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.
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.
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.
I am writing a novella based on the life story of my grandfather, who was a spy in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, we think.
I started the process with scoping the story back in the summer, and then some preparatory drafting until November, when I started writing proper. This coincided with NaNoWriMo which is held every November around the world to encourage novel writing. I met a group of local writers and we have continued to engage since then.
I thought I could write fiction as easily as non-fiction, having completed my book ‘Building Passions‘. As it turns out, fiction is equally difficult. While you don’t rely on the accuracy of historical facts, for example, you do need to now how to build a close, personal link to your readership.
The big learning curve for me has been writing dialogue. I found this a challenge as it wasn’t a strong point for me. I’m good at narrative. However, my writing group has helped me develop these skills, so now I feel more confident. I can turn narrative into dialogue fairly easily, though know I must resist the temptation to write a screen or theatre play.
“Tell me John, why do you not want to be an architect like you father and brothers? Why a civil engineer?”
“I like sketching and designing, but I’m more interested in the maths behind those structures first proposed by myself or others. I have no ego about creative proprietorship. I just want to be sure buildings and bridges stay up for ever.”
Such might be a fictional dialogue between a young John Wolfe Barry and a Victorian contemporary.
There is no doubt that it was a hugely significant structure that set an imprint on the industrialising world in the mid 19th Century. Britain had led that rapid new development process and here was a showcase building within which visitors could admire the nation’s industrial pride and heritage. To some extent the now famous 2012 London Olympics opening event was an historical re-enactment of that major change to the world.
I studied the First Industrial Revolution at a British University, so was always going to be keen on a structure that embodied its products. But I’d also gone to school at Dulwich College in South London, near to which the Crystal Palace was moved from Hyde Park, and where it stayed until it tragically burned down in 1936. But a suburb and a football/soccer team still carries its name.
In terms of the Brunels and the Barrys in ‘Building Passions’, the Crystal Palace was one of the few (only?) structures where Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Sir Charles Barry shared combined thoughts on its erection. The designer was Joseph Paxton, an expert in large-scale greenhouses, but of course there was a Building Committee chaired by the civil engineer Sir William Cubitt, to which Brunel and Barry belonged with Robert Stephenson and a few other eminent individuals.
The iron and plate glass design influenced both Brunel’s Paddington Station as well as Edward Middleton Barry’s Floral Hall, adjoining the new Royal Opera House. It also showed the wider world what could be done with these two key building materials. In Chicago this influenced innovative architects to start using them to design taller, lighter (both meanings) office structures with new elevator technology. The word ‘skyscraper’ entered our vocabulary. Steel replaced iron as a cheaper but more tensile metal, and so the industrial era moved into the rapidly growing commercial cities of the world, most typified in the 20th Century by New York and its Empire States Building.
So far I’ve spread my top 10 list between different types of structure including a bridge, a club house, a ship and an opera house with an appended iron and glass hall.
In this post I will cover one of the two remaining structures not included in my Twitter poll before Christmas. It will be the only railway station in my 10 favourites.
But why did I choose it as I actually like many Victorian stations? Because it was distinctive and connects strongly with Isambard Kingdom Brunel‘s Great Western Railway.
Paddington Station may be better known for the eponymous teddy bear in the story and movies. It was a station I came to know well after I started university at Bristol, where the Great Western Railway began originally in the 19th Century.
Brunel wanted something magnificent and cutting-edge to establish his railway as THE gateway to the West of England and in deed to his superb transatlantic steamships docked in Bristol Port.
Another connection I describe in the book and is in my list of favourites, is the Crystal Palace. Like that vast structure, Paddington had a huge iron and glass roof that survives to this day. Brunel was involved with both. Passengers can still take Great Western trains to Bath, Bristol, the South West and South Wales.
If you are fans of the musical ‘My Fair Lady’ you will recognise the song in the title of this post.
It is sung by Elisa Doolittle, the flower seller, as she dances around Covent Garden marketplace in London more than a century ago. The movie actress was Audrey Hepburn, who by the end of the film transforms from a chirpy Cockney to a posh high-class lady.
Covent Garden is still a big London attraction and the Royal Opera House and Floral Hall to be found there, also feature in ‘Building Passions‘. This is because they were built by the architect Edward Middleton Barry, brother of John Wolfe Barry.
I particularly like the Floral Hall, designed as it was in a miniature form of the Crystal Palace, another favourite structure in the book. When the Royal Opera House was renovated at the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries, the engineers managed to raise the next door hall up on stilts and create a beautiful metal and glass venue for opera goers and other guests.
The structure still exists as a world centre of song and dance, which is fitting as we approach the festive switch from 2019 to 2020.
It’s Christmas Day and a good time to wish happiness to the world, with a bit of reform sprinkled in.
Continuing my 10 favourite structures from my book ‘Building Passions‘, I had a moment of doubt on which should feature in this post. However, that soon disappeared and I decided on the building in the picture.
It is of the Reform Club on Pall Mall in London. You may know the street if you have ever played the British version of Monopoly, or visited London. Perhaps you have walked past the building.
The Reform Club was designed and built by Sir Charles Barry, the architect of the Houses of Parliament, also featured on my list. His clientele were the same, elite members of Victorian society, many of whom were keen to change the world around them for the better.
Barry’s inspiration was an Italian Palazzo he had seen as a young man on his self-funded tour of the great Western classics of architecture. He wanted to recreate its exterior in foggy London, but it is with the interior that he fully expressed his creative talents.
Reform is topical currently in the world, as young people become frustrated with slow progress on the environment and the political idealism they espouse.
We can only hope that 2020 brings a change for the better.
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 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.
I gave a STEM engagement lecture yesterday at Canterbury Christchurch University in England about my book ‘Building Passions‘.
As part of the promotion for the lecture, I had run a week long Twitter poll on four structures mentioned in the book.
All of these were built in London during the reign of Queen Victoria but, more importantly, the ‘builders’ were the key architects and engineers covered by the book.
At the lecture an audience member asked me why I had chosen those four structures and I tried to explain, but ended up saying it was purely subjective.
In fact I will now produce a list of my top 10 structures from the book, including those four, and in subsequent blogs justify why I have selected them. I will also try to rank them and, who knows, may makes some changes along the way!
Houses of Parliament
SS Great Eastern
Connel Ferry Bridge
Royal Opera House and Floral Hall
How did I produce this list?
The main rule applied was using enough different types of structures, associated with the main architects and engineers covered in the book. The commonality was that they were either a Brunel or a Barry, or both. I could have made it a longer list and changed every one of the structures, so that’s where the subjectivity comes in. The full list is available (with many hyperlinks) at: https://www.buildingpassions.co.uk/sway-of-structures.php
I will start the series of blogs with a less well-known structure, the Connel Ferry Bridge in Scotland. The first clue is that it was built by Sir John Wolfe Barry and Partners in 1903.