Friday, May 18, 2007

Chimneys and the future

I am not a big fan of British architecture but I love the chimneys. They are one of the things that connect the London I've lived in for the past five years with the London of my childhood imagining, based mainly on Mary Poppins. I think I watched that film 12 times or more: Chim-Chimney Chim-Chimney Chim-chim-Cheree,
A sweep is as lucky, as lucky as can be...

Fireplace and chimneys - in my childhood, exotic curiosities - are normal here in London, a standard feature of the skyline. Whenever I have the chance, I sit by a window and watch them, groups of four chimneys, brown or orange, squat and plump. The terrace houses start feeling like ships, and I always expect them to blow their horns and start sailing.

Chimneys are essential to the cityscape but they are largely useless. Very rarely used today, and if so it is only for fun - woodfires are neither cheap nor eco-friendly. But the smell of smoke is unusal in London. Chimneys have become what in Japan they call 'Thomason's - objects conserved as part of buildings even when they have no more use. For example: this door, or the useless sink. 'Thomason' after an American baseball player by that name who spent a whole year playing for Tokyo team without scoring once.

Today, chimneys are a quaint feature with nostalgic value, the only reminder of the age of coal. From the 12th century to the 1950s Londoners used coal for heating. Only after the 1952 Great Smog that killed 3,000 Londoners in four days coal burning in the city was outlawed. Coal was gradually replaced with gas and electrical heating. The chimneys and fireplaces are all that remains of a London of black smoke. No more than an architectural feature, a void in the centre of so many living rooms, of what was once a way of life, a huge industry, a livelihood for so many people.

But what about the Thomasons of the future? This is how I look these days on my electrical appliances: my electrical sockets, the cables, the lights. Since I've been cut off electricity they have become useless objects that stand in my way. The florescent lights in my room - there are four of them, and they didn't work even when I had electricity - are different from the fireplace in design (1960s vs. late Victorian vs. ) - but they are equally pointless .

My electricity breakdown is a personal predicament and perhaps a temporary one. But I expect an energy crisis to hit us hard in the face in the coming decade, forcing a transition as dramatic as the abandoning of coal. What is useful in our current energy age of abundant cheap oil and gas will not necesserily make sense tomorrow and I have no doubt that many of our objects will become Thomasons, which future generations will find strange, magical or stupid. Which objects? It is yet hard to tell. One thing I know: the houses built a hundred years ago had often a solidity about them which does not exist anymore. Fireplaces and chimneys are perhaps useless, but they rarely pose a problem. Later generations assumed cheap energy is here to stay, and they built accordingly. When I look at 'luxury' yuppie housing developments around London - such thin walls, so flimsy looking - I wonder who on earth buys these cardboard houses for a fortune. Some of these places might become so uneconomical to run that they will be abandoned; the ruins of the future.

2 comments:

Kruse said...

Dear londonmink,
I love your blog you inspirational thing, you! A voice of sanity in a maelstrom of consumer madness! The question of fridge lack: get yourself a largish terracotta pot, soak it in water until wet through, stand you perishable items in it and cover all with a wet cloth, this was used in WW II to preserve butter, milk etc.
If no pot wrap butter and milk carton in wet cloth, will still keep cool.

mink said...

thanks for tip. We used a similar technique in Vauxhall, just putting various (soy) products in a water container. But wet cloth + terracota probably help.

I think my main problem is vegetables, herbs etc. They don't last very long. But now without light it is difficult to cook. Possible, but tiring, as I work full time in May. And my candles are running out...