Essential (Air-)Conditioning

Publication Date
November 12, 2020

The “essential” is how states justify their actions. In the case of Singapore, air-conditioning was deemed “essential.” Its exaltation began when Lee Kuan Yew, the first Prime Minister of Singapore, argued that air-conditioning “changed the nature of civilization by making development possible in the tropics.”1 Rather conveniently, this possibility of tropical development was only possible when Lee’s political party took office. Seeing it as a tool for “public efficiency,” Lee ensured that all public offices would have air-conditioners installed to cool the hot and humid air of Singapore.2 In 2001, even the Ministry of Environment paid tribute to air-conditioning and its role in increasing productivity despite the serious environmental consequences.3 Since then, state narratives have continued to propagate the necessity of air-conditioning in the tropical climate, justifying it with the economic goals of the country.4 Now, with air-conditioning installed in 79.7% of households,5 it is figuratively and literally how we sleep at night.

Beyond the home, air-conditioning has infiltrated almost every aspect of Singapore’s built environment. Prestigious schools have air-conditioning in classrooms. Libraries and community centres provide cool public environments; so do malls, their commercialized cognates. The extensive public transit system offers trains and buses that are air-conditioned every second they are operational. Entire landscapes have been enclosed and air-conditioned, culminating in, I would argue, the apotheosis of air-conditioned space in Singapore: Moshe Safdie’s Jewel at Changi Airport.

Built in 2019, the Jewel contains a park, 130-foot high indoor waterfall, theaters, gardens, exhibition spaces, retail shops and eateries.6 This glorified mall is connected conveniently to the terminals of Singapore’s only commercial airport and is mechanically supplied with cool air 24/7.7 Air-conditioning is not only used for the cooling of indoor space, it supports an entire imported ecosystem of greenery containing “2,000 trees and palms, and over 100,000 shrubs” under a large glass enclosure.8 Without it, the selected flora would not survive in Singapore.9 Air-conditioning was made essential for the survival of an entire artificial biome.

The “essential” comes into question when considering the Jewel through the lens of Rem Koolhaas’ Junkspace.10 Koolhaas defines “junkspace” as the “fallout” of modernization,11 and the Jewel—with its mechanical ventilation, lack of composition, out-of-scale footprint, and endless continuity—certainly fits the bill. The Jewel’s simple composition consists of a central tourist zone with its imported greenery surrounded by a commercial ring. Scale is only seriously considered in the center; the commercial residues are relegated to a simple stacking of floor plates. Escalators direct circulation to smoothly weave between the beauty of nature and that of retail. Koolhaas argues that “junkspace” is always expanding outward; the Jewel does not just expand out but also in, forming secondary connections to the same terminals. The Jewel is not just the apotheosis of air-conditioned space, it is the ultimate ”junkspace” in Singapore. Trees, plants, and moss are the new sheetrock. The reading of air-conditioning as both essential and a symptom of “junkspace” demonstrates that while air-conditioned spaces create productive environments, they also produce spaces for consumerism and spectacle.

In the context of global warming, the Singaporean state has stopped zealously advertising the necessity of air-conditioning, but it faces a crucial problem: how can it renege on its early praise of air-conditioning without compromising economic development? The state has introduced a series of docile measures to cut down air-conditioning usage. These include enforcing air-conditioning units with higher energy efficiencies, and major retrofitting of outdated systems.12 They are good first steps, but are they enough? The message from the construction of the Jewel in 2019 is clear: cutting emissions is important, but not at the cost of tourism, economic development and consumption. While I have focused on Singapore, the conflict between economic and environmental goals is a global one, and states reveal through policy decisions which they value more.

We must use the “essential” to call for change and a realignment of state values. Real engagement with the environment is needed.13 Pasting more green on buildings does not mean sustainability—as the Jewel’s energy bill must clearly show. It is essential to be critical of beautiful instagram-worthy architecture, speculative developments, tourist attractions and commercialized spaces built in the name of economic development.

What is the essential? It is how states justify their actions, but more importantly, it can be how we call for change.

  1. Lee Kuan Yew, “The East Asian way—with air-conditioning,” New Perspectives Quarterly 26 (2009): 120.
  2. Ibid, 120.
  3. Lim Swee Say, “Address by Mr Lim Swee Say at the ASHRAE Singapore Chapter’s 19th Installation Dinner and Dance,” Ministry of Environment, 2001.
  4. Russell Hitchings and Shu Jun Lee, “Air Conditioning and the Material Culture of Routine Human Encasement,” Journal of Material Culture 13, no. 3 (2008): 251-265.
  5. Department of Statistics, Report on the Household Expenditure Survey, Singapore: Ministry of Trade & Industry, 2019.
  6. Joann Gonchar, “Jewel Changi Airport by Safdie Architects,” The Architectural Record (2019).
  7. “Visiting Jewel,” Jewel Changi Airport.
  8. Karamjit Kaur, “‘Foreign’ plants for Jewel’s gardens took almost 3 years to procure, transport and acclimatise,” The Straits Times (Singapore), April 11, 2019.
  9. These plants were selected based on whether they would survive in the humidity levels of 60%, air temperatures of 24°C and lighting conditions of the Jewel.
  10. Rem Koolhaas, “Junkspace,” Obsolescence 100 (2002): 175-190.
  11. Ibid, 175.
  12. Audrey Tan, “Parliament: Emissions from air-conditioning contribute ‘sizable’ amount to buildings and household emissions,” The Straits Times, Nov. 5, 2019.
  13. Al Lim and Feroz Khan, “Learning to Thrive: Educating Singapore’s Children for a Climate-changed World” in Eating Chilli Crab in the Anthropocene (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2020).
Publication Date
November 12, 2020
Graphic Designers
Web Editors
Daria Solomon
230 words
Conrad Tao
753 words