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book I mention the tragic Grenfell Tower disaster of 2017 – it was a terrible example of building standards becoming outdated as new technology, in this case external insulation cladding, came more to the fore on tower blocks.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?

Define, design, refine #buildingpassions

I am scoping a new novella which will be pure fiction.

This is new for me as so far I’ve written non-fiction and historical fiction, which both seem safe ground for an historian/policy wonk by trade.

I decided to start with a blank document on my laptop and see what emerged. Curiously my approach seemed to reflect what probably happens when building a new structure – and I’ve written about many past ones in my book ‘Building Passions‘.

First off, I defined my parameters. What did I really want to write about and what environment would shape it? That was fairly easy with pure fiction, though even at this stage some feedback helped me make a decision.

Then I started to design my main characters. I’d not done this previously as they were already there based on (largely) historical facts. This was quite fun and allowed complete artistic licence. I could make them as mad or as sad as I wished!

My next step was to create an outline plot based on what I now had. This was considerably easier than I thought it would be. I had to pinch myself to believe it!

Last but not least I refined my characters and plot, tightening focus and removing superfluous material. The end product looked great, now I just need to write it …

Define, design, refine. No idea where this came from but a net search just got me to: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/define-design-refine-strategy-your-products-mayank-tiwari/ and https://medium.com/netbramha-studios/define-design-refine-a-strategy-for-your-products-2bbe55df8dcb . I would also highly recommend anything by Oliver Broadbent often on his eiffelover.com (get the pun?) website.

It seems I have surreptitiously found an existing product design mantra which can be extended to writing and structures!

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?

Writing fiction is a matter of dialogue #buildingpassions

I am writing a novella based on the life story of my grandfather, who was a spy in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, we think.

I started the process with scoping the story back in the summer, and then some preparatory drafting until November, when I started writing proper. This coincided with NaNoWriMo which is held every November around the world to encourage novel writing. I met a group of local writers and we have continued to engage since then.

I thought I could write fiction as easily as non-fiction, having completed my book ‘Building Passions‘. As it turns out, fiction is equally difficult. While you don’t rely on the accuracy of historical facts, for example, you do need to now how to build a close, personal link to your readership.

The big learning curve for me has been writing dialogue. I found this a challenge as it wasn’t a strong point for me. I’m good at narrative. However, my writing group has helped me develop these skills, so now I feel more confident. I can turn narrative into dialogue fairly easily, though know I must resist the temptation to write a screen or theatre play.

“Tell me John, why do you not want to be an architect like you father and brothers? Why a civil engineer?”

“I like sketching and designing, but I’m more interested in the maths behind those structures first proposed by myself or others. I have no ego about creative proprietorship. I just want to be sure buildings and bridges stay up for ever.”

Such might be a fictional dialogue between a young John Wolfe Barry and a Victorian contemporary.

Perhaps I should write more such exchanges?

Tis a season of cheer and perhaps Reform? #buildingpassions

It’s Christmas Day and a good time to wish happiness to the world, with a bit of reform sprinkled in.

Continuing my 10 favourite structures from my book ‘Building Passions‘, I had a moment of doubt on which should feature in this post. However, that soon disappeared and I decided on the building in the picture.

It is of the Reform Club on Pall Mall in London. You may know the street if you have ever played the British version of Monopoly, or visited London. Perhaps you have walked past the building.

The Reform Club was designed and built by Sir Charles Barry, the architect of the Houses of Parliament, also featured on my list. His clientele were the same, elite members of Victorian society, many of whom were keen to change the world around them for the better.

Barry’s inspiration was an Italian Palazzo he had seen as a young man on his self-funded tour of the great Western classics of architecture. He wanted to recreate its exterior in foggy London, but it is with the interior that he fully expressed his creative talents.

Reform is topical currently in the world, as young people become frustrated with slow progress on the environment and the political idealism they espouse.

We can only hope that 2020 brings a change for the better.

Revealed, the front cover of my new book! #buildingpassions

I am excited to reveal the front cover of my new book which will be published by the end of September.

Firstly, I have to make you aware of the credit for the image, written immediately below it, in case by any chance you wish to save it elsewhere (out of politeness you can tell me in the comments section). This must always be included with it.

My Italian cover designer Elisa worked with me on the original photo, hence the share of the credit she gets.

It was an interesting process which started in May and is not quite complete as I still need to finalise the spine width for the print version.

However, for marketing purposes now is the right time to start promoting the book’s front cover.

Arpingstone, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tower.bridge.7.basculecloseup.london.arp.jpg, all changes by Elisa Vernazza, CC zero 1.0.

I will explain a bit more how the front cover came about.

As you can see, the image includes a photo of Tower Bridge which Elisa and I both liked as it was one of the key structures in the book. She helped me turn it into something more usable for a book cover and then we filled in the text, advised by my editor and others who had previously given me feedback on titles and use of cover images etc. I’ve blogged about images for my book.

The final title came from working versions and was adapted to suit search engines and the fit with the graphic. The sub-header is also my tagline for the book, #buildingpassions. My name isn’t prominent as it’s my first book, but hopefully that will change in the future.

Once the text is proofed and indexing complete then I will bring everything together into an electronic version that you will be able to download (at a price I’m afraid!). Not quite there yet though.

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 …