Hamish Lonergan, Iva Resetar, Demetra Vogiatzaki
Combustion is a process in which a substance, typically a fuel, reacts with oxygen to release energy in the form of heat and light–think of it as a controlled, transformative dance between fuel and air. In simple terms, when you strike a match or ignite a gas stove, you’re witnessing combustion in action. This chemical reaction not only powers everyday activities like cooking and heating but also drives car engines and generates electricity in power plants.
While essential for powering the modern world, combustion exacts a heavy toll on the environment. The burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas releases vast amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere, contributing significantly to the greenhouse effect and climate change. At the same time, the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels often result in habitat destruction and environmental degradation.
The objects from the CCA collection presented in this series trace the historical development of these contradictory dynamics of combustion. They chart an arc of responses to combustion as it relates to the experiences and design of the built environment: from fear to enthusiasm and back to crisis. By analyzing archival documents and governmental regulations, we note how, before the eighteenth century, combustion was considered a leading threat to buildings and cities, even as it provided the means to heat them; architects and craftspeople often responded to risks of fire with cautious and deliberate material and construction choices.
As you navigate through this series of objects, we invite you to keep in mind the double meaning of combustion as power: though it provides energy, its production is tied to those who control resources, processes, and knowledge.
With the advent of industrialization and the invention of air conditioning systems, combustion evolved from an everyday aspect of construction to a highly technical scientific domain. Yet this illusion of human control over temperature would not last long. The late twentieth century witnessed the dawning realization that the combustion of fossil fuels was heating the Earth’s atmosphere at alarming and unsustainable rates, often prompting a return to those same craft-based construction processes and technologies that had been eclipsed earlier in the century.
These selected objects also remind us that the history of combustion is not only utilitarian; it also intertwines with interests in art, beauty, and marvel. Pyrotechnics and the use of fire as a spectacle date back centuries, with cultures worldwide employing fireworks and controlled fire displays for celebrations. This historical link between fire and spectacle serves as a bridge to contemporary design and the ongoing transformation of environmental awareness into a performative and sometimes falsely optimistic act.