Graduate Architecture

Posted August 11, 2020
  • Victor and Aladar Olgyay, Thermoheliodon, Princeton Architectural Laboratory, 1956, from Colliers magazine.

Excerpt: Daniel Barber on Design Before Air Conditioning

In his new book, Modern Architecture and Climate: Design before Air Conditioning (Princeton University Press, 2020), Daniel Barber, associate professor of architecture, charts the ways that twentieth century architects incorporated climate-mediating strategies into their designs before the widespread use of air conditioning. In this excerpt, from Chapter 5, “Calculation,” Barber tells the story of how the diagrams made by architects Victor and Aladar Olgyay helped conceptualize climate knowledge.

The Hungarian émigré architects Victor and Aladar Olgyay, twin brothers, came to the United States in 1947 and quickly applied themselves to research on architecture and climate. They are central to the narrative of this book. Much of what has been discussed in previous chapters is also a story of their travels and intellectual development: they were committed Corbusians and admirers of Neutra; the shaded buildings of Brazil were essential to their postwar research; and, they worked closely with Siple while they were collaborating with the Solar Energy Fund at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Their research, first at MIT and then at Princeton, represents an apex in the midcentury interest in architecture-climatic design methods—an excited flurry of activity that would soon begin to recede behind formalisms and architectural sciences as they pulled apart. The characteristics of this climatic heyday are evident in their two books, Solar Control and Shading Devices (1957) and Design with Climate: Bioclimatic Approach to Architectural Regionalism (1963), and in the projects, consultations, diagrams, methods, and devices they pursued.

They are also central to this narrative because, in the Olgyays’ work, the diagram becomes a tool of integration. Their early 1950s experiments orbited around a sort of master diagram, the “Method of Climatic Interpretation in Buildings,” first drawn in 1952 and reprinted in their books, articles, and conference presentations. The drawing signaled a shift in methods of designing with climate and its representation. It is at once productive, instrumental, and a sort of map to explain the Olgyays’ frustration. Evident initially is the ambition—the desire to develop a universal means to assess a building’s microclimate and apply appropriate design strategies—and the cumbersomeness of executing that ambition, the number of steps and analyses it is seen to entail. It has already become clear that addressing microclimate in architecture presents a number of obstacles, on terms of available technology and in relation to historiography. The “Method of Climatic Interpretation in Buildings” diagram, and the Olgyays’ work in general, is a concentrated instance of these efforts and their seemingly intractable complications. While the Olgyays designed a number of buildings and consulted on even more, their diagrammatic methodological work was their primary occupation.

Among those complications is the precomputational nature of the drawing and the method it proposed. Although the computer was being used, increasingly across the end period of the Olgyays’ activity, to analyze and predict climatic parameters, it would not, generally speaking, be used for architectural design for another decade—not until the 1960s and early 1970s.(1) Victor Olgyay briefly used a FORTRAN computer in 1962 in an attempt to clarify the findings of UN-sponsored research related to his work in Venezuela, but he faced frustrations. The brothers were, in a sense, stuck in an epistemological model rooted in calculations, although the terms they use and the ambitions of their devices can be seen as protocomputational—the diagram represents a sort of analog programming that offers a series of shifting and contingent parameters as a result of precise data entry. It is, as an analog device, unable to effectively manage all of these variables, leading to overdetermined results; its historical weight is as much in its aspirations as what it was able to accomplish.

Some decades later, in the late 1990s, the basic method presented in the diagram would be rendered computational through the design and performance assessment software Eco-tect. The software platform was produced by an Australian architect, Andrew Marsh, who drew directly on the diagram and the Olgyays’ method as laid out in Design with Climate. A few compelling issues can be found in the development of Eco-tect: that the Olgyays’ work continued to be relevant to many architects and engineers long past the rise of air conditioning, and that the capacity for computational knowledge reopened the ambition to carefully adjust a building to itsmicroclimate. This long thread of influence leads to questions about the viability of the diagram and Eco-tect, relative to the more recent emergence of the computer as the site for design integration and experimentation. Eco-tect, in any event, became the  industry standard for environmental performancesoftware.(2) In 2008, it was purchased by AutoCAD and is now a part of their broader CAD packages, an integrated element rather than a stand-alone platform, with potential implications for the dissolution of the specificities of climate knowledge as it is, seemingly, seamlessly integrated into the design process.

The Olgyays’ ideas, innovations, and designs were generally well received from the 1930s to the 1960s. From the beginning of their career in Hungary, they received many prizes, awards, and grants as well as established academic positions and consultations on prominent projects; they were operating in rarefied architectural circles. While physical and meteorological principles were well integrated into their work, the field of climate architecture they pioneered was left fallow as engineering and architecture schools went through a decades-long lull in supporting such collaborations and shared climate knowledge overwhelmed, as these discussions were, by the end of the 1950s, with HVAC.(3)

Indeed, discussion of the Olgyays’ ambitions and methods is almost overwhelmed by the historical contingencies that have since emerged—contingencies relative to the processing power of computers; relative to the relationship between the Great Acceleration and climatic instability; and relative to an increasingly form-focused architectural discussion. Their method was developed at a moment when issues of climate and comfort were seen as an expression of the clarity and brilliance of an architectural idea. This was a moment of excitement over applying scientific knowledge to architecture, long an ambition of modernism, and essential to its logic of innovation.(4) The architectural manipulation of climate was seen as a means to improve a building’s interior, and also to demonstrate the adeptness of a designer who was attentive to specific traditions. Such issues were an aspect of how architecture was valued in the postwar world before it was overwhelmed by oil.

Comfort became an essential focus. Climate design methods were seen as a way to codify and regulate the thermal conditions of the interior, before producing them through design means. Comfort was just that—if not quite a luxury, then at least a sign of the relative sophistication of a given culture, a given client, an approach to space and its occupation. It was on these terms that the Olgyays’ commissions and consultations for suburban homes, urban towers, and development-aid-based proposals were received and disseminated as finding new means to increase comfort at low cost. Far removed from the condition of the early twenty-first century, where building culture has come to represent the complications of climate, energy, and political economy, their interest in climate was that it provided a medium in which architects could establish a new kind of relevance to the increasingly interdisciplinary analysis of the production of the built environment—a straightforward career opportunity and a robust attempt to completely rethink how architecture operates in defining and designing sociobiotic relationships.

(1) Historical interest in the emergence of the computer as a design tool has increased dramatically in the past decade. See, for example, Molly Wright Steenson, Architectural Intelligence: How Designers and Architects Created the Digital Landscape (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017); and Olga Touloumi and Theodora Vardouli, eds., Computer Architectures: Constructing a Common Ground (New York: Routledge, 2019).
(2) Another popular performance software is Energy Plus, created through the Department of Energy in 1997.
(3) See John Reynolds, “The Roots of Bioclimatic Design,” in Design with Climate: Bioclimatic Approach to Architectural Regionalism, by Victor Olgyay (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015): ix–xl, xi. Reynolds writes: “Ten years after Victor Olgyay’s death, the widely used Wiley textbook Mechanical and Electrical Equipment for Buildings, 6th Edition featured Olgyay’s map of the US’ four climate regions, and his recommended plan volume and shape characteristics for buildings in those four regions.”
(4) See, among many other possible examples, Walter Gropius’s essay from 1937, “Is There a Science to Design?” (published in The Scope of Total Architecture in 1954). Much of the behavioralist tendencies of the 1960s and ‘70s would also claim a scientific basis for their purported effects.