Alternatives to fireplace as psychological center of home

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Alternatives to fireplace as psychological center of home

Post by peterm »

Inspired by SDR's comments on code thread

If we assume two givens:

1) that for Frank Lloyd Wright, the psychological and spiritual center of the home was the fireplace and hearth...

2) that our present situation (carbon emissions, global warming, diminishing renewable resources, etc.) requires that we expand or think beyond Wright's vision...

Then, what alternatives or corrections can or should be made, especially in new construction, to take into account these realities?

We could talk about increased efficiency, and/or establishing entirely new paradigms for creating a spiritual and psychological center within the home.

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Post by John »

Well, one could consider the same type of fireplace that was in the NBC Olympic studio: a loop of a fire showing on a widescreen television.
No emissions, no smoke, no lost heat up the chimney, very small use of natural resources.
Also, alas, no heat.

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Post by Jeff Myers »

We have a self venting natural gas fireplace puts out heat very efficiently.
Jeff T

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Post by guanche »

i assume that today the alternatives to the fireplace as a center of the home could be the garden and the contact with the piece of nature that you can have being close to this area.

maybe a more japanese touch in the design of the houses could be the key...

this can be at least in the mild climate areas of the world...

to have the tv as a center of the living in the modern homes to me is not comfortable, modern and neither useful.

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Post by Palli Davis Holubar »

Haven't we also lost the hearth because central heating is universal?

It is a difficult matter to even determine what is the counterpart to the hearth today: the back lit screens of our "entertainment" tools, the kitchen table, the garage door, or the living room slouch/couch, perhaps? I doubt there is a center of the home today for most houses.

A fire is more than heat; it is a visual, audio and tactile experience that can be shared as a meditative pause for groups or individuals.

The fire circle, for those of us with land, is a great attraction to friends without the opportunity to enjoy the activity elsewhere. We have often remarked that gathering around fire fosters a different, richer conversation. I suspect the reason fireplaces have disappeared or become the "sanitized" everlasting gas log has more to do with cultural lifestyle than building codes or environmental concerns.

So for those of us who need real fireplaces (at least here in the midwest) what advances have been, could be, made? spark collectors, catalytic converters, etc.

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Post by Reidy »

I once heard Robert Winter (architectural historian at Occidental) say that when he visited Coonley years ago, they had a TV in their ground-floor fireplace; he found this apt, as TV had by then taken over as the natural focal point of a home.

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Post by Wrightgeek »

In our midwestern home, a 17 foot high, woodburning stone fireplace is in fact the heart of our home. During the fall and winter months we burn 1-2 fires per week, and we very much enjoy the audible, visual, aromatic and tactile benefits a roaring fire gives off.

The fireplace is also the stylistic focal point of our home, and was one of the most significant features that convinced us to purchase this house. We would be hard-pressed to imagine living here without it.

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Post by peterm »

We have a brick fireplace here in our 1949 Altadena house, (somewhat Wrightian... raked horizontal, flush vertical mortar joints) and we enjoy it for its heat and the experience. But the reality, at least in Los Angeles, and I think California as a whole, is that because of our poor air quality, there is now a ban on wood burning fireplaces being installed in new houses or in a remodel. It will soon become illegal for us to use our existing fireplace. We can debate whether this is a good idea or not, but it is now the law here, and it wouldn't surprise me if this trend continues to other parts of the U.S.

The TV as the focal point, (I hate to think that anyone would think of it as the spiritual center of the house) has been in a fierce competition with the hearth since the early 1950s. Recent home designs include a "media room" or "home theater". At least in this case it assigns a special place where the flat screen rules and leaves the living area free for conversation, reading, etc. But the down side of this is that it increases the need for the extra square footage.

I liked Guanches take that perhaps nature itself becomes more central to core of the house.

I find Robert Winter's perspective on Coonley to be cynical.

Ironically, I don't think it is illegal to build or install a wood fired pizza oven in a new California house. An organically designed pizza oven as the psychological and spiritual center of the 21st century home?...

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Post by Palli Davis Holubar »

Peterm- Will the date for your move to Iowa coincide with the prohibition of wood burning in fireplaces?

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Post by peterm »

Ha- That's a good question...

We actually are now beginning the research phase of the fireplace restoration at Lamberson. There is a hideous black and brass gas insert to be removed, but we will keep the gas line for options down the line. Then we will need to remove the extra brick facing which was added to make the opening smaller, and see what we discover underneath. Hopefully we will not be opening a can of worms, but simply peeling a layer to uncover the 1949 fireplace.

Then we will work on the draw of the fireplace, explore our options including any discreet modifications which might enhance energy efficiency, and we will reveal the "chakra" of the home...

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Post by dkottum »

The fire burning deep in the masonry of the home should not be imitated, or it is nothing but a visual effect. The spiritual warmth, the gentle crackling sound, the smell of clean, dry wood is lost. So it goes back to the honest use of materials that Wright, or most organic builders would advise.

But a fireplace does not stand alone in a organic house and lifestyle. The compact Usonian idea for a house, an efficient automobile, are much easier on the environment than their over-sized counterparts. And the Broadacre City concept should be explored, and not written off as mere foolishness, for it is the concentration of population, not the individual living habits of people, causing the unhealthy air of Los Angeles, or other cities.

The fireplace is part of a greater lifestyle.

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Post by peterm »


I must respectfully disagree with your comment in regards to the automobile. Los Angeles has had the worst air pollution in the U.S. not from industry but primarily from automobiles commuting back and forth from their detached single family homes. Granted, with more decentralization, ala Broadacre City, there would be less driving, but the internal combustion engine is responsible for a huge amount of the destruction of our air quality.

I agree with you when you say small houses and efficient cars are easier on the environment.

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Post by egads »

Like many things we Americans view as inalienable rights (some defined constitutionally) those living more rurally cannot understand how difficult they are to have in a tight metropolitan area. In some cases it's just overpopulation. A fire, a gun or even picking up rocks may be OK in the sticks, but put a few million people together doing it, and you have trouble.

It's interesting to note, there are some small efficient cars that emit exhaust that is cleaner than the air in a metro area.

I'm afraid that in my own home, the TV is the center. The fireplace is forlorn, with all the attention turned away. I for one, will never place the TV over the fireplace. For one thing, it makes it way too high. Like a bar. I blame home improvement shows for the trend. It used to be that taste and trend was done by magazines with editors with taste. Now taste is offered by reality TV producers. Alas!

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Post by peterm »

You're right, the tv over the fireplace is the worst. The competing energies being forced to peacefully coexist...

But there is that problem when the tv is in the same room as the fireplace, then seating arrangements inevitably end up accommodating the winner of the battle, the TV!

We have no cable, and our tv, used only as a monitor for movies, is kept in a separate room.

And the average New Yorker living in his noisy city with high density and public transportation, pollutes the least of any American.

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Post by SDR »

To back up for a moment, I should quote from Wright's "Autobiography" at slightly greater length than before, to set the stage for what was to
follow. Wright claims that the great log-burning fireplace he envisioned at the center of the home, was not a common thing at the end of the
nineteenth century in the suburban homes he was familiar with:

"The big fireplace in the house below became now.a place for a real fire. A real fireplace at that time was extraordinary . .There were mantels
instead. A mantel was a marble frame for a few coals in a grate. Or it was a piece of wooden furniture with tile stuck in it around the grate, the whole
set slam up against the plastered, papered wall. Insult to comfort. So the integral fireplace became an important part of the building itself in the
houses I was allowed to build out there on the prairie.

It comforted me to see the fire burning deep in the solid masonry of the house itself."

"BUILDING THE NEW HOUSE" (p 141 of the 1943 edition)

So, we have come full circle, to a day when the illusion of a fire on a hearth is deemed adequate -- again ?

A neo-Usonian home seen on these pages, based according to its owner on the Jacobs I opus, dispenses with a fireplace altogether and places a TV
on the end wall of the living room -- not on the central mass where the original design placed its fire.


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