The fire station is a unique blend of domesticity and workplace, with the engines brought as close as possible to the living quarters in search of the world’s briefest commute (preferably via pole)
Is there any building more instantly recognisable? The ideal church may have a spire but worship is more likely to take place in light industrial units these days; the gleaming red garage doors of the fire station, on the other hand, are unlikely ever to be superseded. Accommodation for the crew, and often a tower – initially for fire spotting, latterly for drying hoses and training – round out the essential elements. These have provided designers with the opportunity for willy-nilly historicising – those garage doors cry out for rusticated arches. And while the fire station is one building in which utility must always take precedence over aesthetics, it has continued to be the site of formal experiment, not least in the hands of Venturi and Scott Brown.
Firefighters have been with us for a long time. Emperor Augustus established the Vigiles Urbani, or watchmen, to spot and extinguish fires around Rome in AD 6. They were nicknamedSpartoli, ‘little bucket fellows’, after their equipment; they also had large syringes and horse-drawn fire engines fitted with more powerful pumps. We know little about the design of these or the ancient watch houses, however.
Lafayette Napoleon LeBrunn
After the loss of pump technology in the Dark Ages, the bucket was the main means of firefighting until ‘hand squirts’ were reintroduced in the late 16th century. However, it was the reinvention of the fire engine in mid-17th century Nuremberg that led to the fire station as we know it. These machines were eventually mounted on horse-drawn carriages, and so stations had to accommodate horses as well as engines and fire crews. The leather fire hose was invented in Amsterdam in 1673, and drying towers – necessary to stop them from rotting – became a feature of many stations.
Following the Great Fire of London, a number of private firefighting units were established by insurance companies, but these would only attend fires in buildings bearing marks showing that one of their policies had been taken out. Another model was voluntary service: Benjamin Franklin introduced this in Boston in 1736. Eventually the governments of swelling cities, plagued by enormous fires, were persuaded to overcome this patchwork provision and establish municipal crews. James Braidwood founded the first municipal department in Edinburgh after the Great Fire of 1824. He went on to unite 10 of the private London brigades before his own death in the infamous Tooley Street fire of 1861. It was partly as a result of this disaster that the Metropolitan Fire Brigade was founded in London in 1866.
Owen Williams Boots Factory
New York had established its own municipal service the year before; between 1880 and 1895, Napoleon LeBrun & Sons designed 42 historicising firehouses for the department, including a magnificently silly Loire chateau on Lafayette. From 1879 onwards, London Fire Brigade architect Robert Pearsall built many stations with florid Gothic details arranged freely in the Arts and Crafts manner. A later wave of stations followed the establishment of the London County Council in 1889: of these, William Scott’s 1901 Arts and Crafts station in West Hampstead has a great simplicity pointing clearly to Modernism.
Narrow urban sites usually necessitated two- or three-storey buildings, with firemen and their families living on the upper floors. Fire crews had to take the stairs until David B Kenyon, captain of an all-black fire crew in Chicago, invented the firehouse pole in 1878. This made his unit noticeably faster and was quickly adopted worldwide.
Venturi Scott Brown Fire Station 4
Source: Getty Images
Motorised engines were introduced around 1900, but these slotted fairly easily into existing buildings. By the middle of the century, however, a number of technological changes altered firefighting. Structural steel made buildings taller, requiring much longer ladders, and cherry pickers were also added to the kit. These innovations made fire engines bigger and this rendered many older stations unfit for purpose. A new wave of buildings was constructed with Modernist disregard for historical precedent, for instance Robert Mallet-Stevens’ 1936 station in Paris, Owen Williams’ 1938 station for the Boots drug factory in Nottingham, and Claude Ferret’s 1954 Bordeaux station surmounted by a Corbusian accommodation block. From the mid 1960s to the 1980s the Greater London Council built a large number of stations, such as the one at Shoreditch with its exposed concrete frame and cantilevered apartments. Hose towers were no longer disguised as campaniles or machicolated keeps, but stripped down to skeletal béton brut – the one at Chelsea is particularly rugged.
However, as technology transformed firefighting, it also began to render it obsolete. Steel-framed buildings, fire-retardant materials and sprinkler systems made fires less frequent and far less devastating. Nevertheless, firefighters have continued to be in great demand, not least in the USA. In 2013, American fire departments received 31.6 million calls – of which 1.24 million were fire calls, and only 500,000 actual fires. The rest were medical emergencies, testimony to the USA’s bizarre healthcare system: in many states you’re better off calling the fire department than the ambulance service if you want to be seen quickly; and if you want to be seen at all, if you’re poor.
Fire station poundbury
By way of contrast, in 2013/4 the London Fire Brigade received 171,067 calls, 20,934 of which were fires. While few fire stations have been built in London since the 1980s – and indeed 10 were closed by Mayor Boris Johnson in 2014 – stations continue to be built in great numbers in the USA. Firehouse magazine’s annual Station Design Awards for 2015 reveals a wide variety of approaches, most designed by specialised firms. Technological advance continues to motivate architectural form, as does social and legislative change: stations now accommodate both male and female firefighters, and poles are out for health and safety reasons. The effect of fitness crazes on design is also remarkable: Firehouse notes that the increasing preference for core exercises means that larger floor areas are required in fire station gyms.
For all their up-to-date facilities, most of these buildings are in historicising styles: neo-Victorian and neo-Colonial McMansion are favoured in urban settings, although neo-Prairie with massive battered walls is also an option. Britain is not exempt from this atavism: Prince Charles designed Poundbury fire station on the outskirts of Dorchester himself, a ludicrous blend of suburban garage and clodhopping classicism that is surely the only royal essay in this genre. However, there are also more formally interesting recent examples, not least Zaha Hadid’s Vitra fire station in the German town Weil am Rhein, with its exuberant pointy porch, or Álvaro Siza’s beautifully lucid station in Santo Tirso, Portugal.