Consider the Georgian terrace, now a widely admired model of traditional city-building. Its most important material was not those of which it was ostensibly made, but coal: coal fired the kilns that made the bricks and the lime for the mortar; it helped make the glass for the large windows; it smelted and melted the iron for the railings and nails. It was burned in the fireplaces whose serried chimneys rose above the roofline, and was stored in the coal holes beneath the pavement, which were studded with the circular metal plates through which the fuel was poured.
Without coal, these houses would have required impossible acreages of forest to supply the timber to generate the heat to manufacture these products. From the mid-18th to the mid-19th century, reports Barnabas Calder, pig iron production in Britain rose by a factor of about 65, which without coal would have required an area of woodland almost the size of England.
Coal would power the factories that would concentrate production and wealth in ways that would change cities. It would feed the railways that would allow people to live further from their work, in suburbs, and would enable food to be brought from distant locations. It would uncouple cities from the agricultural land needed to sustain them. It would also allow architects to play with building materials from distant locations and with an array of new techniques. The gaudy Victorian facade of the former Midland Grand hotel in front of St Pancras station in London, for example, was a built advertisement for the bricks and stones that the railway company could bring from the Midlands to London.
This is partly a hymn or elegy to the world that fossil fuels made, partly a warning of the disasters they are bringing
Architecture: From Prehistory to Climate Emergency sets out to tell the history of architecture as one of energy use. It’s a great idea for a book, cutting through art historical arcana of styles and movements with practical explanations. It has something of the appeal of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel – that of grounding historical mysteries in material facts.
For most of history, as described in the first half of the book, energy was mostly human and animal labour, and the food that had to be found or grown to fuel it. Most hunter-gatherer societies demanded economy in construction – a day spent building is a day not finding food – so they tended to use the materials closest to hand. Hence the shelters built of bones and tusks by mammoth hunters in what is now Ukraine and Russia. Then agriculture brought the possibility of surplus, plus the buildings needed to store and manage grain.
With agriculture and surplus came hierarchic societies, whose rulers might find themselves in command of colossal resources of food and labour, which enabled them to build such vast redundancies as the pyramids of the Egyptian pharaohs. Such works may even have had the useful aspect, from the rulers’ point of view, of employing bodies that would otherwise have been dangerously idle. Later, after Anthony and Cleopatra were defeated by the future Emperor Augustus, ancient Rome took control of Egypt’s grain supplies, which helped it finance its own huge monuments.
The tile-clad interior of the 17th-century Sheikh Lotfollah mosque in Isfahan, Iran.
The tile-clad interior of the 17th-century Sheikh Lotfollah mosque in Isfahan, Iran. Photograph: Valerio Febbo/Alamy
Even then, there was some carefulness with resources. The Romans used timber sparingly, it being a land-hungry material needed for other essentials such as shipbuilding, choosing instead the masonry construction that exploited the abundant labour they had at their disposal. Similar stories played out with other societies where the accumulation of agricultural wealth allowed it, and where there was sufficient stability and continuity of government to enable construction skills to develop over generations. Medieval cathedrals came about in this way, and the tile-clad wonders of 17th-century Isfahan.
Then coal changed everything. Later, oil changed things some more. Cities could expand exponentially, and building types could develop in new ways – railway stations, factories, office blocks, coal and cotton exchanges, mass housing, skyscrapers, shopping malls, airports. Electricity could free building interiors from their dependence on natural light, and eventually, air conditioning would equalise climate around the world. Concrete and steel – both energy-intensive materials – made possible unprecedented efficiencies and scales, as well as breathtaking feats of engineering and new ways of shaping architectural space. All of which, we now know, came with a huge price: the potential devastation of the planet through climate change.
Calder’s book is partly a hymn or elegy to the world that fossil fuels made, partly a warning of the disasters they are bringing. It is strongest in its descriptions of the growth of industrial Liverpool, the city in whose university the author works. It tells of the docks, warehouses, pubs, housing and education buildings made possible by coal. Also of the aesthetics of the new industrial wealth, both embracing new technology and harking back to the styles of great buildings of the past. It describes a beautiful Lake District house which, despite its architect’s dedication to traditional arts and crafts, was reliant on the money his client made selling beer from coal-powered breweries to workers in coal-powered factories, as well as on the coal-powered trains with which he could get to this idyllic spot.
OAT2019 Library 'Ilford Market' External CREDIT Interrobang Architecture and Engineering
Where are the architects who will put the environment first?
I’m baffled by the book’s title, which fails to encapsulate its great idea of explaining buildings through energy. And Architecture: From Prehistory to Climate Emergency gets too bogged down in ancient masterpieces, sounding in places like a dutiful schoolbook history of architecture, which leaves it too little space to expand on the ways in which attempts to be sustainable are now changing construction. It’s sketchy here, seeing hope mostly in the admirable but tiny Cork House, recently built in the town of Eton.
But these glitches shouldn’t obscure the fact that Calder makes a simple and important point, often with engaging and unexpected detail: architecture is indeed made by energy, which makes crucial the next stage of its evolution.