There are standards and then there are standards

Sir John Wolfe Barry is credited with establishing the British Standards Institution in the early 20th Century.

In fact it was more complicated than that as you can read elsewhere on this website.

The purpose of technical standards was to bring some order to a complex system. This would benefit all in terms of consistency and wider economic impacts. I have worked on policy reports for the current BSI which have said as much.

But an area of perhaps more controversy is to do with building codes. These are in part technical standards, but they are also partly competence standards designed to prevent unscrupulous builders from erecting unsafe housing. Architects and structural engineers need to be fully aware of them before designing their structures. However, there is a risk that genuine innovation in building may become stifled by the need to regulate bad behaviour. Students of structural design need to be made fully aware of this tension and understand how best to approach it ethically.

The ability to make such judgements requires maturity of thought. Arguably this can only be achieved through responsible education which allows learners to discuss sensitive issues within an evidence-informed environment.

The big question then is whether we are producing enough of this type of learner. Only schools, colleges and universities can provide a satisfactory answer.

Celebrating 125 years of Tower Bridge

On 30 June 2019 many of us will be celebrating 125 years since Tower Bridge was first opened to the public.

More than a year ago I started putting content on this website about the builder of Tower Bridge with the aim of completing it by 22 January this year, the centenary of Sir John Wolfe Barry’s death. I was actually ahead of target.

So I’ll set myself another goal for the 8 plus months until we reach the end of June next year: add more content to this website specifically about Tower Bridge, but obviously relevant to what is already here. As I did with John Wolfe Barry’s biography, I will blog as I go along. Tomorrow I will start with the beginnings of JWB’s involvement with the project to span the Thames further east than had ever previously been achieved with a bridge.

Hope you come back to have a look.

Another brick in the wall?

Pink Floyd wrote a song about education back in the late 70s called ‘Another Brick in the Wall’.

The implication was that education was another brick or barrier in life that people had to get through, which together with many others built the metaphorical wall after which Floyd’s concept album was named.

I take a different view about modern education. It’s not about bricks any more. Even education and training on building things isn’t about bricks. Nor is it about complete blue skies thinking and creativity. It is about bringing together knowledge with skills to produce individuals who are occupationally competent. This is what happened with Sir John Wolfe Barry’s apprentices back in the 19th century.

They often came from privileged backgrounds with little practical experience but plenty of basic knowledge. This was harnessed through opportunities to work in a variety of environments: the drawing office, archives and out on site or in a factory or workshop setting. Many of them went on to become more skilled than their master: Sir Alexander Gibb is one who comes to mind.

This was real learning by doing. But it would eventually be taken over by an academic type of learning aimed at the legal and managerial classes or to supply staff to the research laboratories of the great universities.

Sadly we have had to go back and reinvent the wheel. I only hope it’s not too late to get young people enthused again by the idea of work-based learning.

Architectural styles and communities (end)

This in my final post in a series looking at a project I’m planning to undertake about a specific architectural style and its local communities.

In my last post I described the role of the Belgian architect Victor Horta in creating a unique ‘modern’ style in Brussels at the very end of the 19th Century. There followed a highly active period prior to the start of the First World War where other architects followed his example.

Horta’s style was somewhat disparagingly called ‘noodle’ or ‘whiplash’ by critics. This is because he used strong visual symbols based on nature within many aspects of it. More importantly, he perhaps unknowingly, trod in the footsteps of both the traditionalist ‘Arts & Crafts’ movement in England, and the ‘modernist’ approach starting to emerge particularly from the Chicago school of architecture in the USA. His was a complete solution to a client’s design brief covering every single aspect of a domestic and/or work residence using a range of materials and solutions.

Other architects in Belgium, Austria-Hungary, Germany, Finland, Scotland, Spain and the Baltic States drew courage from this radical new approach. It became known as ‘Art Nouveau’, ‘Moderne’, ‘Jugendstil’, ‘Liberty’ and ‘Secessionist’ to name a few terms. I particularly like the last one as it best conveys the idea of a break from the past.

In Latvia which was then a part of the Russian Empire, a frenetic period of activity took place for a decade or so after 1899. As a result, the capital Riga has become a World Heritage Centre for the extent of its architecture reflecting this time and style. There is a beautiful museum describing the buildings and key architects, one of whom stands out for me: Konstantins Peksens.

How does any of this relate to Sir John Wolfe Barry, civil engineer?

Probably not very much as he was from an earlier generation and clearly wasn’t an architect like his father and two of his brothers. However, he was in touch with communities: his greatest civil engineering achievement Tower Bridge has resonated with the people of London, in deed the world, for almost 125 years since it was completed.

Architectural styles and communities (part 3)

In the previous post in this series I referred to a unique office building in Liverpool, England completed in 1864 and how it had influenced architectural thinking about high rise buildings in late 19th Century America.

This post is about the architect Victor Horta.

I knew little about him until recently, when I began researching the origins of Art Nouveau as a revolutionary architectural style which flourished across the turn of the 19th and 20th Centuries. This connects with investigations related to Augustus Pugin, as well as into the relationship between architectural aesthetics and engineering form, some of which is recorded on this website about the civil engineer Sir John Wolfe Barry.

Horta appears to me to have been a remarkable man. But he was also a reflection of the time and place he lived. Born in Ghent, Belgium in 1861, he eventually moved to Brussels, the Belgian capital, where his unique approach to architecture struck a chord with key members of the city community. One particular building stands out for me and many others who have like me appreciated his efforts. This is the Hotel Tassel.

It was to be the home of a professor of geometry who was a Freemason like Horta. It seems the architect was given complete artistic licence. But he approached this, as Morris and Webb had done with their ground-breaking Red House in England, with a philosophical bent which captured the full expression of his talent in design and the detailed application of materials and techniques.

My new project will look at how this created vision still reverberates within the community that is Brussels.

The final post in this series.

Architectural styles and communities (part 2)

This follows on from my previous blog in the series.

In that I outlined my interest in a project looking at the Secessionist style of architecture and its impact on local communities. I explained the connection to Sir John Wolfe Barry through his father the architect Charles Barry, who worked closely with Augustus Pugin on the New Palace of Westminster.

In the next blogs I will expand on the development of the Secessionist from the ‘Arts and Crafts’ movement in England and the link to a wider style of nascent modern architecture that hit a number of major European and US cities at the turn of the 19th and 20th Centuries.

Were local communities really involved with these changes? Clearly certain key representatives would have been, but nothing like the levels of consultation we are supposed to have in the present day democratic structures of these cities. Society was different and change could only happen if endorsed by those with influence. New construction materials and techniques were arriving on the scene through developments in steel and concrete. There was risk involved in using them, so someone had to be prepared to stick their head above the parapet and answer to the public acclaim or shame involved. Human lives were less valuable then.

One pivotal moment for me which followed the completion of the ‘Arts and Crafts’ Red House in quiet Bexleyheath, England mentioned in the previous blog, was the building of Oriel Chambers in the heart of the busy City of Liverpool a few year later in 1864. Unappreciated at the time it has since been recognised as a unique early modern inhabitable structure using an iron frame and glass panels, originally the preserve of greenhouses and exhibition spaces such as the Kew Palm House and the Crystal Palace. In deed the building continues to be used as office space more than 150 years later!

Many suggest that this building inspired the architects of the Chicago School to create the first steel and glass skyscrapers in the late 19th Century, which were to become so commonplace globally and are still being constructed to this day, with the use of concrete rather than brick support. One of their number was Louis Sullivan who in turn worked with his protege Frank Lloyd-Wright before they fell out. Lloyd-Wright turned Sullivan’s phrase ‘form follows function’ into ‘form is function’. He himself coined the term ‘organic architecture’ to show the close connection between structures and their natural environment.

The third post in this series.

Architectural styles and communities (Part 1)

I’ve been doing some background research for a possible project I’d like to do. It’s about the impact of a specific architectural style on the local communities where it developed and whether we can apply any modern day lessons from this. This first of a series of blogs will reveal more as my thinking develops.

The idea was sparked from my long-term interest in the architectural style, as well as watching a programme last week about building a community centre for those impacted by the shocking Grenfell Tower disaster which happened last year in London.

The initial investigation into the tower block fire has raised a number of issues and recommendations for Government action. However the TV programme highlighted the fact that this was about a local community coming to grips with the design and planning of structures built within it. This is what I want to explore more in my project.

Since I’m a historian by background and have spent time developing a website about an historical figure in civil engineering, it makes sense that I try and apply some of this to the real world. Also, the architectural style I’m interested is called ‘Secessionist’ and was developed during the life of Sir John Wolfe Barry. He never applied it himself as far as I can ascertain, but then it was considered the work of a new generation of younger architects.

However there is a connection.

John’s father Sir Charles Barry had worked closely with Augustus Pugin on the gothic revival details of the New Palace of Westminster. Pugin was a remarkable man who believed in authenticity rather than imitation, hence was somewhat conflicted by working with a classic architect who had made his name through Italianate style buildings such as the Reform and Travellers Clubs in London.

Pugin had developed his thinking on the value of medieval architecture by studying it intensively as part of sustaining his catholic religious and cultural beliefs. This in turn was to impact on Ruskin, Morris and Webb (the architect of the three) as leaders of what became the ‘Arts and Crafts’ Movement in Victorian England. For them it was a return to ancient practices which reflected the real needs of communities.

The break from tradition was encapsulated in the 1860 Red House in Bexleyheath where William Morris and family lived and is now under the protection of English Heritage.

The second post in this series.