NO-HEADLINE

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The Independent Culture
On Tuesday evening I rode up to Manchester Piccadilly from Euston on a battered and grubby InterCity express, stayed overnight at the Midland Hotel and came back the following morning on another battered and grubby InterCity express. Not a journey to excite the imagination, but definitely one to compound the discomforts of flu. If I felt much worse when I got back to work, it was not so much the effect of travel, but of air-conditioning, one of the largely unnecessary evils of our age.

Over an 18-hour period, I breathed "conditioned" air almost exclusively. My journey started at The Independent's office in the tower at Canary Wharf, a building fitted with an air-conditioning system apparently modelled on the fetid cabin of a packed jumbo jet on the last leg of a non-stop flight from Sydney. Emergency oxygen masks dropping from hatches in the suspended ceilings would be a useful addition to a building in which any semblance of fresh air is strictly rationed.

From here I caught overheated trains boasting forced-air ventilation (primitive air-conditioning) and no opening windows to Euston, a baking hot "air-conditioned" express to Manchester where I checked into what looks like a grand Edwardian hotel on the outside, but is a fully air- conditioned Holiday Inn behind its swaggering brick and marble skin. The room hummed with the sound of fans and felt statically charged. I switched them off, threw open the double-glazed windows and let the cold Manchester air invade.

On my journey back in sweltering InterCity heat, I was cheered up by an article in Building Design written by Andrew Morris, who works for Battle McCarthy, a firm of environmental engineering consultants. "Growing disenchantment with artificially controlled buildings," I read, "has prompted research into more responsive and intelligent systems. Passive cooling techniques are a solution to the high-energy expenditure and carbon dioxide pollution of air-conditioned buildings."

Yes, yes, but what are these "passive cooling techniques"? Wind towers, offers Morrison. "Wind towers and wind scoops," the engineer reveals, "are now being employed on buildings as diverse as offices, theatre auditoriums and shopping malls. This new device has begun to create an architectural language of its own and we are now witnessing bold and expressive forms in the new age of naturally ventilated architecture."

Although I didn't experience it on my Manchester trip, I am delighted that the new age of naturally ventilated architecture is upon us. Delighted, too, to see evidence conveyed in photographs accompanying Morrison's article in the guise of a new company headquarters building in Cambridge which features prominent and not unattractive wind towers on its roof.

The idea that these are new, however, is an amusing one. One of the most fascinating and delightful buildings I have ever visited is a celebrated 16th-century merchant's house in the medieval quarter of Cairo. What cool air there is in this oven-hot city is gathered and distributed through the house by none other than an ingeniously thought-out system of wind towers and scoops. It works extremely well. There were once many buildings like this in the Middle East and doubtless elsewhere.

Here is one big step backwards that can lead us all forwards. Those, like me, brought up without central heating and who like trains, offices and hotel rooms with windows that open or with fans and verandas in hot climates, aircraft with open cockpits and long winter walks, will never be popular with the millions of people who want to live all year round in shirt sleeves, free from draughts and protected from rude nature. Remember the rows that would suddenly burst out on the top of double-deckers or on express trains as someone like me wound down the windows or slid open the ventilators? Wind towers and wind scoops provide draught-free fresh air, solving the problem. And as Andrew Morrison suggests, they might also enrich and enliven the rooftops of modern buildings, so many of which are plagued with an unsightly clutter of air-conditioning equipment.

Apply the same principle to the Manchester main line and the Mancunian hotels and we may all be healthier and happier without squabbling over who wants the window open and who wants it closedn

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