The end: you will know when you’ve got there

I’ve just about reached the end of drafting the text for my book on the Brunel and Barry families of Victorian engineers and architects.

I started in January of this year but only got into it properly from 12 February after I had stopped full-time work in London and the commute that went with it.

So it’s been about 3 months of writing with two restarts in March and April. The first one was on the back of an editorial assessment and the second when I decided to extend the remit to include the Brunel family. Until then it had focused on Sir Charles Barry and his son Sir John Wolfe Barry.

Where do we stand now?

Not as many words as I’d hoped for, but those there have been extensively self-edited and fact-checked – the problem with writing non-fiction rapidly I guess. Fortunately I had prepared some of the way with this website, as well as previous research, articles and talks.

I’ve also learned that finding minimal cost images for non-fiction publishing is a tricky exercise – in fact it makes me rather annoyed that some (inter)national museums, galleries and institutions are raking in large amounts of cash for image rights, when they should be serving an educational purpose through disseminating these as widely as possible, hence also luring people in to see the real exhibits. Enough said!

Next steps are reviews by trusted people and then the text goes off for a developmental edit by start June. At the same time I will start working with a designer on the cover. I’m still on plan to deliver as scheduled.

One upcoming date to note which is highly relevant to this website is 30 June, when Londoners will celebrate 125 years since Tower Bridge was first opened to the public. You can find out here more about activities this special year.

Editing as you write (EAYW) and patios

What is your writing style?

Mine is to edit as I write which I suppose is the luxury of using word processors. Is there an electronic version of the typewriters I once started with, where you can only write and then cover your e-paper with handwritten scribblings?

The problem with the EAYW approach is that you can get bogged down in the minutiae of grammar, spelling, language and facts. This grinds free flowing creativity to a standstill.

Since my book is about engineering and architecture let’s try a building analogy.

If you build a new patio in your garden you have a big choice of finishes you can use: slabs, stones, bricks, concrete, gravel, timber etc. This will be influenced by aesthetics and maintenance.

But what matters before you can appreciate the end product is using the right type and amount of foundations. Without these your finished patio may look superficially great, but over time will lose its beauty and function. Too little support or drainage and slabs will tilt or sink …

Of course people are only going to remember the top layer. So no point perfecting the foundations and then covering them with a cheap finish.

Like many things in life it is about achieving the correct balance between form and function. People who build have always struggled with this and since their finishes are often viewed by many, they open themselves up to public critique as well as adulation.

Read more about this on the blog and eventually in the book.

Half way there

I’ve written half my target number of words for my book on the 19th Century Barrys. The rest needs to be completed by mid-June latest.

One thing that changes as I add words to the draft is the title and structure of the book. It has now moved on from a central focus on Sir Charles Barry and his three architect/civil engineer sons, to a wider scope including the great Isambard K Brunel and his son Henry Brunel.

This makes for a better connection with the themes of family, recognition and building that run through the book, as well as allowing me to look even more closely at the relationship between architecture and civil engineering.

What, you might ask, is the connection between the Barrys and the Brunels?

John Wolfe Barry and Henry Brunel were close friends and business partners who lived and worked in the Brunel family home and offices in London for the first years of their civil engineering collaboration. Once John was married and children started arriving, Henry had to leave his parents’ house as a lifelong bachelor and hand it over completely to his friend. This can’t have been easy for him!

The fathers of each son knew each other and were both Fellows of the Royal Society. They had also worked together on designing a venue for the 1851 Great Exhibition in London which became known as the famous Crystal Palace. There is no evidence of any close personal or business relationship between them and this could be said to typify the traditional space between British architects and civil engineers.

The book will expand on the above and is currently due for publication by end September 2019. Fingers crossed!

On solving difficult structural problems

I’ve had the privilege of working with leading civil and structural engineers over the period since early 2016.

I am not one of them, in the sense that I don’t have their knowledge, understanding and skills in the technical requirements of civil and structural engineering. However, I do understand much better some of their key attributes and motivations.

One that stands out is their approach to solving problems. If a building or a bridge falls down killing and injuring people then the first question asked is: who built it? There may be some context for this, in the sense that if the structural failure was due to an ‘Act of God’ such as an earthquake or tidal wave, then some leeway is given to the identified responsible person. However, if as in the Grenfell Tower inferno, or the collapse of the Morandi Bridge in Genoa, there is some sense that the blame was entirely linked to human neglect, then the repercussions can be very severe for those found wanting.

On the other hand, progress through technical advances is only really made as a response to a crisis of some kind. If we had no crises then life might appear easier for all of us, but there would be costly consequences. Society would become stale and complacent, more susceptible to potential threats that could have much bigger impacts for larger numbers of victims. There are difficult choices to be made with pros and cons each way.

Civil and structural engineers therefore solve problems as ‘scientifically’ as they can, based on hard evidence of past failures and successes, but also with due acknowledgement to present circumstances and future possibilities. The professional standards they set for themselves assure that this is the case, and if the public is not sufficiently convinced then Government legislates as a further safeguard.

The 19th Century Barrys, about whom I am currently writing, faced these same issues as builders of structures. They also tried to guide the conversation through their involvement with developing professional bodies in architecture and civil engineering. Charles Barry junior and John Wolfe Barry were both Presidents of their Institutions (RIBA and ICE) and Sir Charles Barry won a preeminent Royal Gold Medal from Queen Victoria for his professional services to architecture.

Iconic 19th Century structures: the Eiffel Tower

As I write this post I am in a Paris Hotel enjoying a few days in the French capital.

Of all the iconic 19th Century structures in the world, including Big Ben and Tower Bridge credited to the Barrys, for me the Eiffel Tower stands out the most. It is the symbol of Paris, arguably France, somewhat ironic given the temporary nature of the original iron tower built for the 1889 Universal Exhibition in Paris by Gustave Eiffel, as well as the hostile reception from many quarters.

Eiffel’s company had won a competition to build a 300m high metal structure on the site. This was achieved rapidly and systematically using standardised components creating a mathematically stable tower. The essential designs were made by engineers but an architect was needed to beautify the structure and add floors for visitors.

Despite a unique achievement the reaction of many was dismay at the perceived ugliness of the tower and a campaign to tear it down began. Fortunately this never succeeded and we still can admire the structure in its original completeness. In deed 7 million visitors come each year making it the most popular paying attraction in the world.

When John Wolfe Barry was completing Tower Bridge during the same period but over a longer time span, he also attracted criticism from his profession, this time for concealing the metal matrix under cladding.

Which shows that you can’t please everyone and might as well do what you think is right.

Purveyor of country house upgrades to the aristocracy

Sir Charles Barry established a reputation amongst the British aristocracy for upgrading their country houses in the 19th Century.

His route in was through his design of the Travellers Club in London (see my recent photo), a pivotal building in the history of British architecture. He successfully married his own design preferences with the combined tastes of the elite Club members including the Duke of Wellington no less. This produced a highly admired Italianate structure adapted from its Florentine and Roman influences to suit British culture and climate.

Dukes and Earls came flocking in his direction with commissions and this was further boosted by Barry’s successful bid to rebuild the Houses of Parliament after they were destroyed by fire in 1834. This became his major lifetime work, but he still managed to keep other clients satisfied with his redesign advice. Highclere Castle, Cliveden House and Dunrobin Castle all still stand today as examples of his influence.

This all explains why he was given the single honour of being buried in the aisle of Westminster Abbey at a funeral in 1860 attended by the good and the great.

His sons would never achieve their father’s status. However, I think that John Wolfe Barry deserves the most credit for maintaining the family hallmark of structural excellence, though having moved slightly out of Sir Charles’s shadow into civil engineering. There he established himself by completing Tower Bridge, less an architectural feat and more a triumph of structural and mechanical engineering.

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.