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book I mention the tragic Grenfell Tower disaster of 2017 – it was a terrible example of building standards becoming outdated as new technology, in this case external insulation cladding, came more to the fore on tower blocks.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

From writing about history to publishing fiction

When I started this website in mid-2017, it was to promote information about Sir John Wolfe Barry I had collated over many years. I was anticipating a formal launch in January 2018 to commemorate 100 years since Sir John’s death.

Three years on and a soft launch took place, coinciding with the start of the Year of Engineering and a number of related campaigns to promote engineering as a worthwhile career for young people.

Then, in early 2019, I began writing a book about Wolfe Barry, his family and the Brunels. This was self-published at the end of that year as ‘Building Passions’ (long title Brunel, Barry and ‘modern’ Victorian architecture) with a special website set up to promote the book at www.buildingpassions.co.uk .

The book launch coincided with the placing of an English Heritage Blue Plaque on the Chelsea house where Sir John had lived and died. I had started the application process for this at the end of 2015.

I have now moved on to writing fiction, an area in which I now feel relatively comfortable. I need to thank a group of local writers based in and around Canterbury, England for this. My second book, to be made available to readers soon, is about the fictionalised story of my grandfather who was a spy for the British in Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany (or was he?).

I am currently drafting a third, fourth and fifth book as a fictional trilogy of novellas. These will be published during the course of 2020 I hope. I’m also collaborating with my local writing group on a murder mystery.

I have just created a new website (www.ashfordpublishing.co.uk) for all of my books, whether published or not. The plan is to transfer my sales platform to it in due course, but feel free to bookmark already.

This website will be an archival resource, with a new website about Sir John Wolfe Barry, Tower Bridge and other structures available as soon as possible under the transferred domain name for this site.

I may continue to blog occasionally here …

Yes, I’m a bridge nerd #buildingpassions

My delightful teenage daughter told me I was a bridge nerd the other day. In her terms this would be considered an insult to any decent teenager. Fortunately, I’m not in my teens and I consider it a compliment.

What do I like about bridges? Below is a list of possibles:

  • They are elegant
  • They connect two communities
  • They circumvent a natural obstacle
  • They are historic landmarks
  • They were built by significant people
  • They are structures like buildings

My book ‘Building Passions‘ aims to celebrate historical structures. The website has lists of them with links to further information. I’m even building my own working model of Tower Bridge. Yes, nerdish, but who cares.

Many great engineers and architects were nerds. Isambard Kingdom Brunel was a super nerd. He was also voted 2nd greatest Briton after Churchill. Interestingly, both of them had a non-British parent – Winston’s mother was American and IK’s father was French. They weren’t afraid to be different.

You can read more about Brunel’s family and the Barry family, with their Victorian connections between architecture and engineering. The book is available in print via the website and if you use the code IKBSCB you can get free UK postage.

Facing adversity #buildingpassions

The world is facing a pandemic and many individuals are struggling with their daily lives as a result.

From a historical perspective, there is nothing new about adversity. My book ‘Building Passions‘ includes some examples in the past.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel was almost killed in 1828 when the Thames Tunnel collapsed during construction and flooded the works nearly drowning him. He spent many months regaining his health after a serious injury to his leg. It was a frustrating time for him, but once he had recovered he went on to design the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol, his first epic structure.

Augustus Welbin Pugin was a highly talented young designer who was used by Sir Charles Barry to create the beautiful Gothic-style decoration of the New Palace of Westminster. His health suffered fatally from the exertions he placed on himself to meet deadlines for his many demanding clients. Charles Barry followed him for the same reasons, though considerably older, in 1860.

In 1879 a train crossed the Tay Bridge in Scotland in the middle of a huge storm. Unknown to the passengers, the iron structure supporting the track had undergone immense stress due to the wind and waves. Suddenly, the bridge collapsed causing the engine and coaches to fall into the estuary. Many lives were lost and the famous bridge engineer never recovered from the damage to his reputation – more positively, the resulting inquest led to sturdier bridge-building, exemplified by the vast steel structure of the Forth Rail Bridge also in Scotland. Sir William Arrol supplied the improved version of iron for that project, as well as for Tower Bridge in London, completed four years later.

Anticipating more public speaking #buildingpassions

I’m giving a talk on my book ‘Building Passions’ tomorrow at my local library in Ashford, Kent.

I’ve adapted it a bit from the previous one in Canterbury before Xmas. It will be longer, as my friend Tom won’t be demonstrating how to build a model bridge, so I’ve had to add in some extra content.

I still feel a bit nervous about public speaking as you never know what’s going to happen – from the slides not functioning properly to an audience member asking you questions to which you don’t have answers, or telling you they know more than you about your topic.

However, what matters is that we enjoy ourselves as a group and feel that the time spent has been worthwhile. If people want to buy a copy of the book they are most welcome to, and they will get a personal dedication and a discount, as they have to pay a nominal ticket price to come along (which doesn’t go to me).

I will cover the main personalities in the book, so the Brunel and Barry engineers and architects who I write about, as well as some of my favourite structures such as Tower Bridge and Hotel Tassel. I’m assuming you know the former, but may not know of the latter.

Hotel Tassel, in Brussels, was designed by a Belgian architect called Victor Horta in the early 1890s. I will be visiting it for the first time towards the end of March and am already getting excited about this. Why?

Because it is a landmark in the new style of architecture called ‘Art Nouveau’ which suddenly appeared in Europe at that point in time. The style disappeared equally rapidly before the outbreak of WWI. Fortunately we still have many of the original buildings which have been restored in a number of significant cases.

But what is the link to ‘Building Passions’ you may ask? The book examines the influence of the Brunels and Barrys on ‘modern’ Victorian architecture. It concludes by noting the importance of novel approaches to design and materials in the late 19th Century. This had a global impact, such that in Chicago for example, it led to a unique type of high-rise architecture using steel frames and glass panes which is still with us to this day.

The built environment changes over time, with new design styles emerging according to developing tastes. It is an evolutionary process which sees the fittest options spreading, and the less fit ones sticking to safe niches which either adapt and survive or disappear completely.

A loch, some falls and a bridge #buildingpassions #10favstructures

Loch Etive is a Scottish sea inlet or fjord north of Oban in the Highlands.

Back in the 19th Century it was decided to extend the railway from Oban northwards and the big issue was whether to go round Loch Etive or across it. Unlike other lochs it had a shallow part at a place called ‘The Falls of Lora’. The name was apt as when the tide comes out of the loch it produces a standing torrent of water.

The engineers (John Wolfe Barry and partners) knew it would be too difficult to place any part of a bridge directly in that part of the loch, so needed to come up with a different, not too expensive solution for the trains to cross. They decided on a single span cantilever action bridge made from steel.

What is a cantilever bridge? The most famous example then and still with us is the Forth Rail Bridge, also in Scotland, for which the huge amounts of steel were supplied, like at Loch Etive and Tower Bridge, by William Arrol and Company of Glasgow.

The Forth Rail Bridge in Scotland (Wikimedia Commons)

The Forth Rail Bridge was over-specified due to the high winds in the wide sea estuary where it was located – by contrast the bridge over Loch Etive would shorter and could be based on a simpler design, but using the same cantilever principle. The rising bascule leaves on Tower Bridge also acted as movable cantilevers, extending out from the tower bases to meet in the middle of the River Thames.

When the Connel Ferry Bridge was completed in 1903, it became the world’s longest single span cantilever bridge (the Forth Rail Bridge had double spans!). It was soon taken over by other bridges, but I feel it set a precedent and it is still with us now for road traffic only.

This is the first post in a series of 10 favourite structures featured in the book ‘Building Passions’ by Nick von Behr. The 11th post will try to rank the structures in order of appeal.

The place where they do the annual Xmas lectures #buildingpassions

When I used to work at the UK Academy of Sciences, we often got calls asking us about our Christmas Lecture, particularly as the Autumn days began to darken.

We would politely reply: “I’m sorry, you want the Royal Institution. We are the Royal Society.”

In some cases this led to a follow on conversation about the difference between the two organisation’s titles. We would explain that the Royal Society was one of the world’s oldest science academies founded in 1660, whereas the Royal Institution had been set up in the 19th Century by science communicators with the purpose of educating the public about science. Michael Faraday’s famous lectures on electricity morphed into the annual Xmas events broadcast on the BBC.

I am giving a Christmas lecture in Canterbury on 17 December with the same title as my book ‘Building Passions’. It may not be on the same level as the RI ones, but it is about communicating on the STEM subjects, as we now group them. Mine will focus on engineering and architecture as part of our built environment’s history.

I will talk about the Brunel and Barry families of engineers and architects. Sir John Wolfe Barry and Henry Brunel, sons of famous fathers, worked together on building Tower Bridge in London. I will cover other well-known and interesting structures and there will be a live demonstration of simple bridge building.

Do please come along! Whether you manage or not you can still buy the book and/or donate to my favourite charity campaign Time to Change.

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 .

Not just Tower Bridge on the #buildingpassions list of structures

I’ve produced a list of structures mentioned in the book ‘Building Passions‘.

I created the list for indexing purposes, as it naturally flowed out of my text for the book. Perhaps I should have done it the other way round?

All lists need choices to be made. The public voted Isambard Kingdom Brunel the second greatest Briton after Churchill. Does that make his structures the best British ones ever? Of course not!

This website focuses on the works of his son Henry Brunel in partnership with Sir John Wolfe Barry, who really gets the credit as project lead. His father Sir Charles Barry has many buildings on the list, including the Houses of Parliament, but no tunnels, bridges, docks or rail lines and stations. Sir Charles was an architect, unlike the previously named engineers.

Other architects and engineers are on the list, as well as unattributed structures such as the Acropolis or the Burj Khalifa.

Some might say it’s a bit of a dog’s breakfast. I disagree. There are connections between all these structures across and over time.

Which is my favourite structure on the list? No surprise to those who know me, it’s the Travellers Club in London by Charles Barry and his close friend John Lewis Wolfe. Apart from sheer admiration of form and function, my father used to be a member and often stayed there on trips from Switzerland to the UK.

I also appreciate the significance of John Wolfe.

Sir Charles’s fourth son was named after him, and in tribute to his memory and lineage, he continued with the ‘Wolfe’ title in a family name that is still alive today.