Peter York: Fire stations

The Way We Live Now
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The Independent Online

I love looking at flat-plans of rooms and their contents. Two oblongs around a square – sofas and a coffee table. Six circles around an oblong – a modestly sized dining table. Life is built around serving suggestions like these by architects and designers in show flats and houses. There was an American Fifties invention called a conversation pit. In a shag-pile-filled depression with low built-in sofas, modern people could discuss the nuclear threat or the works of Jules Pfeiffer listening to Tom Lehrer's clever songs.

How to animate a room by thinking how people should relate to things is an eternal question. One long-standing organising principle was the focal point, something that drew people's eyes and activities and meant the room organised you. The focal-est point of all was a fireplace.

Long after houses could be heated with gas or electricity, people liked to cluster. In the Modernising Moment that lasted from the DIY king Barry Bucknell years of the late 1950s, through to the 1970s, people removed the "period features" of their Victorian houses and put them on skips (while middle-class gentrifiers were replacing them next door) and then wondered what to do.

Old rooms with their proportions and windows intact look odd without a fireplace and a bit of celebratory gear. Modern rooms and rebuilds – the kind where everything is edited and the layout looks just like that flatplan – can look pretty bleak too. So now you get the new-old high concept art-sculptural fireplace. Actually it's all another revival, this time of the inventive things real-life modern architects did in the 1950s, particularly in the cold Scandy countries. High-end interior shots of thoughtful new 1950s houses showed a dozen ways to contain flame and make a rallying-point without the terrible archaic bourgeois rituals of the marble shrine to the fire-god. Many of them looked dangerous.

In this 1950s-influenced 21st-century room, the fireplace/sculptural object affair is dominant without using the usual approach of a central setting, a worshipful grouping of furniture round it or the rest of the palaver. And its big anchored metally blackness goes to the ceiling and through it, so you have to take it very seriously. Who designed it (it's obviously Design)? Should the occupants wear heat-proof mittens and thick trousers at all times to avoid second-degree burns?