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Fragments: The History of Architecture in 14 Fireplaces

From the South African Wonderwerk Cave to TV channels broadcasting lit fireplaces, Daniel Stilwell traces a chronology of this focal point of the home

The fire, enclosed within any kind of architecture, becomes domesticated. The fireplace over its entire history as an element of domesticity has not changed as drastically as many would expect. But when it does, it goes leaps and bounds. When we think of open fireplaces, at least in the 21st century, we no longer think of it as a primary means of cooking, and increasingly rarely do we think of it as a means to heat our homes, and yet we owe much to its development.

Our pursuit for control of the domestic environment has let us on a very different path to our early ancestors. The desire for comfort is ever expanding with ideas of well tempered environments to thermal skins for individual use.


The Wonderwerk Cave, South Africa, 1,000,000 BC

Deep in Southern Africa, the Wonderwerk Cave – “Miracle Cave” in Afrikaans - contains evidence of the controlled fire’s humble beginnings. An earth pit containing what can only be described as traces of ash, sediment and charcoal would have allowed for the Homo Erectus/Sapien BBQ of the age, giving much needed warmth and protection through the night. Paving the way not just for fireplaces put for human evolution, an ongoing excavation is determining the extent to which it was also a place of great spiritual significance.


The Zhoukoudian Caves, China, 460,000 – 220,000 BC

Now a World Heritage Site, the Zhoukoudian Caves in China express the instigation of migration and human settlement, both of which would have been immensely improbable without both fire and place. The form of the fireplace has changed little in the half a million years since the Wonderwerk, but the crafted hearths of clay, silt and limestone across China draw together the cultural threads of Asian conceptions of the fireplace. Some 13 layers (around 40m in depth) have been excavated, revealing ash, fossils and stoneware, providing strong evidence that the Peking Man was an expert at lighting and using fires.


Quesem Cave, Tel Aviv, 350,000-200,000 BC

The modern process of using infrared spectroscopy has revealed the remains of bones and soil that is claimed to have been heated to high temperatures, indicating a turning point yet again in the development of humans. As well as the cooking of meat, there is evidence that butchering and defleshing took place near the fire, introducing it as a central component. These leaps in development are made more explicit in supplementary findings of stone tools that suggest some form of homely foundation repeatedly visited by the Homo Sapiens. Present day Qesem cave is a hive of activity, with vast amounts of archaeology and excavation works being done to uncover even more evidence of the life that took place there.


Nomadic Hunters, 10,000 BC

Nomadic living, with its constant movement and travel, required the ability to produce and contain fire quickly and effectively. Most notable are the Negritos of South East Asia and San of Africa, whose portable shelters had a simple hole in the roof to allow for the heat and smoke from a simple fireplace in the centre to escape. Quite literally built around the fireplace, these huts blend fuctionality and mobility.


Roman Hypocausts and Korean Ondols, 1,000BC

Although geographically distant, these fireplaces used the same principles of under floor heating. The Romans used hypocausts, a system which pumped heated air into the open spaces beneath raised buildings.Comparatively, the Korean Ondol used a wood burning furnace at one end of the home to pump heated air through to a chimney on the opposite side. This seems to be one of the earliest examples of modernising heat and the ideology of the fireplace as a component of the home.


Typical placement of a fire in a Wealden Hall house

The Medieval Fireplace, 11th Century

The Early Middle Ages saw the fireplace go leaps and bounds, despite primarily using open hearths in the early days. The key change was its location in the household, migrating from the centre of the dwelling to the exterior walls to prevent the hall or room filling with smoke. A typical example of such early Medieval fireplaces can be seen in the Wealden Hall House Vernacular, typical in south east England. At this time, however, many could not afford to update and modify their homes with such lavish configurations and settled for what they had.


The imposing fireplace at Coinsbrough castle

The Birth of the Chimney, 12th Century

The birth of the chimney was and is one of modern civilisation’s greatest developments for the fireplace. As early as the Romans some homes had interior pipes under floors and within walls, and bakeries had flues to pipe smoke outside. The archetypal chimney, however, first appeared in the grandiose halls of domestic dwellings. With the placement of the fireplace moved into a wall rather than the centre of a room, it opened up the opportunity to create chimney surrounds and mantels, mainly found in castles and homes of the wealthy up until the 14th Century. One of the earliest examples can be found in Conisbrough Castle in Doncaster, South Yorkshire, with an ornate fireplace heating the lord’s residence.


Louis Savot and Nicholas Gauger, 1624 – 1713

Louis Savot - a French architect employed to work on the Louvre - became an innovator in the fireplace race. In his design, air was drawn through passages under the hearth and behind the fire grate to be discharged into the room through a grille in the mantel, reducing the amount of air entering from the sides. It wasn’t until 1713 and Nicholas Gauger’s alterations that the design took off both in Europe and America. Gauger’s innovation was to line the fireplace with iron plates and equip it with a raised hearth, allowing the air in cavities in the brickwork to be heated by exposure to the plates and greatly reducing the problem of draught. As impressive as they were, they came with a hefty price tag - and were renowned for being less than straightforward to install.

Chimney sweep

A woman sells her son to a chimney sweep

The Great Fire of London, 1666

A prolific time in London and a poignant one for the fireplace-chimney relationship: The Great Fire of London wreaked havoc, leading to stricter building regulations that demanded narrower chimneys and ushered in a new wave of working class folk. The young boys of London earned their keep by becoming chimney sweeps, cleaning out the tonnes of soot engulfing the city. This came at a price; being dangerous and ill paid, some boys as young as four would be shoved up to battle the clouds of ash, as master sweeps were simply too large to climb into these new chimneys – often measuring just 23x36cm.


The Franklin Stove or the Pennsylvanian Fireplace, 1741

Benjamin Franklin’s invention was a metal lined fireplace with a hollow baffle near the rear, relying on an inverted siphon to draw the fire’s hot fumes into the surrounding room. It produced more heat and less smoke than the ordinary fireplace, making it an innovation in the household, and Franklin’s lack of patent made his designs open to improvements. Although he intended for the stove to serve the dual purpose of cooking and heating, as time progressed its sole purpose became heat the room it was located in. David Rittenhouse made a notable change in 1780, integrating an L shaped flue system that made the venting of smoke through the chimney much more effective.

The fireplace was well established as a true necessity, and was becoming the must-have accessory for the grand centrepiece of a home. The manufacture of large scale quantities of cast iron pioneered by Abraham Darby III paved the way for stronger and more resilient fireplaces than that of the previous stone or plaster ancestors.


The Count Rumford Fireplace, 1790’s

The Count Rumford Fireplace by Sir Benjamin Thompson proved revolutionary, made smaller and shallower with angled covings to provide better radiation. Another focal point in his design was a streamlining of the throat to increase the amount of smoke that flowed up the chimney flume. This restricted the chimney opening and increased the up draught, quickly making it the state of the art fireplace, all backed by convincing theory in the form of Rumford’s two papers on his fireplace improvements from 1796 and 1798.


The Industrial Revolution, 1830s

When the Industrial Revolution dug its claws into the earth, out came a new kind of man - a man who had amassed fortunes in the expansion of manufacture. The industrialist spent his fortunes on elaborate shingle-style cottages away from the smog and smoke of the city. Hearth and home combined, and many fireplaces became altered in function and aesthetic to meet the taste of the newly wealthy, from faux columns and pilasters to tapestries on adjacent walls. A worthy, although slightly against the grain example is the beautiful Arts & Crafts fireplace within The Red House, built by Phillip Webb for the notable William Morris. What makes this fireplace unique is not any flashy ornamentation. It is humble, and made to perfection thanks to the morals Morris held over his lifetime, championing the hand made over the newly mass produced and glorified fireplaces Victorian households had.


The fireplace in Frank Lloyd Wright’s ‘Falling Water’

Function to Form, 1900s  - 1930s.

Although the first gas metering system came to light in the 1810s, it was not used widely for some 25 years. It was not until the 1920s that the oil-burning furnace became popularised as the number one domestic heating option.

Post World War 1 saw a rise for the Art Deco but also for function over form. The typical representations of Art Deco stressed this in their construction, bringing life into 20th century homes only to be destroyed during World War 2. With necessity at the forefront of rebuilding nations across the world, the pre-fabricated fireplace took centre stage and lit up homes everywhere.

As ever there were exceptions to the rule. Some of the most impressive fireplaces were seen in canonical works. Charles Rennie Mackintosh was one of few to have designed and constructed his visions, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s rendition in his famous work Falling Water brings a contrasting atmosphere to comfort and living with the notion of water falling around the exterior of the dwelling with a fire alight inside.

We should not forget that in our striving for more efficient and effective comfort, the fireplace took a scathing blow with the introduction of central heating, thrown down from being a focal point integral to a dwelling and branded a piece of decoration.


The Future

Insulation, central heating and greener ways to produce heat have left the fireplace at something of a loose end – no longer used for cooking or heating but as a diminishing decorative feature. In our bid for better technology we’ve even created an app on our iphones that produces a faux fireplace with faux fire - there’s even a TV channel with the sole purpose of broadcasting a lit fireplace. The traditional fireplace has, in many aspects, ceased to be a necessity. However there are pioneering experiments being done in the most sophisticated pursuits of comfort. MIT’s ‘Local Warming’, provides a thermal cloud that envelops a person with a ‘skin’ of heat through motion sensing and autonomous control - direct and localized warmth from infrared energy beams.

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