Published in 1969, The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment challenged architects and critics alike by focusing on mechanical environmental controls as the driving force of architecture. An architectural critic and writer, Reyner Benham’s critique was always founded on a strong commitment to the community using, adapting, and living on the land.
A first of its kind, the book systematically explored the impact of environmental engineering on architectural design and on the minds of architects. Throughout the book, Banham stitches together a tale of projects and approaches that were informed by the technology applied and provides a timeline of this integration.
52 years later, the book still resonates within the sustainability-driven field to create buildings that prioritise energy performance and a well-tempered environment.
Statements & Arguments
The book rises from the idea of exchanges in the close dialogue of technology and architecture, where both are evidently involved and informed in the final structure. It argues that the integration of environmental engineering is an important aspect of architecture. Banham states that the creation of buildings cannot be divided into two intellectually separate parts – structures and mechanical services, where architects design the structure’s form leaving mechanical considerations for engineers and specialists.
Architects creating ‘habitable volumes’ with technology and services added as an afterthought is not sufficient and these volumes must be treated per their environmental context to create a well-tempered environment.
While most critics at the time only discussed forms and facades, Reyner focused on the significance of mechanical services in architecture. The book questioned the modernist experimental approach of the 1960s, which was heavily backed by technological advancements but ignored the basic requirements of light, ventilation, and temperature modulation. It pointed out the flaws in the architectural discourse at the time urging people to circle back to structures that were adapted according to the environment (in its literal sense) that they inhabited.
While a techno-enthusiast himself, Banham criticised the lack of integration of technology in the structural layout of a building and the absence of site-specific solutions. He mentions that since the invention of air-conditioning by Carrier, every house in the US is a ‘lightweight tract developers house habitable throughout the nation.’
‘Conscious architecture, as distinguished from vernacular building, should be able to reason out the unique solutions to specific problems.’
Looking at vernacular solutions before the invention of air-conditioning systems as examples, Banham discusses both power-operated vs structure-oriented systems and the efficient allocation of limited resources. The text identifies the ability of architects to solve problems through the structure itself before a mechanised product was introduced. As stated by Reyner, architects need to be problem solvers and be able to apply their knowledge to varying climatic, cultural, and geographical contexts.
The examples mentioned in the book range from virtual and visual volumes without apparent structure to performance-driven environments and also help us understand the effect of these practices on an urban level.
In the book, Banham’s pursuit was not of firsts but of most; the point at which most buildings had incorporated new technology and thus technology had begun to shape architectural design. His descriptions of particular buildings are thus described as ‘typical’ rather than iconic.
Although Sigfried Giedion’s 1950 book ‘Mechanisation Takes Command’, which was persistently recommended to Banham during his research, was considered to be a pioneer in the technical history of environmental controls, the latter states that it did not deserve its reputation. The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment was the first book to discuss architectural history through the study of mechanical environmental controls and their subsequent manifestation in the design of a building. It brought to attention an aspect of architecture that was mostly an afterthought, since the arrival of air-conditioning systems in 1902.
The school of thought promoted by the book has been loosely represented in architectural movements such as high-tech architecture and the works of Archigram where the mechanical and structural systems were celebrated.
5 Decades Later
Even after decades, the book remains relevant in the current architectural climate. Though more designs are incorporating energy performance and comfort in their programs, these concepts are not applicable on a large-scale mass-production level. As Banham states in the book, the commercial availability of workable hardware and solution matters more than the original conception.
The over-reliance on newer technology to cover up the shortcomings in a design solely focused on skin-deep ornamentations has put the well-tempered environment on the back seat. Its relevance is especially prominent when we study energy consumption in buildings and point out the immense role architecture and building construction play in global emissions and climate change.
In a time when sustainability and technology are guiding the profession, this book can provide an insight into the process and factors that formulate the amalgamated derivatives that we currently require in our architecture. The text provides an in-depth understanding of the need for the integration of structure with mechanical services and is a great starting point for any aspiring architect or student to learn how to prioritise function, comfort, and energy in a design.