I’ve mentioned the Crystal Palace in previous posts in this series of 10 top structures from my book ‘Building Passions‘.
There is no doubt that it was a hugely significant structure that set an imprint on the industrialising world in the mid 19th Century. Britain had led that rapid new development process and here was a showcase building within which visitors could admire the nation’s industrial pride and heritage. To some extent the now famous 2012 London Olympics opening event was an historical re-enactment of that major change to the world.
I studied the First Industrial Revolution at a British University, so was always going to be keen on a structure that embodied its products. But I’d also gone to school at Dulwich College in South London, near to which the Crystal Palace was moved from Hyde Park, and where it stayed until it tragically burned down in 1936. But a suburb and a football/soccer team still carries its name.
In terms of the Brunels and the Barrys in ‘Building Passions’, the Crystal Palace was one of the few (only?) structures where Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Sir Charles Barry shared combined thoughts on its erection. The designer was Joseph Paxton, an expert in large-scale greenhouses, but of course there was a Building Committee chaired by the civil engineer Sir William Cubitt, to which Brunel and Barry belonged with Robert Stephenson and a few other eminent individuals.
The iron and plate glass design influenced both Brunel’s Paddington Station as well as Edward Middleton Barry’s Floral Hall, adjoining the new Royal Opera House. It also showed the wider world what could be done with these two key building materials. In Chicago this influenced innovative architects to start using them to design taller, lighter (both meanings) office structures with new elevator technology. The word ‘skyscraper’ entered our vocabulary. Steel replaced iron as a cheaper but more tensile metal, and so the industrial era moved into the rapidly growing commercial cities of the world, most typified in the 20th Century by New York and its Empire States Building.
So far I’ve spread my top 10 list between different types of structure including a bridge, a club house, a ship and an opera house with an appended iron and glass hall.
In this post I will cover one of the two remaining structures not included in my Twitter poll before Christmas. It will be the only railway station in my 10 favourites.
But why did I choose it as I actually like many Victorian stations? Because it was distinctive and connects strongly with Isambard Kingdom Brunel‘s Great Western Railway.
Paddington Station may be better known for the eponymous teddy bear in the story and movies. It was a station I came to know well after I started university at Bristol, where the Great Western Railway began originally in the 19th Century.
Brunel wanted something magnificent and cutting-edge to establish his railway as THE gateway to the West of England and in deed to his superb transatlantic steamships docked in Bristol Port.
Another connection I describe in the book and is in my list of favourites, is the Crystal Palace. Like that vast structure, Paddington had a huge iron and glass roof that survives to this day. Brunel was involved with both. Passengers can still take Great Western trains to Bath, Bristol, the South West and South Wales.
If you are fans of the musical ‘My Fair Lady’ you will recognise the song in the title of this post.
It is sung by Elisa Doolittle, the flower seller, as she dances around Covent Garden marketplace in London more than a century ago. The movie actress was Audrey Hepburn, who by the end of the film transforms from a chirpy Cockney to a posh high-class lady.
Covent Garden is still a big London attraction and the Royal Opera House and Floral Hall to be found there, also feature in ‘Building Passions‘. This is because they were built by the architect Edward Middleton Barry, brother of John Wolfe Barry.
I particularly like the Floral Hall, designed as it was in a miniature form of the Crystal Palace, another favourite structure in the book. When the Royal Opera House was renovated at the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries, the engineers managed to raise the next door hall up on stilts and create a beautiful metal and glass venue for opera goers and other guests.
The structure still exists as a world centre of song and dance, which is fitting as we approach the festive switch from 2019 to 2020.
Have a happy one!
I gave a STEM engagement lecture yesterday at Canterbury Christchurch University in England about my book ‘Building Passions‘.
As part of the promotion for the lecture, I had run a week long Twitter poll on four structures mentioned in the book.
All of these were built in London during the reign of Queen Victoria but, more importantly, the ‘builders’ were the key architects and engineers covered by the book.
At the lecture an audience member asked me why I had chosen those four structures and I tried to explain, but ended up saying it was purely subjective.
In fact I will now produce a list of my top 10 structures from the book, including those four, and in subsequent blogs justify why I have selected them. I will also try to rank them and, who knows, may makes some changes along the way!
- Tower Bridge
- Houses of Parliament
- SS Great Eastern
- Thames Tunnel
- Reform Club
- Crystal Palace
- Connel Ferry Bridge
- Paddington Station
- Royal Opera House and Floral Hall
- Dulwich College
How did I produce this list?
The main rule applied was using enough different types of structures, associated with the main architects and engineers covered in the book. The commonality was that they were either a Brunel or a Barry, or both. I could have made it a longer list and changed every one of the structures, so that’s where the subjectivity comes in. The full list is available (with many hyperlinks) at: https://www.buildingpassions.co.uk/sway-of-structures.php
I will start the series of blogs with a less well-known structure, the Connel Ferry Bridge in Scotland. The first clue is that it was built by Sir John Wolfe Barry and Partners in 1903.
I told a friend and his teenage son about my book today. It taught me that you can present the same story in many different ways.
I sat them down and literally explained the main characters and the built structures linked to them. This was a good test for my own memory and would help my comms skills when handling larger audiences.
I literally went with the flow, without any planning except my own knowledge of the book.
My main focus was on the two fathers, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Sir Charles Barry, and their sons Sir John Wolfe Barry and Henry Marc Brunel. I mentally pictured the small tree I have drawn showing their relationships, and those with Sir Marc Brunel, father of IKB, and Sir Charles’ other sons and grandsons covered in the book.
I also covered broader issues such as the development of architectural styles and the link between ‘modernism’, Art Nouveau and the Crystal Palace.
I thought, as I spoke, of what would keep a teenager interested in the story. I tried as much interaction as I could, asking questions and then providing answers where he or his father couldn’t do so. It was all about nudging them along, but trying to avoid any topic which might appear too technical for a layperson.
It would be great if I could write books easily this way (think perhaps ‘Sophie’s World’ or ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’), but I have not quite mastered such an approach to non-fiction. May be fiction will be easier?
You can always teach an old dog new tricks …
I’m travelling to a family reunion in London to celebrate my mother’s 80th birthday.
Families are important.
I write about two of them in my forthcoming book on the 19th-century Brunels and Barrys. The full title is “Brunel, Barry and ‘modern’ Victorian architecture”. The short title is ‘Building Passions’.
In the book, the two famous families of engineers and architects connect through John Wolfe Barry and his close friend and business partner Henry Marc Brunel. Their fathers were the great Victorians Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Charles Barry, who were both Fellows of the Royal Society like their outstanding contemporary Charles Darwin. They also co-designed the 1851 Great Exhibition and Crystal Palace with Prince Albert, Joseph Paxton and others.
Families have roots and branches.
They come from somewhere and in most cases continue on, even if there are name changes along the way. Personalities appear, disappear and reappear through new generations.
This is all part of evolution and completely natural, in whatever way it may have first started.
The best families strive to work cooperatively with others for the wider good. This despite the temptation to care for their immediate lineage only.
In this way the world progresses and, we hope, avoids the pitfalls of personal greed and avarice that have become so visible today.
I’ve written half my target number of words for my book on the 19th Century Barrys. The rest needs to be completed by mid-June latest.
One thing that changes as I add words to the draft is the title and structure of the book. It has now moved on from a central focus on Sir Charles Barry and his three architect/civil engineer sons, to a wider scope including the great Isambard K Brunel and his son Henry Brunel.
This makes for a better connection with the themes of family, recognition and building that run through the book, as well as allowing me to look even more closely at the relationship between architecture and civil engineering.
What, you might ask, is the connection between the Barrys and the Brunels?
John Wolfe Barry and Henry Brunel were close friends and business partners who lived and worked in the Brunel family home and offices in London for the first years of their civil engineering collaboration. Once John was married and children started arriving, Henry had to leave his parents’ house as a lifelong bachelor and hand it over completely to his friend. This can’t have been easy for him!
The fathers of each son knew each other and were both Fellows of the Royal Society. They had also worked together on designing a venue for the 1851 Great Exhibition in London which became known as the famous Crystal Palace. There is no evidence of any close personal or business relationship between them and this could be said to typify the traditional space between British architects and civil engineers.
The book will expand on the above and is currently due for publication by end September 2019. Fingers crossed!
By Barrys I don’t mean Barry Manilow or Barry from Eastenders.
I do mean Sir Charles Barry and his sons Charles junior, Edward and John. They are the main characters in the joint biography I am writing of an atypical Victorian family.
Most of us associate the Victorian period with scenes from a Charles Dickens novel or with Queen Victoria and her Prince Consort Albert. For me it is inextricably linked to architecture (we live in a Victorian house even though it was built a few years after the Empress died) as well as the industrial and commercial expansion of the British Empire culminating in the Great Exhibition of 1851 held in the magnificent Crystal Palace.
That last structure brings together a few strands in the developing book. Sir Charles Barry sat on the planning committee for it together with Prince Albert and IK Brunel. His close collaborator on the New Palace of Westminster, Augustus Pugin, created an amazing display of medieval crafts which typified the Gothic Revival style he defended so vociferously against Greek classicists.
Once the Great Exhibition finished it was decided to move the whole structure to Sydenham Hill outside London, though now in a suburb in the capital aptly called Crystal Palace. To allow access to it a new high level railway station was built at the top of the hill to reduce the walk for visitors. There is some dispute whether Charles Barry junior or his brother Edward Middleton Barry was responsible for this structure since demolished, but certainly the subway from the station to the site of the palace is still accessible with its amazing vaulting and decoration.
Charles Barry junior did build the splendid new Dulwich College in the 1860s just down the hill from the Crystal Palace and shown in the above photo. I went to school there but never realised its architectural significance or link to the Barry family. Not even my best friend Barry knew this. If he actually existed that is ….