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book I mention the tragic Grenfell Tower disaster of 2017 – it was a terrible example of building standards becoming outdated as new technology, in this case external insulation cladding, came more to the fore on tower blocks.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

Dulwich College #10favstructures #buildingpassions

Dulwich College is an independent school in South London, England.

It is best known for producing Ernest Shackleton, the Antarctic Explorer, and PG Wodehouse, the writer of the amusing Jeeves the Butler series.

More recently, it has been in the news for educating Nigel Farage, the leader of the Brexit Party in the UK. It isn’t known for schooling me, but yes, I did go to it for almost four years in total, split between two stays.

Why, you might reasonably ask, is it on my list of 10 favourite structures from my book ‘Building Passions‘? The answer is simple: I love it as a building complex, and it was designed by Charles Barry junior in the 19th Century.

The structure was an Italianate homage to the Houses of Parliament, designed and built by his father Sir Charles Barry, with assistance from his other son Edward Middleton Barry, as well as the famous Gothic Revival designer Augustus Welbin Pugin.

I particularly like the beautiful Great Hall with its hammerbeam roof also reminiscent of medieval Westminster Hall, now the main entrance route to Parliament for the public.

Sadly, I didn’t appreciate the architecture while at the school – at least I’ve finally come round.

The Crystal Palace #10favstructures #buildingpassions

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.

Continuing my #10favstructures in #buildingpassions

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.

Wouldn’t It Be Loverly #10favstructures #buildingpassions

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!

The Leviathan #10favstructures #buildingpassions

Many years ago when I was a child, I remember watching a TV programme about the great engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

The programme covered his early life and construction of tunnels, bridges and railways. But the achievement that most appealed to me was his realised ambition to build the largest steamships in the world.

The first such ship was the Great Western, followed soon by the Great Britain, both designed and built in Bristol. However, it was Brunel’s final project, the SS Great Eastern that most stood out for me. Here was a truly gargantuan vessel which would eclipse others for many decades to come.

The monster ship was launched with much difficulty on the River Thames in London. Brunel also fell out with investors and his notoriously difficult collaborator John Scott Russell. Finally, there was an engine room explosion on the maiden run.

IKB never lived to see what happened to his ‘Leviathan’. His civil engineer son Henry kept an interest in the ship and replaced his father as a close personal mentor with the famous naval architect Sir William Froude. The ship’s greatest role was to lay the first transatlantic telegraph cable.

The Great Eastern therefore features on my list of favourite structures in my book ‘Building Passions‘ as the only ship. It raised all kinds of technical issues as a vast iron structure designed for many people. Up-ended it would have represented a skyscraper far ahead of its time!

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.

They thought it was all over … #buildingpassions

‘They think it’s all over … it is now’ was an expression from 1966 that became famous in the UK at least (subsequently through an eponymous TV show).

This was the year the English soccer team won the World Cup at Wembley, the home of football. The commentator was explaining why English fans were already running onto the pitch before the final whistle – then the home team scored in mid-sentence to settle the match.

I kind of thought my research, writing and publishing project was all over this week, what with a new Blue Plaque for Sir John Wolfe Barry on the Tuesday, followed by the book launch for ‘Building Passions‘ on Wednesday.

Yet I realise today that in a way it’s only just begun (apologies to the Carpenters singing duo).

I still need to promote the book to potential audiences – there is no point even writing a book if it isn’t read by all those who might possibly be interested in it.

The next event is a lecture on the book in Canterbury, England on 17 December, only 8 days before Christmas. Signed copies will be available to buy as last minute Xmas gifts.

For those who don’t know it, Canterbury is a beautifully historic English city closely associated with the Monarchy and the Church. St Thomas Becket was martyred in the famous Cathedral on the implicit instructions of King Henry II. Pilgrims have visited ever since, and the famous ‘Canterbury Tales’ by Geoffrey Chaucer institutionalised this into English language and culture.

The crime took place because loyal servants to the highest authority in England thought this would please their master. Sounds familiar eh?

Today’s the day #buildingpassions

I’m launching the print copy of ‘Building Passions’ this evening Wednesday 20 November in Central London.

The e-book has been out since September on www.kobo.com . The full title is Brunel, Barry and ‘modern’ Victorian architecture .

English Heritage has just put up a Blue Plaque on the house in London where Sir John Wolfe Barry lived, no. 15 Chelsea Embankment. This is in the 125th year since he built Tower Bridge with Henry Marc Brunel and others. It is also a little over a century since Wolfe Barry died, at his home, in 1918.

I will continue to promote ‘Building Passions’ through the website and give talks about it to local audiences in and around Kent where I live.

The next one is on 17 December at Canterbury Christchurch University. It is being organised by the STEM Hub based there, which coordinates volunteers such as myself to speak to Kent school-age children about careers in science, technology, engineering and/or mathematics/medicine.

I will also be talking about the book at Ashford Library on 25 February 2020 and am happy to come to an easily-accessible venue in London and the South East to do the same. Please contact me at enquiries@buildingpassions.co.uk .