Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The Fireproof Building

As part of ARCHITECTURE SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY, AN INTRODUCTION, course by Antoine Picon, Harvard University.

Wermiel S., The Fireproof Building. Technology and Public Safety in the Nineteenth-Century American City, Baltimore, London, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000, pp. 73-103.


Anecdote of this chapter Terra Cotta was used by the romans and rediscovered in the mid 18th century as it can be molded and by this is reproductible (industrial age). So molded ornaments are made in Terra Cotta and are used internationally but in the US Terra Cotta is mixed to Iron in a dramatic way. Sullivan the architect used Terra Cotta as ornaments and in building constructions.

Summary In 1861-65 Boston made its new city hall partly fireproof using iron and brick construction in the first three floors. Insurance companies were the only clients for fireproof construction and the public indifference to adopt fireproof constructions was questionable: Instead of spending money to recover from fires, Americans should make their buildings less combustible in the first place.
Then architects and inventors introduced alternatives to brick arches substituting stone slabs for brick arches: the flat stone made a thinner floor, and created a flat ceiling that could be plastered directly. Another fireproof floor system: corrugated iron sheets and concrete (makes lighter floors that can be installed faster). The bank of the State of New York (1856-1858) used such floors created by Cornell (the important iron founders in New York). Gilbert in 1867 proposed to install iron plates under wooden floors and roofs to shield them from fire. However, British architects were dissatisfied with iron and brick buildings that they considered unreliable on fire. For this Shaw proposed to created smaller rooms instead of fireproofing a building.
That is the fire of 1871 in Chicago that has given an answer to these questions: how has the fireproof buildings failed and how could they be improved. In fact, most of the Chicago fireproof buildings could be reused while the ordinary buildings could not be. Peter B. Wight blamed the failure of cast iron columns as the parts that broke in the fire and let down the floors above. Also the fire spread from building to building along the mansard roof (made of wood). The emerging fire protection fraternity did agree on two points: Brick is better than stone in a fire, and that iron while noncombustible could not be considered fireproof.
So in the 1870's new fireproof materials are developed: hollow building blocks (from concrete of clay) and the semi-proof material as the strategy of using fire resisting materials to protect an ordinary wood structure. The most important new construction material in the 1870's was the terra cotta (or tile). In fact lightening floors by using hollow tile blocks was a rediscovery of a practice used in ancient Rome (France at the time).Johnson and Balthasar had been involved with iron and brick fireproof construction and created hollow tiles used in the Kendall Building (1872-1873). However hollow block floors cost more than brick arches even if they weight less so brick arches remain the top choice for fireproof floors in the 1870's because they were the 'simplest, strongest, and cheapest kind'.
A new invention called 'terra cotta lumber' by Gilman in 1881 resisted heat and by the 1890's it is a success.
While hollow tile was used moderately, the idea of protecting wood with noncombustible coverings was used by builders (semiproof) employing material at the time: terra cotta, concrete, and metal lath and plaster. All designers cam to understand that all structural materials, whether combustible or noncombustible, had to be insulated from fire. An advantage of semiproof systems is that they can be installed in existing buildings not only new construction.
Before the fire in Chicago, a fireproof building was a non-combustible building. After the fire, to be considered fireproof, a building's constructive materials had to be nonconducting as well as noncombustible.


Building technologies in the industrial age

The most fundamental evolution since the 18th century is the building technologies: architecture not only builds shapes and forms but also provides services.

New materials for an industrial age
Glass: when there is Iron, there is Glass. Glass is produced in a very traditional way (not industrialized) and there are two technics to blow glass:
1- Blow cylindars and open and flatten to obtain sheets of glass
2- Blow a sphere to flatten it , have a disk and then cut a disk.
The Crystal Palace's glass is produce by a small London factory called Chance Brothers ad Company which was very efficient (so efficiency is not always linked to it industrialization...) The glass industry has been influenced by furnaise where air is pre-heated. In the late 19th century, machine that allows to blow cylindar is invented in the US and in 10 years the total industry is mechanized.
Glass has to do with visibility and also visibility for the individual e.g. Benjamin in his Flaneur in the city. When there is a choice, there is a meaning associated to it.

Brick Machine
It is an invention in the late 18th that totally mechanized the process, fuel becomes less expensive so we use more and more the machines. There is a big change from variety to variety so more standardized, the degree of variation is small, before this mechanization, whatever you bought was different. There were very few models but they were all different. Mass production of greater and greater diversity, and variety replaced variation. Variation was an aesthetic. After the strategic choice becomes the major problem and architects try to bring order. The modern world look for catalogs and technology is synonym with choice.

Terra Cotta

Terra Cotta was used by the romans and rediscovered in the mid 18th century as it can be molded and by this is reproductible (industrial age). It is also used as fireproof. So molded ornaments are made in Terra Cotta and are used internationally but in the US Terra Cotta is mixed to Iron in a dramatic way. Sullivan the architect used Terra Cotta as ornaments and in building constructions.

There is the extraordinary capacity to combine many things together in the 19th century.
Floors are made of concrete and terra cotta to solve the fireproofing system; other materials : Zinc; Asfalt used to protect from water and used more systematically in the 19th.

New systems for buildings
Lebon has created the Thermolampe a distilating machine for gaz lighting in the late 18th century, but it was not a success. It was then retaken by UK as gaze plant to light the street. Derivation of the system to have light in your house. The electricity is a longer story than gaz and the discharge between two electrodes is an early invention, but the idea of making electric light is not evident and if were put in series if one break all break... Then incandescent light bulb is a huge invention. In 1889 big event with Edison , the idea of a filament of carbon of high resistance is judged valid.

The social consequences of electricity
The electricity has radically changed the makeup technic. Before makeup was like a mask, white and dramatic. Then with electric light, the light is so crude that makeup has to appear more sublte and the relation to the body changes, subtle details too. It changes the relation to everything even the way one moves. The light makes more visible the intrusion of strangers in the house. Period of redefinition of intimacy and new definition of intimacy. The space that electricity generates is totally different (lots of cables). So how do we architecturize those things in the home? How do we make electric light compatible with the aesthetic of the rest? Same for heating: how do you decorate to make them fit with the interior.

Central heating
Gradually emerges an architecture full of pipes and we had to invent how to make the pipe dissappear. Cabinet a l'anglaise: plombing. The bathroom has been for a long time the High Tech Room and also the place where the person is the most vulnerable. There is a relationship between technology, vulnerability and intimacy. The bathroom is supposed to protect the person, e.g. from diseases, but this is at the same time when the person is the most vulnerable. The idea of the modern cyborg is the one who is clean thanks to these invisible networks... The bathroom is a fundamental moment. At that time putting a bathroom into a room was a revolutionized idea...

Architecture and technology is not only iron but a lot of everyday things. Same problem today: the computer screen and external light is a problem and not a completely solved solution. For that a great book by David NYC about the technology of the sublime, the book of light.

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