The Hearth - First Focal Point of the Home

The first sign of settlement and rest after the hunt, the battle, and wandering in the desert is today, as when the first men lost paradise, the setting up of the fireplace and the lighting of the reviving, warming, and food preparing flame.
Around the hearth the first groups and alliances formed, Descartes reflected on the self while sitting by the chimney and the first rude religious concepts were put into the customs of a cult by the fireside. Throughout all phases of society the hearth formed that sacred focus around which took order and shape.

Once considered as a vital element within the home, the fireplace is now, in the West, a nostalgic luxury, redundant but cherished, a ritual (laying the fire), and a sense of community. If a stable and reliable fireplace was once crucial to the civilized domestic life, we might depend on its successors nowadays.

Whereas fireplaces were the focal point of dwelling (literally the “focus,” in Latin etymology) until the early 20th century, today, this center cannot hold. The former former tasks of the hearth – heating, cooking, lighting, a gathering place and focal point for culture – have been divided up among multiple devices, and dispersed like vines through systems that penetrate every hidden space of the home. The following essay will focus on the shifting development of the fireplace as the ur-symbol of family and the home into its multiple technological and non-architectural variations that lead to the extinction of the fireplace and simultaneously to a change within the social structures within the home.

1) In Greek mythology, one of the best-known myths revolves around fire. As Prometheus tries to deceive his godfather Zeus in order to gain an advantage for his human protégés, Zeus refuses to give the mortal the possession of fire as punishment. Then Prometheus steals the fire from the gods and brings it to men. As a firebringer and teacher, Prometheus is the originator of human civilization, but also (in Aeschlyu's version of the story) the bringer of writing, mathematics, agriculture, medicine and science. As defining abilities, Prometheus gave humans fire and other industrious arts. Civilization and progress is thus linked with transgression and punishment, all of which is mediated by the exploitation of fire.

Architect and historian Gottfried Semper considered the fire the first element – a social or cultural element, which is the beginning, he thought, of society itself. Johnson, Deborah; Ogawa, David (2005). Seeing and beyond. Peter Lang Publishing. p. 167. ISBN 9780820470849. Retrieved 21 March 2013. It is fire that provides both the formal centering device, but also the warmth, the protection that the group can then gather around and form itself as a tribe, as a group, as a community. But the fire needs the help of architecture. In order that the fire can be lifted up off the damp earth, lifted up into the sort of vicinity of the group gathered around the fire, another material in another form is required: something like a bowl, or a pot, or a hearth that contains the fire. Semper placed the hearth at the first and most important conditioning element of architecture. Around it were grouped the other three elements: the roof, the enclosure, and the mound. The protecting negations or defenders of the hearths flame against the hostile elements of nature. To study the specific beginnings of architecture, Semper visited the Exhibition of 1851, in London, housed by the Crystal Palace. There, in one of the exhibitions, he saw a full-scale replica of a primitive hut from the Caribbean islands. The sort of empirical fact of this primordial shelter exhibited in what, at the time, was the most advanced building - in the sense of new materials and industrialized production of the architectural elements - the contrast of the most advanced and the most primitive sort of prompted Semper to turn to a kind of materialist but also anthropological model of architecture's beginnings, and a kind of model of how architecture could move from those beginnings to the present.

2) Elementary mutations

Since people have settled there has been considerable development in the handling of fire. Some of the earliest examples of modernizing heat and the ideology of the fireplace as a component of the home can be traced back to 1000 BC when new heating methods were used by the Romans and in Asia. While in the Medieval Ages the fireplace was still located in the middle of the living room, it went through a key change when its location changed in the household, migrating from the centre of the dwelling to the exterior walls to prevent the hall or room filling with smoke. This architectural shift opened up the opportunity to create chimney surrounds and mantels, mainly found in castles and homes of the wealthy up until the 14th Century. Safety issues lead to events like the Great Fire of London in 1666 and a couple of other difficulties with the construction of fireplaces lead to a new invention for the household in the middle of the 18th century: the metal stove which served the dual purpose of cooking and heating.
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. 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. 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 traditional fireplace has, in many aspects, ceased to be a necessity. 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.

3) The smart home device is the new fire.

The fire, enclosed within any kind of architecture has become domesticated. However, the fireplace over its entire history as an element of domesticity has not changed as a symbolic figure of the “homely.” But 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. We have found several substitutes to the early fire pit, still all human beings feel the same comforting sensation when they look into a fire and feel its pervasive warmth.
If one looks at the evolution of the spatial evolution of the domestic space and thereby at the substitute of the original fireplace in the center of the place of residence, it becomes clear that three different outgrowths of the fire can be identified. Today we use different objects to cook, gather and warm. All these activities were previously carried out by fire. The most modern objects of this development are likely to be in terms of the above mentioned order of activities, the microwave, the central heating and the smartphone or the laptop. If one takes into account future developments, one would tend to assume that soon there will also be a home assistant device in most of the homes to help you with all these activities. In this way, the temperature, our meal plan and our fun behavior are controlled and regulated by a single object. The home assistant thus exemplifies the fact that we in our home prefer to regulate our life through or at one uniting object. And the original uniting object – the hearth has lost its original purpose and nowadays it serves more as an aesthetic luxury object than a necessity.
“Home is where the hearth is,” is the Leading Architecture’s headline for an article about fireplace locations within contemporary dwellings, arguing that new techniques allow the architects now to designing these fixtures in any room of the house, including the kitchen and bathroom for a romantic, cozy and even luxurious feeling in the home. How did it come that the fireplace has nowadays become a luxury product, while at the beginning of the last century it still belonged to the basic interior features of every apartment in the western hemisphere? The answer can be found in the evolution of the fireplace and its multiple excesses as well as the remaining nostalgia we have for the fire.

4) Nostalgia is where the Home is.

The word Nostalgia is sentimentality used for the past, most typically for a period or place with happy personal associations. The word nostalgia is learned formation of a Greek compound, consisting of nóstos, meaning "homecoming", and álgos, meaning "pain" or "ache." Homesickness, a feeling we tend to take rather lightly today, used to be considered incredibly seriously in the years before World War II, stretching back to the 17th century. To escape this overburdening “sense of the past,” modernist architects, formed by futurism, attempted to erase its traces from their architecture. In ‘Vers une Architecture’, Le Corbusier states in the 1920’s that “if we eliminate from our hearts and minds all dead concepts in regard to the house, we shall arrive at the ‘House-Machine,’ the mass-production house, healthy (and morally so too) and beautiful in the same way that the working tools and instruments that accompany our existence are beautiful.” This urge to escape history was joined to a therapeutic program, dedicated to the erasure of nineteenth-century woeful in all its forms, that proposed an alliance between the hygienists and the architects that would supported by design. In the course of a domestic modernization, essential components of the former home, such as the gable roof, ornamented windows and doors were replaced by clear geometric lines, encouraging the ceaseless flow of light and air. No place for a fireplace reminiscent of the unhealthy and miserable living conditions of our ancestors.
If houses were no longer haunted by the weight of the past, then also memory would be released from its unhealthy preoccupations to live in the present. In his book ‘the architectural uncanny’ Anthony Vidler comes to the conclusion that by the attempt of cleaning the houses from their old spirits, this operation “ produced its own ghosts, the nostalgic shadows of all the “houses” now condemned to history or demolition site.” The emerging collective memory of a never-experienced space would lead to “ the house that had become an instrument, that is, of generalized nostalgia.”
Similar, the notion and memories of the fireplace within the home, a never-felt warmth and gathering opportunity for the family awakens memories in our technologicalized melancholic spirits, longing for community and belonging. What evolved out of an attempt to abolish all comforting, but primitive foundations of the home, like the fireplace, was hardly the emergence of a more stable community but instead a condition that cries out for precisely this nostalgic reason for motive: to establish an image instead of creating substance.

5) Extinction

Thousands of years the fireplace served civilization and architecture until the point where it mutated its recognition. Eventual postmodernist attempts to re-invent the origin of the source of warmth or assembly, ended in the fabrication of faux fireplaces - skipping the period when the "fireplace" is actually used. Designer fire places appeared to be not a piece of architecture, but an ultra-clean, often table-top object, counterbalancing the obsolescence of the fire, the hearth, that is to say after Corbusier, “something ancestral, that eternal thing which is the very key to everything.”
The fireplace was both utilitarian and highly symbolic. At first it began as a radiant core, forming the social locus both on the scale of the house and that of the city. Fast forward to the 18th century, the flame is concealed by the stove, the stove is exiled to the basement, and the iron pipe is the new heating apparatus of choice. Quite quickly the fireplace became invisible. Its primal Promethean drive is no longer expressed directly in flames but through apparently inexorable technological and social progress. What we can witness now is – metaphorical and realistically speaking – a fire burning out before our eyes, its exhaust suffusing the room.
Not only is there a physical shift of the devices which inhabited the fire or replaced it but in the expanded scales and intensifying demands on our energy systems, to feed relentless progress.
The Western world may cause its own extinction because of its “sophisticated” devices that in thei design try to erase their remote heritage, denying their relationship with the real thing.