Easing lockdown for #buildingpassions

Once lockdown started in the UK I stopped making print copies of my book ‘Building Passions’ available to purchase. This was because I couldn’t guarantee that I wouldn’t spread COVID-19 via the book and the postal system.

To compensate I have halved the e-book price in April. Since my goal has always been to sell mainly in e-format then this made sense. However no sales have taken place via Kobo.com .

Therefore I will resume with postal sales from the end of April and review how I distribute the book electronically. I dont want an exclusive contract with Kindle. I’m starting to dislike anything linked with Amazon, who seem keen on maximising profits at the expense of their workers and independent publishing.

I would have promoted the book more through physical talks but obviously the pandemic came along. I’m less safe at remote talks but I will try to develop these skills.

Stay safe!

From celebrity to outcast: William Bankes MP (1786-1855)

Bankes had travelled with a young Charles Barry in Egypt and then recommended Barry to the Church Commissioners for his first architectural projects in Manchester in the early 1820s. Barry also helped Bankes remodel Soughton Hall.

The History of Parliament

Today’s blog is the second of three posts to celebrate LGBT+ History Month. In this blog we hear from Dr Philip Salmon, Editor of the House of Commons 1832-1868 project, about William Bankes who fled the country to avoid prosecution for homosexual offences …

William Bankes was one of the most famous explorers of Regency England. A swashbuckling early 19th-century ‘Indiana Jones’, his discovery of lost ancient sites in Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia made him a household name. A close friend of Lord Bryon, who deemed him the ‘father of all mischief’ during their student days together at Cambridge University, he was renowned for his risqué wit, remarkable good looks and captivating conversation. He was also a serious scholar. His contribution to the emerging field of Egyptology – especially his work helping to de-cipher Egyptian hieroglyphs – is now widely recognised.

In 2017 Bankes’s sexual orientation became…

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The Men from the Future (Helsinki Central station, Finland)

Great post on the transition from Art Nouveau to Art Deco in Finland and how some architects are well ahead of their times.

The Beauty of Transport

Architect Eliel Saarinen (1873-1950) and his son Eero were time travellers from the future with an interest in transport. We know this because their transport buildings are adrift in time, built years earlier than seems possible based on their appearance. Eero (1910-1961) was responsible for the futuristic TWA Flight Center at JFK Airport in New York. It opened in 1962 but is redolent of – or rather, prefigures – much more recent buildings by architects like Zaha Hadid and Santiago Calatrava. It’s one of my favourite pieces of transport architecture. But Eero was following in a grand family tradition, because his father (well that’s what they’d have us think; we all know that in time travel stories, the father is always his own son or something) built one of the great late 1920s / 1930s railway stations. Except it opened in 1914.

Helsinki Central station. By Ralf Roletschek (talk) - Fahrradtechnik auf fahrradmonteur.de (Own work) [FAL or GFDL 1.2], via Wikimedia Commons Helsinki Central station. Photo by Ralf Roletschek (talk) – Fahrradtechnik auf…

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2019 report on #buildingpassions

2019 was an interesting year for me.

I wrote and self-published my first book!

I also managed to see through a four-year application for an English Heritage Blue Plaque for Sir John Wolfe Barry. On 19 November a plaque was finally put up on the London house where he died a little over a century ago. This coincided with 125 years since he completed the build of Tower Bridge with his partner Henry Marc Brunel (son of the great Isambard Brunel).

I also gave my first public lecture via the South East STEM Hub in Canterbury, to an audience ranging from primary school age to the retired. It was made interactive with help from an engineering contact, who demonstrated a scale version of a wooden arched bridge held up only by tension and cantilever action – and we managed to get three kids to stand on it!

Finally, I started scoping research looking at the development of Art Nouveau architecture in the UK, Belgium and France, to see how it was influenced by building standards.

I need to thank my wife Viktoriya for valiantly supporting me during the year. We had just moved to a new house out of London and are still adjusting to a different lifestyle away from the metropolis and close friends.

Oh and I did a bit of my own building. Just a garden decking area mind you, but it made me appreciate the skills needed to design, plan and complete a structure.

We should celebrate these passionately!

Just 3 days until the #buildingpassions book launch

I’m launching the print copy of ‘Building Passions’ on 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 .

The day before that, English Heritage will put up a Blue Plaque on the house in Chelsea where Sir John Wolfe Barry lived and died.

Both of these events will be a major personal milestone for me as an historian and author. But they also represent the first steps, I hope, in my shared efforts to expand our knowledge about the built environment. As I have recognised in my book, Roma Agrawal really started this for many of us with her fantastic book ‘BUILT’.

What happens after the book is launched?

Well, I’m writing my next one, an historical novel based on the life of my grandfather Baron Lex von Behr, who may have been a spy … I hope to publish it in 2020, a century after he escaped from the clutches of Soviet Red Guards in what is modern day Uzbekistan.

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

I’m also thinking about doing academic research linked to one of the themes in the book – what helped define architectural ‘modernity’ in the Victorian era, how does this link to our built environment legacy, and why is it important for the current process of quality design and build?

Or something along those lines …

When you first get your own book, it’s like seeing a new child #buildingpassions

I saw the printed version of my book today! The feeling was one of elation after 9 months gestation.

Though I didn’t carry our daughter for a similar period 19 years ago, I kind of understand the emotional ride. As a father your relationship tends to develop later on, once they are up on their feet more and starting to think for themselves.

Why did I leave it so long to write a book?

Because there were other things going on in my life and they always came first. I’m not complaining. But I did have to take a risk and stop full-time work to self-publish the book.

I did other things as well, but in effect I have had a type of parental unpaid leave with no job to go back to. My wife has been incredibly supportive throughout this period, for which I am very grateful.

What next?

I’ve started planning my next book, a historical novel, and will write it during November as part of National Novel Writing Month. I’ve already sought editing proposals for the finished draft. It will be published in 2020, 100 years since the protagonist, based on my grandfather, escaped from the Communists in Tashkent and ended up living a new life in England via Persia and India.

Family stories are great stories #buildingpassions

I’m currently sitting in our hotel room on Ischia trying to write my next book.

Since recently self-publishing my first book ‘Building Passions’, I now have some time to focus on the subsequent one. It helps that it’s raining all day here and that yesterday we went on a 10k walk which included the 800m peak of the dormant volcano on the island, so my legs are still recovering a bit.

My next book is historical fiction based on a true story close to me. It’s about the eventful life of my grandfather, Lex von Behr, who had no links of any kind to a Batman villain with the same first name. However, he may well have been a double agent for the British and Soviets, possibly also for the Germans. We may never know the entire truth.

We do know that he died in Paris in 1951 from serious burns caused by a fire in his apartment. My grandmother was convinced this was due to his spy work, I have my doubts, but then this is why I’m writing it as historical fiction …

The common theme is family stories, which I feel are both historically and socially important. The former, because they provide a case study in a different context of how human groups have behaved and what they have created. The latter, because we are all part of families, whether fully related or not, and these close networks need to be reinforced by their stories, good or bad. I’ve blogged about this before.

I’m still mulling over whether I need a new website for the new book, or one that brings together the two books under the family story theme. Watch this space.

At last! A Blue Plaque for the man who built Tower Bridge #buildingpassions

After almost four years since applying for one, it seems that we will finally have an English Heritage Blue Plaque for Sir John Wolfe Barry!

I often say patience is a virtue. In this case it really is.

I remember completing the application thinking that it may well be rejected due to the sheer numbers of competing ones. But it was worth a try. The process is deliberately slow and careful to ensure that literally everyone is happy with the decision.

Why does JWB deserve this commemoration, given that he already has a window in Westminster Abbey, and the iconic Tower Bridge he built with his business partner and close friend Henry Marc Brunel is a global landmark?

I could give many reasons, but I think foremost is a tribute to the great metropolis of London where he was born, raised, worked and died. He wasn’t just there all the time, but it clearly was a very significant city for him.

My book ‘Building Passions’ not only covers the story of John Wolfe Barry, but also of his father Sir Charles Barry, architect of the Houses of Parliament (who already has a Blue Plaque at his former home), as well as other members of the Barry and Brunel families. Not least the ‘2nd Greatest Briton’, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, starts it all off.

The location of the Blue Plaque will be adjoining Chelsea Embankment on the Thames, on the outside of the house where John Wolfe Barry died in 1918 aged 81 years. While it has just missed the centenary of his death, I’m hoping it can still mark 125 years of Tower Bridge.

His life was a great innings, to use a cricketing metaphor, and its legacy continued through the organisations and structures associated with him, the Brunels and ‘modern’ Victorian architecture.

Once I know more about the exact details of the unveiling I will publicise it on this blog.

With a bit of (hidden) help from your dad

I was researching in London yesterday and came across an interesting story.

The archives of the Royal Opera House are accessed after a meandering walk through the labyrinth of corridors that make up the building. In them you can find original diaries by the 19th Century manager Frederick Gye. He was clearly a dynamic and somewhat flamboyant character who was determined to rebuild his theatre which had burnt down in March 1856. But not just as a simple like-for-like replacement, something much more grandiose that changed the nature of Covent Garden where it was located. This had once been a very fashionable area of 17th Century London but since became a major fruit and vegetable market for the capital, as well as acquiring a more salubrious reputation.

Reading through Gye’s diaries I stumbled across an entry for 30 December 1856 which tells us that he approached Sir Charles Barry to be the architect for the new development. He had previously raised this with Sir Charles in conversations about the use of fireproofing for building with wood, and the architect reiterated his unavailability but put forward his son Edward instead, who was only 26 years old at the time. The Barry name was clearly influential in gaining the necessary financing to support the development.

So from then on Edward Middleton Barry became the chief designer of the third theatre as it came to be known and the home of Italian Opera in England. By September 1857 Barry younger had costed the whole project at £70,000 (worth almost £8m in today’s rates) and was told by Gye to find reductions, though in the meantime he approached his main benefactor the Duke of Bedford for more funds!

Curiously, his father didn’t just drop out of the picture. It seems that Mr Gye regularly dropped in on Sir Charles for advice, some of which he ignored. How much young Edward knew about this is yet to be discovered!

Footnote: thanks are extended to Jane Fowler, Archivist at the Royal Opera House for allowing me access to the original Gye diaries.