Stay Cool, National
Building Museum

‘Stay Cool! Air Conditioning America’ was the first major exhibition to explore air conditioning and its effect on American culture, from the postwar growth of Sunbelt cities like Las Vegas and Miami, to the development of temperature controlled precision ‘clean rooms’ for computer chip manufacture.

In every action film since Dr. No, the air conditioning duct has played a crucial plot role allowing the escape of the protagonist. Without the ‘escape through the AC duct’ trope, action movies would cease to exist. Unfortunately, this is fantasy. AC ducts are too small, too fragile, too dark, too noisy and too impassable to be even a remote possibility in reality. Please keep that in mind when contemplating your next escape.

But everyone deserves to live out a fantasy, and a show about air conditioning seemed the perfect opportunity. At first we suggested a ‘crawl through’ experience, but ADA consideration aside, it was quickly rejected by our sensible client. A walk-through duct, however, was possible (and affordable) because ASHRAE has sponsored the show; they would provide any equipment we needed at no cost!

Our design for the show focused on a gigantic 60-foot-long galvanized steel duct, 8 feet high by 6 feet wide, which provided circulation, along a diagonal line, between the museum’s three galleries. Visitors could experience firsthand the mechanics of air conditioning, and photo murals, artifacts, equipment and interactive displays in the galleries further illustrated the technology. Michael Bierut's graphics gave the exhibition a tone of voice that helped, along with the duct, tie the disparate parts together.

The show proved, during a very hot summer in Washington D.C. to be among the most popular ever at the National Building Museum. We credit the weather and the duct!