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.

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.

To be continued ….

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.

To be continued ….

What has inspired people to build?

Why have some people decided they want to build structures?

This was the first question which entered my mind when I started my new job as Education Manager at the Institution of Structural Engineers in January 2016. I was curious to know why young people would want to become structural engineers.

After more than two years of thinking about his, which has included conversations with active structural engineers such as Roma Agrawal author of BUILT, as well as many others in the built environment, I have a few pointers which I list below.

  • There are some jobs which require inspiration to get the best out of them – there are others which don’t, and things like money or benefits in kind can be attractive enough to do them.
  • Building structures is certainly a type of occupation that DOES need inspiration for the best results. Uninspired structures are a blight on humanity and our environment. In some cases they not only dull our lives but harm them as well.
  • Young people like to be inspired by things. Ask a group of UK teenagers what they think of building as a profession and they will say it’s about bricks, concrete, hard hats, physical work and getting dirty. Nothing particularly inspiring there.
  • However ask them what architects do and they will go on about designing amazing houses with incredible features, quoting TV programmes and presenters.
  • Finally, ask them what a structural or civil engineer does. Be prepared for the worst ranging from complete ignorance to some obscure link to mending a car or the home plumbing.
  • There are youth campaigns now such as ‘This is Engineering’ which are trying to fight against the negative cultural stereotype – indeed, a new set of inspiring videos will be released this Monday showing teenagers the excitement of engineering, including a structural engineer helping earthquake victims to rebuild their lives.
  • I personally believe that history is another medium to show the value of building and associated professions to new audiences. Roma’s book BUILT has tried to do exactly this. Another is ‘Mr Barry’s War’ by Caroline Shenton which is now out in paperback and describes the trials and tribulations of the architect of the New Palace of Westminster in the 19th Century.

The final word on this?

Parents.

Yes we all have them and many of us are them. We try to guide our offspring down the right career paths for them. Some of us can be very pushy! We need to be convinced that a job in a specific sector will be fine for our children. We have prejudices about certain jobs. We also aspire to better things, sometimes using our children to achieve this for us. We need to rethink our attitudes and approaches to building structures.

Generalists vs specialists

Life seems to have two choice of strategies. You either specialise in a niche area or you broaden your outlook and cover all the bases. There are risks with both strategies but it seems to me the generalist one offers the most opportunities.

The construction industry is full of specialists: architects, surveyors, structural engineers, interior designers, builders etc. But it is technically possible to construct your own house. You may need people to check on your work from time to time, and if you make too many mistakes it can prove costly either in money terms or more seriously with implications for the health of the inhabitants. However it can be done.

Specialists come into their own when you want to try something different. A good architect will be able to respond to a challenging design brief by using their creative abilities to blend vision with reality. They in turn will work closely with a structural engineer to provide technical solutions to the new problems that arise from pushing the limits of construction. Materials specialists may also become involved. No generalist could manage this on their own.

Saying that, many project managers are generalists who are able to bring together specialists into combined teams for defined periods of time. They exist in all spheres of life and started to appear in their own right during the 20th Century. John Wolfe Barry might have been a possible candidate for this role if he had been born a century later.

Augustus Pugin’s gothic talent

I’m reading a detailed biography of Augustus Pugin by Rosemary Hill.

For those who don’t recognise the name, Pugin was the architect who co-designed and furnished much of the elegant gothic interior of the Palace of Westminster in the 19th Century. He also contributed to the design of many of the unique exterior features including Big Ben. There was much controversy at the time about whether he or Sir Charles Barry was chiefly responsible for the gothic revival look of the new Houses of Parliament. Certainly Sir Charles was the man in charge of the build and the layout was very much based on his classic design principles.

The biography refers in snippets to this creative relationship between the two men. Inevitably, I feel, there is a bias towards Pugin’s contribution in the book. Clearly Augustus was a remarkably talented individual with great ability, acquired from his French father, to draw intricate detail based on sketches of historic structures and artefacts. He could also work with the highly specialist artisans who created the end products required. However, he was also volatile and wouldn’t necessarily listen to reason. He needed to be inspired by muses, who were often young women with the right spiritual and physical attributes for him. The ones he married had to handle his peculiar lifestyle.

Caroline Shenton, Barry’s biographer, tells me that he’d spent years defending his designs  for the Palace to politicians and fighting off criticism and so probably felt to reveal Pugin’s involvement would set it all going again. She also thinks that over time Pugin had turned from an equal collaborator at the start to ‘just another supplier’ under the intense pressure to get the job completed. Both of them appeared to be perfectionists, so one can imagine the pressure they put on themselves and the impact of this on their health and families.

I’ll keep reading to the end of Pugin’s life as it fascinates me both for the positive and not so positive about his character. Extreme talent is a rare and precious thing – I watched lately a fascinating documentary about Magnus Carlsen the chess prodigy. He reasoned that no-one could understand what goes on in his head, so it was best to just leave him to it.  Perhaps this is a luxury some of us are allowed to enjoy in life?

Plaque news: latest update

So, I contacted English Heritage last week to see how things are progressing with my Blue Plaque application for Sir John Wolfe Barry.

It seems that the owner of the building where Sir John died is fine in principle so once planning permission is given then hopefully we will have our plaque.

It looks more and more as if this will only happen in 2019, hence we may well miss the centenary year of JWB’s death. However I’ve already blogged in anticipation of this highlighting 125 years of Tower Bridge next year.

Once I get a date for the actual unveiling of the plaque I will spread the message as it would be good to have a few people there to witness it. In preparation I’ve found this website where you can order your own blue plaque: perhaps one day I’ll get one for myself in anticipation of my passing into history. Just need to persuade someone to fix it up when I’m gone …