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book I mention the tragic Grenfell Tower disaster of 2017 – it was a terrible example of building standards becoming outdated as new technology, in this case external insulation cladding, came more to the fore on tower blocks.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

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!

Brunel, Barry and ‘modern’ Victorian architecture eBook by Nick von Behr – 9781916225701 | Rakuten Kobo

The book cover image above should always be credited as follows: Arpingstone (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tower.bridge.7.basculecloseup.london.arp.jpg), size and alignment by Elisa Vernazza, https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/legalcode

The e-book is currently available to order at https://www.kobo.com/gb/en/ebook/brunel-barry-and-modern-victorian-architecture

Architectural styles and communities (end)

This in my final post in a series looking at a project I’m planning to undertake about a specific architectural style and its local communities.

In my last post I described the role of the Belgian architect Victor Horta in creating a unique ‘modern’ style in Brussels at the very end of the 19th Century. There followed a highly active period prior to the start of the First World War where other architects followed his example.

Horta’s style was somewhat disparagingly called ‘noodle’ or ‘whiplash’ by critics. This is because he used strong visual symbols based on nature within many aspects of it. More importantly, he perhaps unknowingly, trod in the footsteps of both the traditionalist ‘Arts & Crafts’ movement in England, and the ‘modernist’ approach starting to emerge particularly from the Chicago school of architecture in the USA. His was a complete solution to a client’s design brief covering every single aspect of a domestic and/or work residence using a range of materials and solutions.

Other architects in Belgium, Austria-Hungary, Germany, Finland, Scotland, Spain and the Baltic States drew courage from this radical new approach. It became known as ‘Art Nouveau’, ‘Moderne’, ‘Jugendstil’, ‘Liberty’ and ‘Secessionist’ to name a few terms. I particularly like the last one as it best conveys the idea of a break from the past.

In Latvia which was then a part of the Russian Empire, a frenetic period of activity took place for a decade or so after 1899. As a result, the capital Riga has become a World Heritage Centre for the extent of its architecture reflecting this time and style. There is a beautiful museum describing the buildings and key architects, one of whom stands out for me: Konstantins Peksens.

How does any of this relate to Sir John Wolfe Barry, civil engineer?

Probably not very much as he was from an earlier generation and clearly wasn’t an architect like his father and two of his brothers. However, he was in touch with communities: his greatest civil engineering achievement Tower Bridge has resonated with the people of London, in deed the world, for almost 125 years since it was completed.

Architectural styles and communities (part 2)

This follows on from my previous blog in the series.

In that I outlined my interest in a project looking at the Secessionist style of architecture and its impact on local communities. I explained the connection to Sir John Wolfe Barry through his father the architect Charles Barry, who worked closely with Augustus Pugin on the New Palace of Westminster.

In the next blogs I will expand on the development of the Secessionist from the ‘Arts and Crafts’ movement in England and the link to a wider style of nascent modern architecture that hit a number of major European and US cities at the turn of the 19th and 20th Centuries.

Were local communities really involved with these changes? Clearly certain key representatives would have been, but nothing like the levels of consultation we are supposed to have in the present day democratic structures of these cities. Society was different and change could only happen if endorsed by those with influence. New construction materials and techniques were arriving on the scene through developments in steel and concrete. There was risk involved in using them, so someone had to be prepared to stick their head above the parapet and answer to the public acclaim or shame involved. Human lives were less valuable then.

One pivotal moment for me which followed the completion of the ‘Arts and Crafts’ Red House in quiet Bexleyheath, England mentioned in the previous blog, was the building of Oriel Chambers in the heart of the busy City of Liverpool a few year later in 1864. Unappreciated at the time it has since been recognised as a unique early modern inhabitable structure using an iron frame and glass panels, originally the preserve of greenhouses and exhibition spaces such as the Kew Palm House and the Crystal Palace. In deed the building continues to be used as office space more than 150 years later!

Many suggest that this building inspired the architects of the Chicago School to create the first steel and glass skyscrapers in the late 19th Century, which were to become so commonplace globally and are still being constructed to this day, with the use of concrete rather than brick support. One of their number was Louis Sullivan who in turn worked with his protege Frank Lloyd-Wright before they fell out. Lloyd-Wright turned Sullivan’s phrase ‘form follows function’ into ‘form is function’. He himself coined the term ‘organic architecture’ to show the close connection between structures and their natural environment.

The third post in this series.

Architectural styles and communities (Part 1)

I’ve been doing some background research for a possible project I’d like to do. It’s about the impact of a specific architectural style on the local communities where it developed and whether we can apply any modern day lessons from this. This first of a series of blogs will reveal more as my thinking develops.

The idea was sparked from my long-term interest in the architectural style, as well as watching a programme last week about building a community centre for those impacted by the shocking Grenfell Tower disaster which happened last year in London.

The initial investigation into the tower block fire has raised a number of issues and recommendations for Government action. However the TV programme highlighted the fact that this was about a local community coming to grips with the design and planning of structures built within it. This is what I want to explore more in my project.

Since I’m a historian by background and have spent time developing a website about an historical figure in civil engineering, it makes sense that I try and apply some of this to the real world. Also, the architectural style I’m interested is called ‘Secessionist’ and was developed during the life of Sir John Wolfe Barry. He never applied it himself as far as I can ascertain, but then it was considered the work of a new generation of younger architects.

However there is a connection.

John’s father Sir Charles Barry had worked closely with Augustus Pugin on the gothic revival details of the New Palace of Westminster. Pugin was a remarkable man who believed in authenticity rather than imitation, hence was somewhat conflicted by working with a classic architect who had made his name through Italianate style buildings such as the Reform and Travellers Clubs in London.

Pugin had developed his thinking on the value of medieval architecture by studying it intensively as part of sustaining his catholic religious and cultural beliefs. This in turn was to impact on Ruskin, Morris and Webb (the architect of the three) as leaders of what became the ‘Arts and Crafts’ Movement in Victorian England. For them it was a return to ancient practices which reflected the real needs of communities.

The break from tradition was encapsulated in the 1860 Red House in Bexleyheath where William Morris and family lived and is now under the protection of English Heritage.

The second post in this series.