Anticipating more public speaking #buildingpassions

I’m giving a talk on my book ‘Building Passions’ tomorrow at my local library in Ashford, Kent.

I’ve adapted it a bit from the previous one in Canterbury before Xmas. It will be longer, as my friend Tom won’t be demonstrating how to build a model bridge, so I’ve had to add in some extra content.

I still feel a bit nervous about public speaking as you never know what’s going to happen – from the slides not functioning properly to an audience member asking you questions to which you don’t have answers, or telling you they know more than you about your topic.

However, what matters is that we enjoy ourselves as a group and feel that the time spent has been worthwhile. If people want to buy a copy of the book they are most welcome to, and they will get a personal dedication and a discount, as they have to pay a nominal ticket price to come along (which doesn’t go to me).

I will cover the main personalities in the book, so the Brunel and Barry engineers and architects who I write about, as well as some of my favourite structures such as Tower Bridge and Hotel Tassel. I’m assuming you know the former, but may not know of the latter.

Hotel Tassel, in Brussels, was designed by a Belgian architect called Victor Horta in the early 1890s. I will be visiting it for the first time towards the end of March and am already getting excited about this. Why?

Because it is a landmark in the new style of architecture called ‘Art Nouveau’ which suddenly appeared in Europe at that point in time. The style disappeared equally rapidly before the outbreak of WWI. Fortunately we still have many of the original buildings which have been restored in a number of significant cases.

But what is the link to ‘Building Passions’ you may ask? The book examines the influence of the Brunels and Barrys on ‘modern’ Victorian architecture. It concludes by noting the importance of novel approaches to design and materials in the late 19th Century. This had a global impact, such that in Chicago for example, it led to a unique type of high-rise architecture using steel frames and glass panes which is still with us to this day.

The built environment changes over time, with new design styles emerging according to developing tastes. It is an evolutionary process which sees the fittest options spreading, and the less fit ones sticking to safe niches which either adapt and survive or disappear completely.

From celebrity to outcast: William Bankes MP (1786-1855)

Bankes had travelled with a young Charles Barry in Egypt and then recommended Barry to the Church Commissioners for his first architectural projects in Manchester in the early 1820s. Barry also helped Bankes remodel Soughton Hall.

The History of Parliament

Today’s blog is the second of three posts to celebrate LGBT+ History Month. In this blog we hear from Dr Philip Salmon, Editor of the House of Commons 1832-1868 project, about William Bankes who fled the country to avoid prosecution for homosexual offences …

William Bankes was one of the most famous explorers of Regency England. A swashbuckling early 19th-century ‘Indiana Jones’, his discovery of lost ancient sites in Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia made him a household name. A close friend of Lord Bryon, who deemed him the ‘father of all mischief’ during their student days together at Cambridge University, he was renowned for his risqué wit, remarkable good looks and captivating conversation. He was also a serious scholar. His contribution to the emerging field of Egyptology – especially his work helping to de-cipher Egyptian hieroglyphs – is now widely recognised.

In 2017 Bankes’s sexual orientation became…

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Do we ever learn from the past? #buildingpassions

I sometimes wonder if we ever learn from what has happened previously in society?

There are so many cases of people blatantly ignoring the fact that their idea or project has simply been recycled. They crave intellectual originality in some form. They deny credit to those who have gone before them. Or conveniently misinterpret the lessons of past mistakes, so it appears that there were no previous errors.

Our political leaders are the worst examples of this. So why do we not use history to point it out to them? Sadly, even highly expert historians can be manipulated by others with unethical intentions. All academics are vulnerable to this. Egos can easily be massaged.

Is there a solution?

I’m not sure really. But we should continue to research and write about history as independently and accurately as we can. There will be differences of view about interpretation, but these should be accepted in good spirit. Each effort to explain the past should build on the work of predecessors. When we make new hypotheses, we should be confident that the evidence we have accrued is sufficiently supportive. This may mean changing our own perspectives. So be it.

Creativity and norms – why they both matter #buildingpassions

As part of scoping for a potential PhD in the history of architecture and engineering, I have been considering the tension between being creative and sticking to norms.

It’s a topic I’ve skirted around already on this website and in my book ‘Building Passions‘.

Imagine you have to design a new house for someone you admire and respect. They have given you a brief which tells you they want the building to be unique for them, but that it needs to conform with local health and safety regulations. This immediately produces creative tension in the design process.

That’s not a bad thing in itself and forces you to think about new approaches to form and function, but which can still meet the set standards. It is possible that artistic recognition may come out of this process. This will depend on the nature of the materials used and the skills employed at melding them into an original work of beauty.

What makes humans different is our ability to appreciate our wider environment. Other creatures just live in theirs. They may have unwritten rules, but these are purely designed to serve the group rather than the individual.

So creativity and norms can co-exist in societies. But we humans need to rise above our basic motivations and reflect on the bigger picture.

Can we do this?

The Men from the Future (Helsinki Central station, Finland)

Great post on the transition from Art Nouveau to Art Deco in Finland and how some architects are well ahead of their times.

The Beauty of Transport

Architect Eliel Saarinen (1873-1950) and his son Eero were time travellers from the future with an interest in transport. We know this because their transport buildings are adrift in time, built years earlier than seems possible based on their appearance. Eero (1910-1961) was responsible for the futuristic TWA Flight Center at JFK Airport in New York. It opened in 1962 but is redolent of – or rather, prefigures – much more recent buildings by architects like Zaha Hadid and Santiago Calatrava. It’s one of my favourite pieces of transport architecture. But Eero was following in a grand family tradition, because his father (well that’s what they’d have us think; we all know that in time travel stories, the father is always his own son or something) built one of the great late 1920s / 1930s railway stations. Except it opened in 1914.

Helsinki Central station. By Ralf Roletschek (talk) - Fahrradtechnik auf fahrradmonteur.de (Own work) [FAL or GFDL 1.2], via Wikimedia Commons Helsinki Central station. Photo by Ralf Roletschek (talk) – Fahrradtechnik auf…

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Writing fiction is a matter of dialogue #buildingpassions

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.

Perhaps I should write more such exchanges?