Reality has moved off stage right #buildingpassions

The good news, which is real, is that I’ve been offered funding for my PhD in architectural history starting in September at the University of Kent. Really looking forward to that! I’ve previously posted about the research topic.

The not so good news is the ‘Cummings Effect’. Not the fact that Twitter filters the name Cummings because it has a rude word in it. It does that to Scunthorpe and other words with the same content.

No, this is the Dom Cummings saga of how best to handle your family affairs during a lockdown. Many think he got it wrong as the UK Prime Minister’s senior adviser. Be that true or not, the effect has already been quoted by one newspaper as a reason to ignore lockdown laws. You couldn’t make it up!

It has been a moral dilemma with some families applying the rules strictly and not even seeing loved ones who have died from the virus. Cummings believed in herd immunity so you might argue he was happy to see the virus spread from London to Durham, but just wanted to make sure his own children were safe. Double standards? Not for those involved in the murky world of politics, I’d suggest.

Looking back in history, there have always been challenging times when the behaviour of individuals has been questioned. Even IK Brunel, now lauded as the 2nd Greatest Briton after Churchill, had some dubious practices. Some blame him for the huge numbers of deaths caused by building his epic Box Tunnel near Bath. You can read more about Isambard and his family in my book ‘Building Passions‘.

Personally, I like Brunel and Churchill as truly outstanding historical figures of global interest. I just wish some of our current leaders had similar attributes about them during these difficult times.

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.

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 .

Art Nouveau or decorative c***p #buildingpassions

I’m on a lengthy journey which started at the end of October.

This is when I first approached my local university about doing a PhD in history.

Since then the topic has been moulded into something more focused and relevant. Currently it will look at how Art Nouveau emerged as a distinct architectural style in Brussels in the early 1890s.

More importantly it will get under the skin of how building standards impacted on its development as it spread through Belgium and to the rest of Europe. This creep was resisted in England and parts of Austria and Germany. In the end the style died an early death before WWI, to be replaced by Art Deco and Expressionism in the 1920s.

For opponents of the style, resisting the creep became about highlighting decorative c**p. Adolf Loos in Vienna ranted about the moral decay of over-decoration. Charles Voysey in England stressed the greater importance of function, a feature of the earlier Arts & Craft style which had been taken up by the Chicago School of architects when building skyscrapers in the States.

Others were happy to let Art Nouveau flourish as a holistic design trend, but preferred the simplicity of emerging modernism, aided by the use of reinforced concrete as a smooth exterior feature, strengthened with a steel core.

At any rate, if I manage to do it, the research could be fun!

Do we ever learn from the past? #buildingpassions

I sometimes wonder if we ever learn from what has happened previously in society?

There are so many cases of people blatantly ignoring the fact that their idea or project has simply been recycled. They crave intellectual originality in some form. They deny credit to those who have gone before them. Or conveniently misinterpret the lessons of past mistakes, so it appears that there were no previous errors.

Our political leaders are the worst examples of this. So why do we not use history to point it out to them? Sadly, even highly expert historians can be manipulated by others with unethical intentions. All academics are vulnerable to this. Egos can easily be massaged.

Is there a solution?

I’m not sure really. But we should continue to research and write about history as independently and accurately as we can. There will be differences of view about interpretation, but these should be accepted in good spirit. Each effort to explain the past should build on the work of predecessors. When we make new hypotheses, we should be confident that the evidence we have accrued is sufficiently supportive. This may mean changing our own perspectives. So be it.

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?

Research update #buildingpassions

I am finalising an application for PhD funding, prior to interview on 5 February.

I’ve decided to focus on a specific type of architecture, Art Nouveau, I mention briefly in my book ‘Building Passions‘. This late 19th-century style or movement lasted about 20 dynamic years in the lead up to WWI. It was novel, organic and often highly decorative. It then disappeared!

My research as proposed would look at the influence of building standards on the development of Art Nouveau in a few key countries. This means how professional skills, building regulations and specifications for materials all impacted on the architectural design and final buildings.

Why on earth might this be of interest to you?

Well, it’s important to be aware of your built environment and where it came from. This gives you more say over what may or not happen to it, rather than simply trusting the experts.

As I argue in the book, ‘modern’ Victorian architecture developed as new building materials such as iron, steel, plate glass and reinforced cement came on stream. Designers and their clients reacted to this technical change with creative ideas and technical support from engineers.

This goes on all the time with, for example, new, fire-resistant cladding being developed on the outside of buildings. Local communities need to be fully engaged with the process to ensure that tragedies such as Grenfell Tower don’t occur.