Theses Doctoral

Materials, Labor, and Apprehension: Building for the Threat of Fire across the Nineteenth-Century British Atlantic

Rowen, Jonah

With its destabilizing shifts away from mercantilism toward liberal economics, early nineteenth-century Britain generated an increasingly powerful class of technocrats, including architects and builders, in design and construction. This burgeoning professional group involved in architecture, planning, and building directed processes, products, and technologies of construction toward maintaining societal order. In doing so, they cemented their social hierarchical status. Following abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and emancipation from 1833-1838, architects and builders had to adapt their techniques of communication and labor management, and adjust their building practices to material and technological innovations. In contrast to heroic narratives of industrial progress and optimism that conventionally dominated histories of modern architecture, figures of apprehension, anxiety, and anticipation more appropriately encapsulate the consequential events of this period. Through empirical analyses of small-scale techniques of drawing and building, this dissertation renders the general transition from rigid, mercantilist arrangements aligned with economies of enslavement toward ideologies of free trade, increasingly widespread wage labor regimes, and liberalism more broadly, into legible, tangible forms. Using as heuristics architectural technologies for preempting, mitigating, and suppressing fires—planning, constructional assemblies, mechanisms, materials, regulations, financing, and legislation—I demonstrate that preventing undesirable occurrences governed a heterogeneous array of activities. These ranged from English architects' professionalization initiatives, to plans for evacuating people from and extinguishing fires in theaters, to labor management in West Indian military outposts, to fire insurance offices that spread their risk profiles by indemnifying Caribbean sugar plantations beginning in the late eighteenth century. Thus capital and uncertainty went hand in hand as elements in conveying wealth, as architects and others involved in building at once made risk both fungible and material.


This item is currently under embargo. It will be available starting 2025-05-06.

More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Martin, Reinhold I.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 3, 2020