Creativity and norms – why they both matter #buildingpassions

As part of scoping for a potential PhD in the history of architecture and engineering, I have been considering the tension between being creative and sticking to norms.

It’s a topic I’ve skirted around already on this website and in my book ‘Building Passions‘.

Imagine you have to design a new house for someone you admire and respect. They have given you a brief which tells you they want the building to be unique for them, but that it needs to conform with local health and safety regulations. This immediately produces creative tension in the design process.

That’s not a bad thing in itself and forces you to think about new approaches to form and function, but which can still meet the set standards. It is possible that artistic recognition may come out of this process. This will depend on the nature of the materials used and the skills employed at melding them into an original work of beauty.

What makes humans different is our ability to appreciate our wider environment. Other creatures just live in theirs. They may have unwritten rules, but these are purely designed to serve the group rather than the individual.

So creativity and norms can co-exist in societies. But we humans need to rise above our basic motivations and reflect on the bigger picture.

Can we do this?

Who owns an image? #buildingpassions

One of the most interesting findings from self-publishing my forthcoming book (short title ‘Building Passions’) on the 19th-century Brunels and Barrys is that sourcing images is complicated!

I could probably write a separate book about this but below are some bullets.

  • My editor quite rightly advised me to start sourcing images early in the process. It has probably taken me about 4 months and there is still one outstanding one to be licensed.
  • People and organisations have different policies for licensing images ranging from free, no hassle to costly and complex! This seems to bear little relevance to the provenance of the image …
  • The internet has taken the lead in encouraging the shared use of free images through Creative Commons and similar schemes.
  • Certain images of well-known privately-owned buildings e.g. the Burj Khalifa and the Shard are copyrighted, but in the case of the Eiffel Tower while you can use a daytime image freely, you can’t use a nighttime one as the electric lighting is trademarked …
  • Non-fiction works are therefore more costly to publish so if you want to spend less, write fiction and include your own illustrations.

I am sympathetic to living producers of genuine artistic objects who need to be recognised and rewarded for their efforts, in order to allow the creative design process to flourish.

However, I am less sympathetic to others outside this category, particularly archives and agencies that charge self-publishers large sums for the reuse of their images, many of which may have outlived their ‘real’ copyright needs.

I think we need to strike a balance here, as with many areas of life. If not, one day perhaps everything we see will be labelled ‘not for reuse’, including ourselves. See this intriguing piece about copyrighting the tattoos of famous sports personalities …

Some last minute picture research

We were on a mini road trip of parts of England for a few days. More than 1000 miles clocked up at least.

We dropped in on a Barry and Banks Jacobethan manor hall in Norfolk and a Nash Italianate villa built in Shropshire in 1802. We also saw Gothic Ilam Park in the Peak District and the amazing St Giles Roman Catholic Church in Cheadle by Pugin.

In between we admired the beautiful Lake District countryside where Wordsworth, Ruskin and Beatrix Potter all lived.

For me it was a reaffirmation of the treasures that can be found in my home country. Some of these I will write about in my forthcoming book. More importantly I will be able to include current day images of them.

You will have to wait until publication to see these, so in the meantime I have included a classic Lake District scene for you to contemplate – who knows it may inspire you to go there?

Editing as you write (EAYW) and patios

What is your writing style?

Mine is to edit as I write which I suppose is the luxury of using word processors. Is there an electronic version of the typewriters I once started with, where you can only write and then cover your e-paper with handwritten scribblings?

The problem with the EAYW approach is that you can get bogged down in the minutiae of grammar, spelling, language and facts. This grinds free flowing creativity to a standstill.

Since my book is about engineering and architecture let’s try a building analogy.

If you build a new patio in your garden you have a big choice of finishes you can use: slabs, stones, bricks, concrete, gravel, timber etc. This will be influenced by aesthetics and maintenance.

But what matters before you can appreciate the end product is using the right type and amount of foundations. Without these your finished patio may look superficially great, but over time will lose its beauty and function. Too little support or drainage and slabs will tilt or sink …

Of course people are only going to remember the top layer. So no point perfecting the foundations and then covering them with a cheap finish.

Like many things in life it is about achieving the correct balance between form and function. People who build have always struggled with this and since their finishes are often viewed by many, they open themselves up to public critique as well as adulation.

Read more about this on the blog and eventually in the book.

Architectural styles and communities (part 3)

In the previous post in this series I referred to a unique office building in Liverpool, England completed in 1864 and how it had influenced architectural thinking about high rise buildings in late 19th Century America.

This post is about the architect Victor Horta.

I knew little about him until recently, when I began researching the origins of Art Nouveau as a revolutionary architectural style which flourished across the turn of the 19th and 20th Centuries. This connects with investigations related to Augustus Pugin, as well as into the relationship between architectural aesthetics and engineering form, some of which is recorded on this website about the civil engineer Sir John Wolfe Barry.

Horta appears to me to have been a remarkable man. But he was also a reflection of the time and place he lived. Born in Ghent, Belgium in 1861, he eventually moved to Brussels, the Belgian capital, where his unique approach to architecture struck a chord with key members of the city community. One particular building stands out for me and many others who have like me appreciated his efforts. This is the Hotel Tassel.

It was to be the home of a professor of geometry who was a Freemason like Horta. It seems the architect was given complete artistic licence. But he approached this, as Morris and Webb had done with their ground-breaking Red House in England, with a philosophical bent which captured the full expression of his talent in design and the detailed application of materials and techniques.

My new project will look at how this created vision still reverberates within the community that is Brussels.

The final post in this series.

Who was the first architect to design a bridge?

This year is the bicentenary of the founding of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1818. It is also 100 years since Sir John Wolfe Barry died. Next year we will celebrate 125 years since he completed Tower Bridge in 1894.

Wolfe Barry was President of the ‘Civils’ and in this role keen to ensure that young civil engineers were given the right training to design and build bridges. At that time architects were less involved in the design process for bridges but this was changing.

Was Sir John qualified to design and build Tower Bridge?

Yes, in terms of producing the right physical structure and having the general engineering skills needed to start and finish the project successfully. His drawing skills were also good, no doubt boosted by the family specialism in architecture. However, the original designs for the bridge were not his. They belonged to Sir Horace Jones, the Corporation of London’s architect. Wolfe Barry was consulted by Jones on the engineering practicalities and provided evidence to Parliament on these, which may well have been a deciding factor in getting construction approval. Jones died soon after building began, but was succeeded by his architectural assistant George Stevenson.

John Wolfe Barry’s business partner Henry Brunel was also involved in the design and build process for Tower Bridge. His father IK Brunel had designed and part-built Clifton Suspension Bridge until the money ran out and was also responsible for the aesthetically pleasing railway bridge across the Thames at Maidenhead.

So my question to Twitterati (see @behroutcomes) which became the title of this post was designed to explore the early relationship between architects and engineers in bridge-building. Names that have come up include Vitruvius, Appollodorus, Li Chun and Palladio. Let’s see who else appears …

Who are the modern day Brunels and Wolfe Barry’s?

Architecture has its modern day heroes such as Enzo Piano or Norman Foster or the late Zaha Hadid.

Civil and structural engineers are less well known nowadays compared to the legends of the past.

What has happened?

I would venture to suggest that people are more impressed nowadays by creativity and aesthetics than by downright structural solidity.

Is this fair?

No, but then it’s not fair that medicine attracts huge numbers of applicants and quite happily rejects large percentages of them in the upper echelons. No shame in not making the cut, you can always try another profession (by implication, easier).

I hope very much that this bias will change over time. I don’t believe it helps any profession. It’s not the obvious that matters, rather the less well perceived.

However beautiful a skyscraper or a bridge, what we need to be sure of is that they will last serving a good purpose. They won’t if they collapse or if they produce more problems than solutions for the communities in which they are built.

Civil engineering inspiration since the Victorian Age

The Victorians were huge achievers on a global scale.

Amongst the many contributors to this process were civil engineers such as Telford, Brunel, Hawkshaw, Fowler, Baker and Wolfe Barry.

I attended a wonderful book launch this week for Roma Agrawal’s new book BUILT during which she kindly signed my copy. The occasion was hosted at the Brunel Museum in Rotherhithe on the site of the first traffic tunnel under a navigable waterway, the River Thames. The civil engineers responsible were Marc and Isambard Brunel, father and son. As I’ve posted elsewhere on this site, Isambard’s son Henry became a close business partner of John Wolfe Barry.

The final chapter of Roma’s book is called ‘Dream’. Everyone dreams, literally, but not so many actually achieve them in real life. Roma managed to write her book which started as a spreadsheet and she’d previously designed key structural parts of the Shard, an architect’s dream come true.

Young people ever since Victorian times (and before) have wanted to fulfil their dreams. Civil  and structural engineering is one very visible way of doing this – not just a small, invisible component of a household object, but a big, visible, in-your-face statement of how conceptual design can change the world physically for the better.

Where there was no hospital there now is one to treat the sick, where no bridge now one stands to cross a river.

Communities can flourish and in turn have an influence on their environment, gradually ensuring that it reflects shared ideals and aspirations, including beauty, sustainability and using an ethical approach.

John Wolfe Barry would have been happy with such an outcome.

 

Engineering vs Architecture continued

I’ve commented previously on this site about the relationship between civil engineering and architecture.

The Barry family are an interesting case study because John was the only civil engineer amongst a father and two elder brothers who were all successful architects. It isn’t clear whether it was his choice to follow a different profession or his father’s decision. But we do know that he worked together with his brothers on a few projects.

One of these was the construction of railway stations with adjoining hotels at Charing Cross and Cannon Street in London during the early 1860s. Edward Middleton Barry was the architect for both hotels. John worked as a civil engineering assistant to Sir John Hawkshaw who had overall responsibility for the two extensions to the rail line from London Bridge Station.

Another project which linked brothers was the construction of a new HQ for the Institution of Civil Engineers at the time John was it’s President. His other brother Charles was asked to advise on the design from an architectural perspective. Sadly the building was demolished not long after it was completed to make way for the Government’s new Treasury offices in Westminster.

It would be interesting to know how the brothers discussed built environment issues together, whether informally or in a business context. How passionate did emotions get over the use of form as opposed to aesthetics or vice versa?

Beauty or form?

What matters when designing and planning a building: its aesthetic appeal or the nature of its form and materials? People will have different views about this depending on their tastes, which makes the built environment such a fascinating and sometimes controversial area of practice.

Debates have continued ever since humans first began to shape their environment and introduce the concept of ‘style’ to each other. Different generations may hold vastly differing views about why a particular structure appeals or not.

I’m happy to defend my appreciation of 19th Century architecture and engineering, based as it is on my background as an historian of the first Industrial Revolution, which happened to take place in my country of origin. I suppose when I first studied economic and social history at university I was fascinated by human ingenuity and organisation as an evolving complex system, less so by individual acts of creativity. As time has passed and I’ve moved along with my generation, clearly I’ve started to appreciate the aesthetical side more than I used to.

My challenge now is to address a general misunderstanding of how historical precedent can best be used to help pave the way forward for ‘modernity’, whichever way we may choose to interpret the future.

I believe looking back with hindsight at engineers such as John Wolfe Barry and his contemporaries aids us in this process.