Design and standards: artistic versus cautionary tension #PhDprep

As I’ve tweeted recently, I now have confirmed funding for a full-time PhD at the University of Kent with the University of Lille starting in September. I’ve blogged before about the developing proposal which I started back in November 2019.

As things stand, the full title of the PhD proposal is The impact of building standards (professional, design and technical) on the development of early ‘modern’ architecture in Belgium, Northern France and linked European cities 1872-1914. But why this particular topic?

In part it derives from my 2019 book ‘Building Passions‘ which looked at the Brunel and Barry families of famous Victorian engineers and architects. I had tried to expand on 20 plus years of formal and informal research into the history of the built environment linked to these famous men and their iconic structures e.g. Tower Bridge, the Houses of Parliament, the Thames Tunnel, Clifton Suspension Bridge etc.

In the book I examined the fraught relationship between the architecture and engineering professions in the 19th Century, as well as the development of new architectural styles influenced by the use of new construction materials, particularly iron, steel and plate glass. In a case study I looked at the use of iron in late 19th-century architecture and trace it from a unique iron and glass office block in 1860s Liverpool (still standing as Oriel Chambers). This might well be a precursor to the first Chicago skyscrapers of the 1880s and beyond. At the same time the enormous iron Eiffel Tower was completed for the 1889 Universal Exhibition in Paris.

Then four years later the Belgian architect Victor Horta completed a unique townhouse design for a wealthy client-friend in Brussels. It still stands as Hotel Tassel and truly initiated what we now term ‘Art Nouveau’ architecture. Its roots can be traced back to the English Arts and Crafts domestic architecture movement begun with the Red House in 1860 and connected further in the past to Augustus Pugin’s ground-breaking gothic home ‘The Grange’ begun in 1840s Ramsgate.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tassel_House_stairway.jpg , marked as public domain. Hotel Tassel interior. Henry Townsend.

Later on in the book I mention the tragic Grenfell Tower disaster of 2017 – it was a terrible example of building standards becoming outdated as new technology, in this case external insulation cladding, came more to the fore on tower blocks. These standards were originally introduced to protect Londoners from unscrupulous constructors. The city wouldn’t have burned (so badly) in 1666 if it’s house builders had actually followed building regulations about not using wood or had pushed back tightly-packed, overhanging gables. It was a disaster waiting to happen and as such has been repeated over time.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e0/Grenfell_Tower_fire_%28wider_view%29.jpg . Grenfell Tower. Natalie Oxford

By contrast, complete aesthetic indulgence in building design can start off a whole chain reaction of artistic licence. Art Nouveau was disparaged as an urban style or movement in England because it was deemed over-decorative ‘foreignness’, unlike the ‘purer’ lines derived from the home-grown Arts and Craft approaches. Mackintosh in Glasgow sought a middle way, I may argue successfully. Others did the same elsewhere in Europe, notably Vienna.

This all makes interesting material for a PhD. The big problem will be to retain focus as much as possible – the only silver lining to the COVID-19 lockdown is that it may limit my access to original documents, so perhaps create a healthy tension of its own.

Who knows?

From writing about history to publishing fiction

When I started this website in mid-2017, it was to promote information about Sir John Wolfe Barry I had collated over many years. I was anticipating a formal launch in January 2018 to commemorate 100 years since Sir John’s death.

Three years on and a soft launch took place, coinciding with the start of the Year of Engineering and a number of related campaigns to promote engineering as a worthwhile career for young people.

Then, in early 2019, I began writing a book about Wolfe Barry, his family and the Brunels. This was self-published at the end of that year as ‘Building Passions’ (long title Brunel, Barry and ‘modern’ Victorian architecture) with a special website set up to promote the book at www.buildingpassions.co.uk .

The book launch coincided with the placing of an English Heritage Blue Plaque on the Chelsea house where Sir John had lived and died. I had started the application process for this at the end of 2015.

I have now moved on to writing fiction, an area in which I now feel relatively comfortable. I need to thank a group of local writers based in and around Canterbury, England for this. My second book, to be made available to readers soon, is about the fictionalised story of my grandfather who was a spy for the British in Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany (or was he?).

I am currently drafting a third, fourth and fifth book as a fictional trilogy of novellas. These will be published during the course of 2020 I hope. I’m also collaborating with my local writing group on a murder mystery.

I have just created a new website (www.ashfordpublishing.co.uk) for all of my books, whether published or not. The plan is to transfer my sales platform to it in due course, but feel free to bookmark already.

This website will be an archival resource, with a new website about Sir John Wolfe Barry, Tower Bridge and other structures available as soon as possible under the transferred domain name for this site.

I may continue to blog occasionally here …

Yes, I’m a bridge nerd #buildingpassions

My delightful teenage daughter told me I was a bridge nerd the other day. In her terms this would be considered an insult to any decent teenager. Fortunately, I’m not in my teens and I consider it a compliment.

What do I like about bridges? Below is a list of possibles:

  • They are elegant
  • They connect two communities
  • They circumvent a natural obstacle
  • They are historic landmarks
  • They were built by significant people
  • They are structures like buildings

My book ‘Building Passions‘ aims to celebrate historical structures. The website has lists of them with links to further information. I’m even building my own working model of Tower Bridge. Yes, nerdish, but who cares.

Many great engineers and architects were nerds. Isambard Kingdom Brunel was a super nerd. He was also voted 2nd greatest Briton after Churchill. Interestingly, both of them had a non-British parent – Winston’s mother was American and IK’s father was French. They weren’t afraid to be different.

You can read more about Brunel’s family and the Barry family, with their Victorian connections between architecture and engineering. The book is available in print via the website and if you use the code IKBSCB you can get free UK postage.

Dictatorship vs democracy

The COVID-19 pandemic has raised a number of issues about how societies run themselves.

I have been exploring democracy as part of writing a trilogy of novellas. The basic premise is that a long-lived, family dictatorship is finally coming to an end, but the people need to be prepared for transition to democracy.

You can’t just throw it at them if they’re not ready for it!

There are plenty of dictator analogies in real life and fiction. States where the supreme leader has moved to a status of leader for life, or pretty much there. The most famous early historical example was Julius Ceasar taking out the Senate, for which retribution came back inevitably on the Ides of March. But his nephew Augustus went on to found a dynasty of emperors. Napoleon is another case in point, from general to leader to emperor – once again he met his downfall. Then of course Hitler more recently and Kim Jong-Un currently.

The transition to democracy is more fraught with troubles, witnessed in Iraq, Afghanistan, and failed attempts in Libya and Syria. As I write my second novella, I show how anti-democratic forces can be manipulated to defend the status quo, if needs must. A bit of bloodshed can help incite civil war, irrespective of whether either side has really thought through the logic …

I’m on the verge of starting the final book in the trilogy – I intend it to be full of hope, since that is the kind of message we all need currently amidst the lockdowns. But it will also look forward to a calmer future when society has hopefully picked up a few pragmatic lessons and, hopefully, reacted positively to a temporary but repeatable crisis.

In the meantime, chill out and read my book covering the history of architecture and engineering during the Victorian era: ‘Building Passions‘.

Experiments in writing

My first book was non-fiction and specialist (‘Building Passions‘). It was self-published in 2019 and then I moved on to fiction.

My second book is almost finished. The text just needs a final proofing and the cover is designed for the e-book. The printed version may be print-on-demand. It is historical fiction based on the true life story of my grandfather.

My third project is a trilogy of novellas within the same theme about dictatorship versus democracy. All pure fiction but related to politics and philosophy.

My fourth book is a collaboration with three other writers. It’s a murder mystery where we have created our own individual characters and are writing from their different points of view.

I may need to restart the cycle with some non-fiction. This depends how things develop with my historical research. If I get PhD funding then it will relate to that topic within architectural history. If not then I will go wider to consider other areas.

I enjoy writing and experimentation with different genres makes it even more worthwhile – they all have their challenges and surprises.

Easing lockdown for #buildingpassions

Once lockdown started in the UK I stopped making print copies of my book ‘Building Passions’ available to purchase. This was because I couldn’t guarantee that I wouldn’t spread COVID-19 via the book and the postal system.

To compensate I have halved the e-book price in April. Since my goal has always been to sell mainly in e-format then this made sense. However no sales have taken place via Kobo.com .

Therefore I will resume with postal sales from the end of April and review how I distribute the book electronically. I dont want an exclusive contract with Kindle. I’m starting to dislike anything linked with Amazon, who seem keen on maximising profits at the expense of their workers and independent publishing.

I would have promoted the book more through physical talks but obviously the pandemic came along. I’m less safe at remote talks but I will try to develop these skills.

Stay safe!

We all have the right to write #buildingpassions

I blogged a while back about writing. It is what I do.

My current writing is in fiction, in fact a trilogy of novellas is in the works.

The theme is dictatorship versus democracy, which raises interesting issues about people, society and freedom. We are experiencing a stress on our current democratic systems during the COVID-19 pandemic.

I have set the trilogy in a fictional nation somewhere in Europe. The context is about a family that has been in sole power for many generations. Something is beginning to stir and its name is democracy. But it’s the family itself which is doing the stirring!

I’m hoping to self-publish the whole trilogy by the end of the year in three stages, each separated by at least a month. That gives me an overall target of about 60,000 words split into three. I’ve already written the first book and have started the second one. Once you get into a rhythm then it makes drafting a lot easier, and I always review what I write immediately afterwards.

Which brings me to the title of the post.

In a truly democratic society we have the right to write what we like, even thought those in power may not like it. Many states are parodies of democracies for this very reason and may just take everyone through the motions as a public relations exercise. Let’s not even talk about voting!

Research update updated #buildingpassions

I’ve previously blogged on my effort, that began last October, to apply for a PhD at a local university in Canterbury, England.

While I have been offered a place for the Autumn, there are still issues with how the PhD might be funded. Currently the most likely proposition would be a grant to support joint supervision between a UK and French university. I won’t do the research if I can’t get funding.

The PhD was going to focus on Art Nouveau architecture, first epitomised in unique houses designed by Victor Horta in Brussels in the 1890s. It will now go wider to cover what I term early ‘modern’ architecture, this in a broader period across the turn of the 19th and 20th Centuries.

My book ‘Building Passions‘ refers to ‘modern’ Victorian architecture in its full title. This captures a sentiment that the design of structures was modernising in response to 19th-century developments in the architectural and engineering professions, as well as technical progress in the use of building materials such as steel, glass and cement.

I won’t cover in a PhD, except as context, what happened in Chicago in the 1880s when architects first designed what became known eventually as skyscrapers. These ‘super-structures’ are also referenced in the book. The world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, UAE, has a construction heritage that can be linked back directly to Sir John Wolfe Barry and partners – and the first of these was the civil engineer Henry Brunel, son of the 2nd Greatest Briton after Churchill (by public vote), Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

You can read more about them all in the book, which is on sale at half price as an e-version for the month of April at www.kobo.com .