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book I mention the tragic Grenfell Tower disaster of 2017 – it was a terrible example of building standards becoming outdated as new technology, in this case external insulation cladding, came more to the fore on tower blocks.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

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.

Dictatorship vs democracy

The COVID-19 pandemic has raised a number of issues about how societies run themselves.

I have been exploring democracy as part of writing a trilogy of novellas. The basic premise is that a long-lived, family dictatorship is finally coming to an end, but the people need to be prepared for transition to democracy.

You can’t just throw it at them if they’re not ready for it!

There are plenty of dictator analogies in real life and fiction. States where the supreme leader has moved to a status of leader for life, or pretty much there. The most famous early historical example was Julius Ceasar taking out the Senate, for which retribution came back inevitably on the Ides of March. But his nephew Augustus went on to found a dynasty of emperors. Napoleon is another case in point, from general to leader to emperor – once again he met his downfall. Then of course Hitler more recently and Kim Jong-Un currently.

The transition to democracy is more fraught with troubles, witnessed in Iraq, Afghanistan, and failed attempts in Libya and Syria. As I write my second novella, I show how anti-democratic forces can be manipulated to defend the status quo, if needs must. A bit of bloodshed can help incite civil war, irrespective of whether either side has really thought through the logic …

I’m on the verge of starting the final book in the trilogy – I intend it to be full of hope, since that is the kind of message we all need currently amidst the lockdowns. But it will also look forward to a calmer future when society has hopefully picked up a few pragmatic lessons and, hopefully, reacted positively to a temporary but repeatable crisis.

In the meantime, chill out and read my book covering the history of architecture and engineering during the Victorian era: ‘Building Passions‘.

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!

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 .

NHS Nightingale Hospital and IK Brunel #buildingpassions #beatthevirus #NHS

The National Health Service in the UK is opening a new emergency hospital today in London to handle the growing number of COVID-19 cases – it’s called the NHS Nightingale Hospital after the famous Victorian nurse with her lamp, a symbol of the Crimean War which had so many military casualties, many from diseases spread amongst the besiegers of Sevastopol.

I have visited the Crimea twice (prior to the illegal occupation by Russia) and seen the magnificent Panorama of the siege of Sevastopol. I’ve also been to the small port of Balaklava, better known for the woollen headgear named after it, where the British were based during that war. I haven’t yet been to the site of another temporary hospital, which served the needs of the ill and wounded many miles away on the other side of the Black Sea.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel was asked by his brother-in-law Sir Benjamin Hawes in the War Office to design a prefabricated hospital in Turkey – supposedly to placate Florence Nightingale who was pressing Hawes for more support. This he did rapidly and it was shipped out to Renkioi in the Dardanelles and assembled there.

Medical experts have since said that the unique modular design had an influence on the development of all hospitals subsequently. You can read more about the project at Brunel’s SS Great Britain website – the vast ship was used to transport troops to the Crimea. For more on Brunel read my book ‘Building Passions‘ which from today is available for only £2.00 as an e-book in the UK for all April (different prices for other countries covered).

Temporary or emergency hospitals have been pivotal in helping society to deal with major crises such as viruses and wars. When I worked at the Institution of Structural Engineers we developed a learning resource for students based on a military engineer’s rapid construction of an Ebola hospital in Africa.

Stay safe!

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.

Read a book while you self-isolate #buildingpassions #BUILT

I’ve not blogged yet about the current pandemic facing the world. It didn’t seem appropriate for my typical themes.

However, now that people are wondering what to do with themselves as they self-isolate (the word of 2020?), it does seem appropriate to encourage them to read more books.

Not only will they derive more pleasure and knowledge, they may learn a few tricks. Equally, they will help authors and smaller publishers such as myself. I would strongly recommend reading ‘BUILT‘ by my structural engineer friend Roma Agrawal, which inspired me to write my own book.

In the case of ‘Building Passions‘, all you need to do is look at the website and then decide if you want to read more. You can only buy the e-book via Kobo.com as a print copy is too risky currently to mail.

I’m also looking into remote casting talks about the book and its related topics, which cover the 19th-century Brunel and Barry families and ‘modern’ Victorian architecture. I know a fair bit now about the highly decorative ‘Art Nouveau’ architecture of the later 19th and early 20th Centuries, as I’m planning a PhD in that area once things have calmed down.

Above all, be wise and stay safe for your sake and everyone else’s.