The royal Flabellifer


When Walter Gropius built a little house for himself in Lincoln, Massachusetts, he included a screened in porch to (as his friend, Siegfried Giedion, puts it) “catch eastern and western breezes during the hot and humid summers.” Gropius built his house in 1938. Giedion gave his lectures, Space, Time and Architecture, about the same year. Giedion later expanded his lectures into a book,which went into three editions – but even in the fifties edition, he mentions “air conditioning” only once, with a reference to a building by Le Corbusier that “attempts a very simplified type of airconditioning”, with a footnote referencing Frank Lloyd Wright’s claim to have built the first air conditioned office building in Buffalo, New York.

The lack of concern for air conditioning is, in a sense, inscribed in the grandiose title of the book – Space and Time are monumental, while seasons, with their fits of hot and cold, are the very stuff of what Giedion might call “transient facts” – they are seasonal.

From the American p.o.v., Europe is painfully underserved by the air conditioning industry. From the European point of view, all of America’s gaudy wastefulness is epitomized by the enormous effort spent in blowing hot air into hot rooms in the summer. That effort has an effect beyond ductwork: for instance, it advantages the sealed window. Opening a window or a windowed door (such as the one I am sitting next to as I type this) has a pretty interesting psychological effect. One can see it, for instance, in Hitchcock’s Rear Window, which looks at a New York City in which private life, in the summer, is conducted half outdoors, on fire escapes and porches.  Rear Window is so theatrical because real life was so theatrical; apartments weren’t castles, and the suburban house was not a monad set down on a plat seeded with antiseptic grasses, even if Mr. Blanding’s dream house was something like this.

I am the son of an HVAC man, so my mind naturally strays to climate control in the summer. We just went down to Montpellier, which was hot. Not that hot, not as hot as it gets in August, but somewhat hot. The mornings, though, were amazingly pleasant, the bird life was hopping, and the inducements to slow down and lie prone on some chaise lounge were not unpleasant, especially when the reality was accompanied by a cold beer. So men and my bourgeois softened hide couldn’t really complain. Still, the lack of air conditioning does provide a sort of control experiment – an experiment in climate control – that is interesting.

In Ancient Egypt, the equivalent of your friendly Air Conditioning man was the royal Flabellifer – the fan bearer. In those times, the artificial breeze was a product of an ostrich feather fan, and the royal nose was pleased by bouquets of flowers that were waved about at the same time. The royal fanbearer, apparently, was an enormously important post, perhaps because nobody knows more about the pharaoh than the primitive climate control guy sitting two feet behind him all day. There were no folding fans in Egypt – in the fan literature, this innovation is attributed to the Japanese of a much later date. The fan is, in a sense, a poetic continuation of two things: the leaves of trees and the wings of birds. Both leaves and feathers play a big role in the decoration of fans. It must have been a big kick for ancient homo sapiens to pluck a palm leaf and agitate it, thus becoming a mini-wind maker. The cosmos in our hand – the ancient dream! Who knew that from such primitive fashionings we would, in a remarkably short time, get our grubby hands on the atmosphere and stratosphere of the whole planet!

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