2019 report on #buildingpassions

2019 was an interesting year for me.

I wrote and self-published my first book!

I also managed to see through a four-year application for an English Heritage Blue Plaque for Sir John Wolfe Barry. On 19 November a plaque was finally put up on the London house where he died a little over a century ago. This coincided with 125 years since he completed the build of Tower Bridge with his partner Henry Marc Brunel (son of the great Isambard Brunel).

I also gave my first public lecture via the South East STEM Hub in Canterbury, to an audience ranging from primary school age to the retired. It was made interactive with help from an engineering contact, who demonstrated a scale version of a wooden arched bridge held up only by tension and cantilever action – and we managed to get three kids to stand on it!

Finally, I started scoping research looking at the development of Art Nouveau architecture in the UK, Belgium and France, to see how it was influenced by building standards.

I need to thank my wife Viktoriya for valiantly supporting me during the year. We had just moved to a new house out of London and are still adjusting to a different lifestyle away from the metropolis and close friends.

Oh and I did a bit of my own building. Just a garden decking area mind you, but it made me appreciate the skills needed to design, plan and complete a structure.

We should celebrate these passionately!

The Crystal Palace #10favstructures #buildingpassions

I’ve mentioned the Crystal Palace in previous posts in this series of 10 top structures from my book ‘Building Passions‘.

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.

Continuing my #10favstructures in #buildingpassions

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.

Wouldn’t It Be Loverly #10favstructures #buildingpassions

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.

Have a happy one!

The Leviathan #10favstructures #buildingpassions

Many years ago when I was a child, I remember watching a TV programme about the great engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

The programme covered his early life and construction of tunnels, bridges and railways. But the achievement that most appealed to me was his realised ambition to build the largest steamships in the world.

The first such ship was the Great Western, followed soon by the Great Britain, both designed and built in Bristol. However, it was Brunel’s final project, the SS Great Eastern that most stood out for me. Here was a truly gargantuan vessel which would eclipse others for many decades to come.

The monster ship was launched with much difficulty on the River Thames in London. Brunel also fell out with investors and his notoriously difficult collaborator John Scott Russell. Finally, there was an engine room explosion on the maiden run.

IKB never lived to see what happened to his ‘Leviathan’. His civil engineer son Henry kept an interest in the ship and replaced his father as a close personal mentor with the famous naval architect Sir William Froude. The ship’s greatest role was to lay the first transatlantic telegraph cable.

The Great Eastern therefore features on my list of favourite structures in my book ‘Building Passions‘ as the only ship. It raised all kinds of technical issues as a vast iron structure designed for many people. Up-ended it would have represented a skyscraper far ahead of its time!

Tis a season of cheer and perhaps Reform? #buildingpassions

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.