Book review essay: City, Climate, and Architecture; Coping with Urban Climates

reviewed by Noa Levin

17 May 2023, 3:35 p.m.
City, Climate, and Architecture book cover Coping with Urban Climates book cover

Roesler Sascha, City, Climate, and Architecture; A Theory of Collective Practice, Basel: Birkhäuser, 2022; 275 pp. ISBN: 978-3-0356-2414-4, £59.00/€68,00 (hbk).

Roesler Sascha, Kobi Madlen, and Stieger Lorenzo (eds.) Coping with Urban Climates, Comparative Perspectives on Architecture and Thermal Governance, Basel: Birkhäuser, 2022; 239 pp. ISBN: 978-3-0356-2421-2, £59.00/€68,00 (hbk).


In the recently published novel, To Paradise by Yanagihara (2022), 2093 New York is described as a city transformed by multiple pandemics and climate change. Outdoor temperatures are so high it is impossible to leave the house without a ‘cooling suit’, and an array of activities offered by ‘cooling centres’ provide citizens with rare opportunities to socialise. While it is easy to dismiss this image of urban life as one that belongs to a distant future, it is unquestionable that worldwide changing urban climates have increasing effects on the lives of urban inhabitants. In fact, more and more cities in the US and Europe, especially those in which air conditioning for private homes is less common, are already operating cooling centres – air conditioned spaces open to the public – during heat waves.

City, Climate, and Architecture and Coping with Urban Climates, two volumes which emerged from the same project, address the increasing effects of climate change on the everyday lives of urban residents by focusing on urban climatology through the prism of urban design and architecture. The science of urban climates, as represented by publications such as Urban Climates (2017), currently operates separately from the disciplines of urban design and architecture. By translating insights from urban climatology into the fields of urban studies, urban planning and architecture, the two books make an invaluable contribution. Together, they make the case that urban planners and architects must take climatological factors into account in order to adapt cities to the transforming climates in the present and future.

Each of the two volumes takes a different approach to the topic. City, Climate, and Architecture is a history and theory of modern urban climatology and its interaction with architecture and urban design, with a special focus on Europe, specifically Germany and Austria. Coping with Urban Climates is a comparative study exploring the relations between climate, architecture and society in four cities: Geneva, Santiago de Chile, Chongqing and Cairo. Both volumes are written in an engaging, clear manner and are accompanied by a vast selection of images, both historical and contemporary, which illustrate and support their arguments.

It is by now well-known that the effects of climate change, such as heatwaves and air pollution events, are intensified in cities. Specifically, much research has been dedicated the temperature gaps between urban areas and their surroundings, that are increasing globally and raising the risks of illness and mortality, often for lower income residents in particular (Marks, 2023; Mentaschi et al., 2022). However, as Roesler argues in City, Climate, and Architecture, the privileging of the notion of the ‘urban heat island’ as the main paradigm of 20th-century urban climatology reduces urban climate to a phenomenon of outdoor space. The dichotomy between controlled ‘man-made’ indoor environments and outdoor, ‘natural’ environments, which was emphasised since the 1970s and has only recently begun to be questioned, obfuscated the complex relations of indoors and outdoors that are in play in urban microclimates.

Perhaps this is one reason why urban climates are still not viewed as central to the practices of urban architecture and design, despite the intense critical attention dedicated to the climate crisis. When urban designers and architects focus on climate, it is predominantly in the sense of climate-controlled indoor environments. City, Climate, and Architecture and Coping with Urban Climates aim to rethink climate control as a phenomenon that transcends the interior–exterior dichotomy. Anthropogenic climate change means that climate in general, not only indoor climate, is to a large extent human-controlled, or constructed. As Roesler mentions in his introduction to Coping with Urban Climates, the term ‘man-made weather’, coined by engineer Willis Carrier, inventor of air conditioning, has in recent times taken on new meaning, since it is now acknowledged that practices of indoor climate control are a main contributor to climate change (p.25).

The two books constitute the first volumes in the newly founded series KLIMA POLIS, published by Birkhäuser. They are the result of a multi-year research project started in ETH Singapore and continued at the Academy of Architecture in Mendrisio, Switzerland. Driven by the same line of inquiry, the first volume takes an historical perspective, while the second focuses on the present. Both volumes contribute to the same argument that hinges on the collective nature of urban climate control, and hence that of the energy-source supply of urban architecture. The heritage of 20th-century architecture taught us to think of climate control as an individual matter that concerns what takes place between one’s own four walls. The authors suggest, on the contrary, that climate control must transcend distinctions between the public and private realms.

City, Climate, and Architecture sets the stage by offering a genealogy of the relationship between modern architecture and urban climates, beginning in the 19th century until our times. It is composed of two long sections, each broken up into shorter chapters. The first section is dedicated to pre-war and interwar Europe, and the second offers a global account of post-war urban climate theory and history. An epilogue offers a case-study of urban climate control in contemporary Singapore.

In recent years some (e.g. Chakrabarty, 2009) have suggested the man-made nature of climate was not reflected upon in the past. Roesler’s account shows that this is far from the case by investigating the roots of urban climatology in the 19th century. Here he agrees with French historians Fressoz and Locher (2020), who trace environmental reflexivity even further back, to the 15th century.

The concept of man-made climate (künstliches Klima in German) which was widely used in Europe, especially Germany and Austria, in the interwar period, therefore serves as a focus for the historical narrative. Roesler begins earlier, with Prussian architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s visit to Great Britain in 1826. As he remarks, although much has been written about this visit, Schinkel’s observations on the man-made microclimates of Britain’s industrial buildings have seldom drawn attention. In his diary, Schinkel notes for example ‘the famous hot air heating’ in a new hospital building in Derby (p.20), ‘the unbearable vapour and stench from the gas light’ at the Covent Garden Theatre (p.22) and the industrial landscape of Birmingham where ‘you can see the smoke of ironwork, which stretches for miles’ (p.22).

With industrialisation in the early-19th century, climate became more and more ‘man-made’, and environmental problems began to emerge. The first of these was the heavy air pollution due to incomplete combustion of heating fuels. The air was often foul both outdoors and in, because of reasons such as the use of affordable, polluting means of heating such as coal and wood. This gave rise to a concern with urban hygiene, highlighted by Roesler as the key interdisciplinary science through which urban microclimates were investigated and designed in the pre-war years.

The question of hygiene was the driver for the development of the foundations for urban climatology in Germany and Austria in the interwar period, with influential works such as Das Stadtklima (‘The Urban Climate’) by the geographer Kratzer (1937), and Das künstliche Klima in der Umgebung des Menschen (‘The Artificial Climate in the Human Environment’) by the meteorologists Brezina and Schmidt (1937). Architect and urban planner Ludwig Hilberseimer emerges, as well, as a key figure working at the intersection of the newly developing fields of urban design and urban climatology.

In The New City (1944) Hilberseimer notes the correlation between climatic and social conditions and structures of the city. Thus, he observes that the impoverished urban districts are often those with the highest density, the least access to sunlight, and, therefore the most unhygienic conditions. The manifestations of inequalities in climatic conditions constitute another thread that Roeseler follows across decades, with a later example being Alvin Boyarsky’s (1970)Chicago à la carte. The City as an Energy System, that offers a critique of the uneven distribution of energy infrastructures across Chicago. Recent studies demonstrate that these inequalities are unfortunately still present. The urban effects of climate change are unequally distributed, they show, with lower-income residents and people of colour more likely to live in the hottest neighbourhoods of US cities (Hsu et al., 2021; Saverino et al., 2021).

In the post-war years, Roesler suggests, alongside the internationalisation and institutionalisation of German speaking urban climatology, the central paradigm through which urban climates were understood changed dramatically. He describes the difference between the two approaches as a transition from thinking in terms of spatial proximity to thinking in terms of systems, or in other terms, from hygiene to ecology. But perhaps the biggest change resulted from the question of energy infrastructures (or rather ‘energy landscapes’, Michael Hough’s (1984) term that Roeseler adopts) entering the scene of urban climatology.

Energy wealth, and specifically oil-wealth, shaped the Western 20th-century city with its dependence on private cars and mechanical air conditioning. The meaning of climate control was transformed: if in the pre-war and interwar periods climate control was viewed as collective, and the notion of ‘man-made climate’ concerned a dialectic between indoors and outdoors, in the decades after the Second World War, climate control becomes a private issue confined to indoor environments and a matter of individual comfort rather than public hygiene.

Viewing the history of 20th-century architecture through the lens of climate control opens up another perspective on the infamous modern opposition between nature and culture, which Latour (2000) and others have highlighted, and how it is echoed in the dichotomy created between indoor air-conditioned, insulated spaces and outdoor climates. This binary replaced a thermal continuity between buildings and their environments, Roesler suggests, making the case for a return to such a continuous approach in the Epilogue.

Singapore serves as case study through which Roesler proposes to rethink the notion of natural ventilation in architecture. As he highlights, the housing sector in the city is mostly state-controlled, with 85% of housing units constructed by the ‘Housing Development Board (HBD)’ (p.215). The climate challenges in the city, which include intense heat and pollution, are tackled by a combination of popular practices of ventilation and state driven measures of bioclimatic design. Hybrid systems, combining air conditioning and natural ventilation, are increasingly used in HBD apartments. Although these seem to presuppose incompatible approaches to insulation, they might present a vision for a more sustainable urban future.

Meticulously researched and beautifully produced, City, Climate, and Architecture includes a wealth of documents and illustrations: photographs, sketches, architectural plans, manuscripts. It is a rich resource for students and practitioners of urban design and architecture as well as theorists and practitioners of urban climatology and history of climatology. The material is presented in short sections, making the volume more accessible to non-expert readers.

Coping with Urban Climates, despite being an edited volume, is a natural sequel to the first volume, and especially the latter’s Epilogue. If the first volume in an attempt to theorise a collective notion of climate control, that pertains to a group of buildings and the city as a whole, rather than the single building – the second volume puts forward the concept of ‘thermal governance’ as a model for collective climate control. Rather than the genealogical, theoretical approach of the first volume, the second interrogates the present from multiple perspectives, taking a more practical approach to the problem of urban climate change.

Each of the chapters of its first section focuses on a diverse selection of cities, which are used as empirical case studies – Geneva, Santiago de Chile, Chongqing and Cairo. Moreover, each author focuses on a different aspect of urban climates and thermal governance. The comparison between the cities is rendered easier through the second section, which elaborates the framework of comparison, first by introducing and discussing the concept of thermal governance, and then through the production of maps and visual aids through which a number of their socio-climatic elements are juxtaposed.

Building on the first volume, Coping with Urban Climates takes indoor and outdoor as a continuous environmental and epistemological realm. In the chapter on Chongqing, for example, social anthropologist Madlen Kobi examines the mutually influential relations between individual practices of indoor thermal control, and urban climate challenges such as pollution and heat island effects, in light of the state-led push for electrification in the past several decades. She dedicates special attention to the materiality of various buildings-types and how these inform the thermal practices of the residents.

The chapter focuses on two dominant architectural typologies: multi-story houses built between the 1950s and 1990s, and high-rises built since the 1990s. These replaced former dwellings, which were constructed from wood and bamboo and used natural ventilation, taking advantage of the cold air moving up the hills from the river. With high-rise architecture the city became denser and hotter, and Chongqing, like many other cities in the world, became caught in the vicious cycle in which air conditioning is used by residents as a coping strategy against the extreme heat, but the more it is used, the more heat is emitted into the environment, worsening the heat island effect.

Kobi’s examination of the energy transition to electricity, using an ethnographical approach, enables her to analyse thermal governance on multiple scales, considering thermal structures, practices and regimes. She concludes that although decarbonisation policies benefit all city residents, they are accompanied by social justice implications that must be addressed. Not all residents have the means for electricity-based indoor thermal control, and those without means are most affected by the increasingly difficult climatic conditions. This provides a more nuanced picture of the possible carbon-free future, showing that it is not necessarily, as often depicted, the magic solution to all urban climate related problems, and demonstrating that urban climates and energy transitions are interwoven and must be considered in tandem.

The four portraits of urban climates are accompanied by many images, mostly photographs, both historical and contemporary. These contribute to the historical and ethnographical research, and specifically, to the analyses of thermal practices and transformations in human behaviour that relate to coping with the changing urban climates. Photos of makeshift forms of insulation, for example, like the COPEVA houses in Santiago, that are wrapped in plastic during rainstorms (images 45, 46) or of the insulation of a rooftop in Cairo using wavy plastic sheets (image 105) – provide important visual evidence for everyday thermal practices and interventions in the architectural space. They highlight the cultural particularities of each city but also the framework for comparison that can be used as a foundation for better urban planning.

The second section of the book is meant to enable a more practical approach to thermal governance by defining six components of thermal governance: energy landscapes, thermal communities, infra-architecture, urban façades, thermal zoning and maintenance and care. In comparison to the thoroughly researched first four chapters, the elaboration of these components seems slightly hasty, and it remains somewhat unclear why these specific elements were chosen. However, it also serves a kind of conclusion, bridging between the city analyses and the visualisations at the end of the volume.

Coping with Urban Climates offers new transdisciplinary frameworks and methodologies for analysing urban climates that will be useful for urban designers, architects, climatologists and anyone interested in the ways in which the climate affects our cities and collective urban futures. It puts into practice the theoretical framework developed in City, Climate, and Architecture, by shifting the focus from individual thermal control to collective thermal governance. Like the first volume, it is thoroughly researched and produced in an engaging, informative and aesthetically pleasing manner. The two volumes are published in print and also available open access online. Perhaps due to the prioritisation of accessibility and usability, however, they neglect to further develop the political and social implications of the thermal governance theory.

By focusing on human behaviour and participation in shaping thermal governance, the two volumes provide strong arguments, alongside books such as Thinking Like a Climate (2020), for involving city residents in climate adaptation strategies via issues of thermal governance. Read together, they bridge the gaps between urban climatology and urban design and fill a significant lacuna in addressing climate change on an urban level, by shedding new light on the origins of thermal governance and the ways in which it is practised and experienced in cities around the world.



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Related articles

If you enjoyed this review, the following articles published in Urban Studies might also be of interest:

Controlled environments: An urban research agenda on microclimatic enclosure open access debates paper by Simon Marvin and Jonathan Rutherford

Is a new logic of microclimatic governance emerging in specific response to the ecological changes of the Anthropocene?

Unequal and unjust: The political ecology of Bangkok’s increasing urban heat island open access special issue article by Danny Marks and John Connell

Bangkok's urban heat island "contributes to health problems, such as heat stroke and fatigue, particularly to those with lower incomes".

Read more book reviews on the Urban Studies blog.




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