Are taller ceilings yet another example of wretched architectural excess? Not necessarily. In fact, it is low ceilings that are the aberration. Throughout the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries, ceilings in middle-class homes, offices, and institutional buildings were 10-12 feet or more.
Mid-20th-century Modernism demanded flat roofs and low ceilings. In both cases, architectural theorists claimed that these prescriptions were merely pragmatic. The function of a building should dictate form, and no more building than was needed should be built. That flat roofs are in fact wildly impractical and expensive in most climes is now well known. That low ceilings are equally impractical should be more widely discussed.
Living and working in older buildings, people discovered that taller rooms simply felt—and looked—better. Builders were happy to oblige since tall ceilings didn’t cost much more, as Stern points out—but you could charge more for them.
This is a bit of a dodge. High ceilings, by this logic, are only practical because people are willing to pay more for them. A diversity of ceiling heights, however, with the height of rooms proportional to their width and breadth, has a much more concrete benefit. Because of the stack effect, differing ceiling heights naturally circulate air within a building.