naturally white, is a powerful antiseptic and its use is recommended to destroy any miasma that could become embedded in the walls. Secondly, white amplifies the rays of the sun, which are believed to be bactericidal, especially against the tuberculosis germ. Today, the interest in natural light is returning because it is loaded with energy that can be freely captured to heat homes in winter, reducing heating needs and therefore also the emissions of greenhouse gases.
[WHITE IS BACK TO TACKLE A WARMING ENVIRONMENT] Roofs being painted in white by volunteers engaged in the NYC CoolRoofs initiative, Bronx, New York (US). © Ken Cavanagh / Alamy Stock Photos.

1902 - Invention of air conditioning

When oil caused cities to grow in the desert

[URBANIZATION THROUGH  THE DISCOVERY OF OIL] Oil derrick in Signal Hill (California, US). Photography, circa 1925. City of Signal Hill, California. All rights reserved. [URBANIZATION THROUGH THE DISCOVERY OF OIL] Oil derrick in Signal Hill (California, US). Photography, circa 1925. City of Signal Hill, California. All rights reserved.
Las Vegas Boulevard and railroad tracks built by the Union Pacific Railroad Company, Las Vegas, Nevada, USA. Aerial photograph, 1955. UNLV Special Collections & Archives. DR Las Vegas Boulevard and railroad tracks built by the Union Pacific Railroad Company, Las Vegas, Nevada, USA. Aerial photograph, 1955. UNLV Special Collections & Archives. DR
[AIR CONDITIONING  AND THE AMERICAN SOUTHSanta Monica Boulevard, between Beverly Hills and Westwood, Los Angeles (California, US) Photography from 1927. Library of Congress Coll., Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. (USA). All rights reserved. [AIR CONDITIONING AND THE AMERICAN SOUTHSanta Monica Boulevard, between Beverly Hills and Westwood, Los Angeles (California, US) Photography from 1927. Library of Congress Coll., Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. (USA). All rights reserved.
[AIR CONDITIONING ERASES THE IDIOSYNCRATIC FEATURES OF REGIONAL ARCHITECTURE] Aerial view of the city of Abu Dhabi (United Arab Emirates). Photography circa 1960. Jorge Abud Chami Collection. Courtesy of the Arab Image Foundation. [AIR CONDITIONING ERASES THE IDIOSYNCRATIC FEATURES OF REGIONAL ARCHITECTURE] Aerial view of the city of Abu Dhabi (United Arab Emirates). Photography circa 1960. Jorge Abud Chami Collection. Courtesy of the Arab Image Foundation.
Though humans have known how to heat the air artificially since prehistoric times, there were no technical means of cooling air until the beginning of the twentieth century, except putting it in contact with ice that had been stored during the winter in underground coolers or transported by boat from regions with cold climates. In 1902, Willis Carrier, an engineer employed by an American ventilation company, invented air conditioning. He managed to control air humidity levels and unexpectedly found that he could also lower its temperature. Air-conditioning units provide cooling via convection — by blowing air like a fan — but especially via conduction —  lowering the temperature of the air. As early as 1955, one in twenty-two Americans had air conditioning and in the South, one out of ten. A full 9% of buildings in the southern United States were equipped with air conditioning by the mid-1970s. Globally, the number of air conditioners has tripled over the past thirty years and now represent 10% of global power use, along with fans, as at 2016.

1950 - Compulsory vaccination against tuberculosis

How antibiotics have paved the way for a return to the city

The French reconstruction after the Second World War was carried out based on a modernist health programme that was already obsolete when it was initiated, given that antibiotics and vaccines, which had become widespread starting in the 1950s, had largely freed human beings from the health issues that had forged the urban principles since the nineteenth century, increasing life expectancy from an average of 40 years in 1900 to upwards of 80 in 2000. This last modernity will be supplanted by postmodernism, which is marked with a return to the city starting in the 1970s, as we can now all return to live in the winding, dark alleys of the old historic centres as they have shed all their negativity thanks to antibiotics. Architecture was then able to focus on values of symbolic or cultural images and social uses rather than on health and climatic values.

1997 - Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change

What if CO2 was to create an architectural wake-up call

[THE LINK BETWEEN ARCHITECTURE AND CLIMATE REACTIVATED DUE GLOBAL WARMING] Global temperature change over the past 2,000 years. Sources: EPICA, Dome C, Antarctica / NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies / Alfred Wegener Institute climate model © Philippe Rahm architectes, 2020.
The sector relating to sheltering of human activities, which can be encompassed under the term of architecture, globally emits 39% of global greenhouse gas emissions, mainly for heating or cooling. By contrast, the aviation industry amounts to only 2%. Architecture is therefore at the forefront in the fight against global warming, which is reflected in the implementation of thermal regulations, new standards and recommendations that as a first step seek to limit energy consumption, which is still 85% dependent on fossil fuels. A new architectural style is now appearing, where the meteorological parameters of space, air, light, heat, humidity, their behaviours and physical characteristics, such as convection, conduction, pressure, emissivity, effusivity and diffusivity, become the new tools of architectural and urban composition.
[THE IMPORTANCE OF THERMALLY INSULATING BUILDINGS] Low-energy house. Sources: Minergie-Suisse / Passivhaus-Allemagne © Philippe Rahm architectes, 2020.
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