The history of architecture has long addressed industrialization but too often forgotten coal itself: its ubiquity, its energetic spread, and its capacity to transform urban building culture. In this event, architectural historians Aleksandr Bierig (University of Chicago) and Zeynep Çelik Alexander (Columbia University) will present their current research on the architecture of coal in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century British Empire. Çelik Alexander’s work examines the Museum of Economic Geology. Opened in London in 1851, it acted as a kind of “proto-database,” instrumental in converting subterranean mineral deposits from a lottery to a “resource.” Returning to an earlier moment in this history, Bierig will offer a reading of two responses to urban coal use: late seventeenth-century essays by John Evelyn and Timothy Nourse. In their attention to the emergent, local interactions between coal, smoke, and the built environment in London, these authors revealed how fossil fuel threatened to transform the material basis of society in a new and encompassing way. Historian of capitalism Jonathan Levy (University of Chicago) will provide a response.
Aleksandr Bierig is a Harper-Schmidt Fellow and Collegiate Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago. His research focuses on interactions between histories of the built environment, the natural environment, and political economy in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Britain. His current book project examines the architectural and infrastructural implications of the rise of coal use in London, addressing a range of sites and activities connected to the construction of the London Coal Exchange, the world's first market for fossil fuel.
Zeynep Çelik Alexander is an architectural historian who teaches at Columbia University. She is the author of Kinaesthetic Knowing: Aesthetics, Epistemology, Modern Design (2017) and a co-editor of Design Technics: Archaeologies of Architectural Practice (2020) and Writing Architectural History: Evidence and Narrative in the Twenty-First Century (2021). She is also an editor of the journal Grey Room and a member of Aggregate. She is currently at work on a book titled Imperial Data: An Architectural History.
Jonathan Levy is a historian of economic life and of the United States, with interests in the relationships among business history, political economy, legal history, and the history of ideas and culture. In addition to being a member of the University of Chicago’s Department of History and the John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought he is the current Faculty Director of the Law, Letters, and Society program.