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book I mention the tragic Grenfell Tower disaster of 2017 – it was a terrible example of building standards becoming outdated as new technology, in this case external insulation cladding, came more to the fore on tower blocks.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

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.

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.