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Paris is burning: fire and archive

At the intersection between architecture and fire lies an archive, its contents and symbolism both fearful and familiar

John latham mattress factory burning archive architectural review

John latham mattress factory burning archive architectural review

Source: Courtesy of the Mattress Factory

Stacks formed of reference books were set alight in John Latham’s Skoob Tower Ceremonies (mostly 1964-67); received by some as an intellectual and emotional attack, the performances were instead critical of a static and sedimented canon, the archive placed as both the apparatus and the repository of institutional knowledge

The image of a burning building is an indelible thing. It is flickering and violent magnetism. It is ironed in the mind as a symbol, so dense as to become unspeakable: it becomes overloaded and too fearful, too curious to hold lightly, to let drift and sink deep into forgetful waters. 

The burning image makes a monument of a mundane building. When Grenfell burned, the image was first a mark of the lives lost, of a community hollowed out. It was also a symbol of the numb, overbearing horror of institutional apathy, of the fatal reality of a country with an uncaring state. It became a point of convergence, of folding-in: the name is the image, the image is the event, the event is the idea. 

Gottfried semper burning archive architectural review

Gottfried semper burning archive architectural review

Above: at the centre of the primitive hut, Gottfried Semper considers that the fire of the hearth is the ‘first and most important, the moral element of architecture’ p88

Mundane monument: in one of his last essays, Jeremy Bentham suggests that after death people’s bodies should be preserved with chemicals and displayed in public buildings so that ‘every man would be his own monument’ p11

If the building should already be a monument, an idea already set upon its likeness, the image makes a void. None died when Notre-Dame burned, its grieving peculiar and incomparable to that of fatal fire. There burned with the building a symbol of Paris, of France, of art and of architecture itself, of civilisation. Further fictionalised by Victor Hugo, the building is woven with a whole history of culture, its phantoms layered thick and the threat of the fire both mortal and historic; the prospect of its burning a loss of all collective identity. Its obliteration is total. 

When the unbuilt burns, when the unruly flame departs our structures to burn in nature; when black skies cloud over the Amazon, the image is apocalyptic. It poses less a threat to civilisation than it represents the threat of civilisation; that all of human advancement, of our history, should leap forth to burn the future. 

The sight of such a fire is perhaps so mesmeric because it carries resonances of pastness, an archival aura: an ancestral memory ingrained in the body, of sacred flame becoming controlled fire, of primitiveness and original technology. In the Promethean myth, fire is styled as a gift from the Titan to his clay creations, a torch carried from the sun to restore what Zeus had hidden from humanity. Possession of the gift becomes cookery, becomes the distinction between man and other animal; becomes the basis of civilisation.

Pentonville prison archive fire architectural review

Pentonville prison archive fire architectural review

Above: this drawing from 1844 shows heating ducts concealed in the thick walls of Pentonville Prison, which was imagined as a panthermicon; artificial warmth would safeguard the health of the bodies in the same way that the vigilant eye tried to reform the ways and safeguard the health of the souls p103

Archival aura: fire appears to carry with it resonances of pastness that stretch back to ancient times, when it was first invented, but it also emerges as a farrago of scientific material and social inhibitions that are passed on from generation to generation p55

Strange perhaps, to claim ownership of such a fickle fabric as fire, that seems of its own will to start or stop, that would, uncared for, dissolve to ash and dust. Possession, from the myth, really indicates knowledge, or technics: our human fire distinct from the sun and from the gods in needing tending. Tending (an act of devotion) becomes understanding, and between intellect and the cooking of food, such understanding becomes symbolic of the power of man over nature; over base instincts. The human animal is suppressed: understanding becomes also governability. 

It is architecture’s first memory: adopted as a devilish mote, when flame is brought to the hearth with walls around it becomes a measure of comfort. First as fire-pit, then fireplace, then pipe, as advancement trawls through history the waiting flame is split and pushed out from the centre, warming bricks and flues and braziers. Come Modernism, the flame is subsumed within the walls; incorporated into the machine it becomes service, unseen and silent

Architecture’s first memory: before fire there is a dark empty space associated with oblivion, with fire comes architecture, and thus architecture’s first memory p88

Unseen and silent: fire and architecture are irreversibly divorced. This moment marks a sudden break with history, and the search for an architecture of purity expressed through amnesia and thermal silence p103

If the comfortable cookery flame should spark, should rear up to burn and consume the structure that holds it captive, then returns its essential violence. Its domestication, its seeming civility, all tense semblance of safety dissolves. The shift is severe: something foundational has cracked, and the sensation becomes a mortal reminder that control lies lightly on pillars of chance; that all will eventually become ash. 

When a building burns, the image carries on its back the destruction of memory. It bears incredible loss, and also symbolic potency: a receptacle for iconicity of any kind, an assurance of the urgency of the message. This becomes also all too easily an instrument of terror, as the burning of books, of crosses, all notions of purifying flame are symbols as ripe for picking by proponents of fascism as by those revolutionaries pursuing good and peaceful ends by the most chaotic of means. 

Banham anatomy of a dwelling archive fire architectural review

Banham anatomy of a dwelling archive fire architectural review

Above: François Dallegret illustrates Reyner Banham’s disentanglement of the campfire as a service structure from its immobilising roots in ‘A Home is Not a House’, 1965 

Essential violence: (from Bachelard) It shines in Paradise. It burns in Hell. It is gentleness and torture. It is cookery and it is apocalypse p46

When a building burns, in the wake of that image there comes an urgency of reconstruction: the physical, meaning material replacement, of covering over or memorialising, attempting an erasure of its smouldering scars. The cultural memory of the event, that heavy mark of crisis becomes so potent that the loss itself covers over what stood before. The building, its remnants and its lingering image, becomes witness to the event, layered through with its own negation, its own end: the Library of Alexandria now become its own burning. 

As trauma bears repetition, as you might probe at a wound, the event is also rebuilt. The spark, ignition, the path of the flame and the materials that went up are all picked apart and pored over, recorded as to barricade against a future fire. The burning image is granted entrance to the archive, stored in building codes so that each subsequent structure is shaped by the ghosts of those burned before. 

Sylvia lavin peter eisenman archive fire architectural review

Sylvia lavin peter eisenman archive fire architectural review

Above: when fire is eventually divorced from architecture, its echo lives on still in the paper archive. ‘There was no fireplace in that house’, said Peter Eisenman when academic Sylvia Lavin unearthed this sketch of House I, c1967, from his archive. ‘I don’t believe in domesticity, I don’t believe in fireplaces’ 

All architecture acts as archive, as human habit is sedimented into stone or steel, but this archive of fire is specific, selective and institutional. It stretches from architectural element to urban fabric, and even as it tends towards safety, the code is after all a form of control; in the hands of an uncaring state it can be made into a subtle, operable violence – in the case of Los Angeles’ Skid Row, fire codes were used to command a population considered undesirable, the housing stock slashed where regulations were too costly to be met. 

The archive is not mute, nor indifferent. The archive decides what is worth remembering: more memory lost in its making than in all the fires in history. In the many voids around its paper slips, the archive holds the trauma of that loss; it incites in us a compulsion to search out the origin of what was lost. It incites in us an archive fever, which is like the death drive. On the day the archive burns, on this return to primitive flame, there is a collapse. Memory lost, and the erasure of that archival loss gone with it. What is left is a void of knowledge, and the image of a building burning.

The archive decides: one of the characteristics of archives being violence … which is the same as the violence of power which at once posits and conserves the law p24

Archive fever: is to have a compulsive, repetitive and nostalgic desire for the archive, an irrepressible desire to return to the origin, a homesickness, a nostalgia p25

Notre dame fire archive architectural review

Notre dame fire archive architectural review

Source: STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN / POOL / EPA-EFE / Shutterstock

Framed between some scaffolding and its own curled remains now drooling down onto the stone arches that once supported it, the roof of Notre-Dame de Paris appears as a cut-out, a void of its formerly solid self

This piece is based on a new book by Stamatis Zografos, called Architecture and Fire: a psychoanalytic approach to conservation  (UCL Press, 2019)

This piece is featured in the AR December 2019/January 2020 issue on New into Old and Preservation – click here to buy your copy today