Architecture operates at a scale that we might call middling—buildings mediate between scales, between past and future, between large, macro-systems and the level of everyday experience. A work of architecture is, in this sense, a kind of capturing device, an artifact that both fixes in place physical things (construction materials, flows of energy) and offers evidence of many, less tangible qualities (forms of labor and technology, property claims, social norms, economic and political power).
Admittedly, I am biased in this interpretation—my primary field of study is the history of architecture and the built environment, and it was through a building that I initially began considering questions of coal and its representation. The 1849 London Coal Exchange (demolished in 1962) is the impetus and the endpoint of my research on the urban, architectural, and material history of coal during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Seen above in a photograph from around 1905, the market was initially constructed to house the operations of London’s metropolitan coal trade. Its form and scale, however, indicated larger ambitions: the building’s monumental size, its visible iconography, and even its structural material expressed the significance of fossil fuel.
In panels around the building’s central rotunda, emblems of collier-ships, ports, and anchors evoked the long dependence of the city on the sea-borne transport of fuel—naturally occurring water routes linking northern English mines with the southern metropolis enabled this heavy mineral fuel to be transported over long distances during a period before reliable overland transport. In addition to this unique pattern of fuel supply, the 1849 building’s design also sought to express a longer geological history that was then coming to light. In encaustic paintings circling the structure’s central dome appeared images of the plant fossils that had been discovered in coal measures, the original, obscure basis of the fuel’s concentrated power. The clerk’s desks on the building’s trading floor offered another expression of this distant natural history, their supporting iron legs conflating different elements of an obscure deep time. Here, broad-leafed plants—another representation of the ancient vegetation that formed the substance of coal—grew out of a bizarre tripod of reptilian claws, the latter most likely a reference to the recently named “dinosaur.”
Sixty feet above these strange objects, the dome itself also reflected the changes brought by mineral fuel. The application of coal (in the processed form of coke) to iron production had rapidly expanded the applicability and availability of iron in the decades prior to the building’s construction. The Coal Exchange, completed two years before the famous Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition of 1851, was one of the earliest buildings in Britain—and the first that could be described as a “monument”—to use cast-iron as an exposed structural material.
Coal was, in some real sense, everywhere around this structure: it was piled in the hundreds of coal barges on the Thames, just a few steps to the south of the market; it was burned in almost every hearth and furnace in the city. But only at the Coal Exchange was the power and history of mineral fuel made visible and stable, written onto walls. The building presented a unique case of an attempt to capture coal’s meaning and importance.
At the time, the coal market’s completion also provided a prompt for contemporaries to reflect on coal and how it had changed society. A speech at the building’s opening heralded how the fuel “ministers by appliances innumerable to the wants and prosperity of millions, illuminates our houses, streets, and manufactories … every metal at the forge is obedient to the fire it feeds, whilst it commands as its agent and its instrument the mighty power of steam.” In opposition to this kind of celebration, The Economist responded with a warning against attributing too much agency to the non-human object. Many observers, the journal wrote, had “dwelt with great emphasis on the material itself; but largely as it ministers, like air and sunshine and rain, and many of the other gifts of heaven, to our welfare, the industry and the skill that draw it from its hiding place, and turn it to a thousand useful purposes, are the things really to admire.”
How much credit or blame should be given to coal or to humans for the fossil-fueled world that was then being built? For the writer in The Economist, the answer was clear: “On the coal admiration is wasted, but admiration may enhance and strengthen the qualities in man which turn coal to advantage.” In this reading, coal was not an aberrantly powerful, unevenly distributed fuel, but instead a natural gift, one that had been designed by providence. The magazine was not alone in this assessment—the placement of the coal fossils at the Coal Exchange, circling the summit of the dome, provided another indication of what many, at the time, understood as the divine ordination of British coal.
The magazine Punch satirized all this pageantry and ceremony. In a cartoon titled “Opening of the Coal Exchange (as Mr. Punch hoped it would have been),” a coalheaver kneels before Queen Victoria, offering a large “black diamond” (a common, ironic epithet) directly to the monarch. In presenting the ongoing celebrations as an unconcealed encounter with the fuel’s base material quality, Punch laid bare the aesthetic tensions—and, perhaps, a more fundamental strangeness—of “admiring” coal.
The Coal Exchange, in other words, provided a rare moment of visibility. Fossil fuel would only become more difficult to see and to comprehend as the routes of its power extended and expanded in the second half of the nineteenth century. The following essays look backward from this unusual mid-century monument to earlier cases, each giving a glimpse of coal’s tendency to unsettle otherwise stable frames and scales. Even before the ascent of steam and iron, that is, fossil fuel seemed to trouble existing forms and patterns. In this earlier period, coal’s excessive power was more unusual, and therefore easier to see.
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