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Saturday, February 4, 2017

Fireplace Architecture

With a view like this, the fireplace needs to be quite "eye-popping" to compete. This one gives a whole new meaning to the phrase,
"Dining around the fire."
I delight in writing about those areas of art in which I have some degree of experience. Usually that involves painting, drawing, art education, or art history. I also love writing about architecture and design, though in both cases my experience is a good deal more limited, more in the amateur realm than professional. In terms of design, I've planned and/or built a swimming pool, a waterfall, a retaining wall, and the home in which we live (most of those projects I've left to professionals to construct). Along that same line, in planning our home I designed two fireplaces, one separating our living and dining rooms, the other directly below it (and sharing the same chimney) in our family room. Keep in mind that both of these were designed some forty years ago although both were fairly contemporary for their time. Since then fireplaces have come a long way chiefly as the result of the introduction of natural gas and electric as fuel in lieu of wood. I should also add that both of our fireplace are chiefly decorative, used mostly on special occasions during the colder months when we have guests for dinner and want to warm the atmosphere a little. In hindsight, I wish they were gas or electric. In view of the convenience, we would undoubtedly use them more often.

This is a triple-sided fireplace which is designed to theoretically heat both rooms. In practice, most of the heat goes straight up the chimney.
The raised hearth is quite popular at family get-togethers, though.
Directly below this fireplace is a somewhat more traditional "stacked stone" fireplace in the family room. Both the marble facing (above) and the stone veneer (below) were added years later in place of the original (and much cheaper) Z-brick-over-concrete-block and brick construction. The marble tiles were placed professionally. The stacked stone my wife and I did ourselves. The basement fireplace includes Heatilator air distribution fans, which I highly recommend. Fireplaces, though they've been key architectural features for centuries, are not a very efficient method of heating.

The basement family room fireplace also features a raised
hearth. Bookshelves were designed flanking both sides to
structurally support the weight of the fireplace above.
In researching fireplaces I went in search of the oldest fireplace I could find. I could find little of any value. The problem was I was searching using the wrong term. Cavemen, of course, build bonfires, which, though they have a hearth, requires quite a stretch to be considered a fireplace as we know them today. Gradually, I came to the realization that the reason I could find little in the way of prehistoric fireplaces boiled down to the fact I was not using the right term. The earliest manmade fireplaces, were, in fact, altars. They were not designed for warmth nor, for the most part, cooking food (unless you were a biblical Levite).

Prehistorical altar of Monte d'Accoddi (Sardinia), 4000 to 3200 AD.
Though it bears little resemblance to traditional fireplaces, some of the more contemporary designs seen below seem inspired by its monolithic minimalism.
Despite it's origin in pagan and Jewish temples the fireplace, as we know it today, early in the history of man, became a fixture of the "kitchen" or whatever the ancestors of Wilma Flintstone called their food preparation area. In later ages it evolved into something akin to the upper image below. Then with the advent of the "modern-day" cast iron cook stove, the fireplace departed to the dining room and other less-congested environs. However, as the second image below suggests, some homeowners have found in their hearts (and budgets) to welcome a smaller, tightly contained version back into the kitchens.

Okay, it's not ideal for cooking (roasting hotdogs maybe), but the kitchen fireplace does bring back both the physical and emotional warmth of its early ancestor.
Despite their near legendary inefficiency in providing heat (as compared to modern central heating), the traditional fireplace continues to add visual and psychological value to homes. When combined with electric blower, even a wood-burning fireplace, while not necessarily cutting heating bills (have you priced kindling recently?), and having a tendency to be both dirty and high-maintenance (ashes don't magically disappear themselves), they possess a sort of conservative favoritism over gas and electric, especially, as seen below, if they have a mantel for knickknacks and dust.

The traditional fireplace (as to style). I'm not sure,
some of these may, in fact, be gas or electric.
It's hard to tell now days.

Okay, now that we have the traditional fireplaces out of the way, like it or not, everything seen from here on down is what I call "contemporary" though, indeed, some of them may be a tad more contemporary than others. Having said that, contemporary does not rule out firewood. It simply indicates a fresh, more stylish means of incinerating this time-consuming fuel. It might surprise you to realize that many wood-burning fireplaces today are made, all or in part, of wood. Though past generations might have considered such a trend as ludicrous, modern design and engineering makes them no more likely to catch fire than any other type of fireplace.

Not your "cup of tea?" Check out the ones below...and the one at the top.
I'm not sure exactly when it happened, but the moment (or years) that gas and electric began to replace wood-burning fireplaces, designers suddenly came to realize that two of the greatest difficulties in designing contemporary fireplace had suddenly disappear. Neither gas nor electric required a chimney or even overhead venting. In the case of gas, a small, inconspicuous vent with a fan (sometimes even located below the firebox) was sufficient for removing Co2. Electric required not even that. Yet, with a little pyrotechnical ingenuity, both could produce a "flame" virtually indistinguishable from that of wood.

A fireplace for a coffee table? No problem.
One of the perpetual difficulties interior designers have faced ever since the first nine-inch, black-and-white TV invaded the living room was how to deal with two, quite diverse centers of interest--the "boob tube" and the fireplace. You couldn't set the TV on the hearth (unless you disabled the fireplace), and when it came to personal preferences, most people preferred watching Jack Benny do a "slow burn" than their fireplace. However with gas changing the nature of fireplaces and digital HD TV changing the nature of in-home entertainment, suddenly the TV became a friend of the fireplace. People could watch both at the same time by simply hanging the flat-screen monitor over, or near the fireplace. And if both were powered by electricity, the alliance became all the more harmonious. The only problem that sometimes arises is telling the TV from the fireplace.

Once more, I think these are all electric fireplaces but as before, it's sometimes hard to tell the difference, especially in photos.
Very often, contemporary, in the mind of designers, means Minimalism. Personally, I like the style, but I'm not sure I could live with it very long without adding a minimal amount of clutter, in effect, ruining the effect. It takes special kind of OCD individual to handle Minimalism on a daily basis (a place for everything and most everything out of sight and in its place). Be that as it may, if you think the warming glow of the items above are going a bit far, take a look at the really radical manifestations of the fireplace designers when given a free hand.

A fireplace in front of a glass wall? Just make it a see-through unit. The line between fireplaces and the old-fashioned gas heater can be "pretty," but also pretty thin.

Nothing like bathing before a roaring fire...


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