Beauty or form?

What matters when designing and planning a building: its aesthetic appeal or the nature of its form and materials? People will have different views about this depending on their tastes, which makes the built environment such a fascinating and sometimes controversial area of practice.

Debates have continued ever since humans first began to shape their environment and introduce the concept of ‘style’ to each other. Different generations may hold vastly differing views about why a particular structure appeals or not.

I’m happy to defend my appreciation of 19th Century architecture and engineering, based as it is on my background as an historian of the first Industrial Revolution, which happened to take place in my country of origin. I suppose when I first studied economic and social history at university I was fascinated by human ingenuity and organisation as an evolving complex system, less so by individual acts of creativity. As time has passed and I’ve moved along with my generation, clearly I’ve started to appreciate the aesthetical side more than I used to.

My challenge now is to address a general misunderstanding of how historical precedent can best be used to help pave the way forward for ‘modernity’, whichever way we may choose to interpret the future.

I believe looking back with hindsight at engineers such as John Wolfe Barry and his contemporaries aids us in this process.

Author: Nick von Behr

Interested in the history of technology/architecture, STEM education and different cultures

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