Brunel, Barry and ‘modern’ Victorian architecture eBook by Nick von Behr – 9781916225701 | Rakuten Kobo

The book cover image above should always be credited as follows: Arpingstone (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tower.bridge.7.basculecloseup.london.arp.jpg), size and alignment by Elisa Vernazza, https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/legalcode

The e-book is currently available to order at https://www.kobo.com/gb/en/ebook/brunel-barry-and-modern-victorian-architecture

What did builders ever do for us? #buildingpassions

The answer depends on what you mean by a builder.

At one time, many millennia ago, they would have been one of the most highly respected people in a kingdom of China, Egypt, Mesopotamia or Greece.

Since then the respectability of their role has been superseded by that of architects and engineers.

That’s not a bad thing in itself, in the sense that the world has many more professions nowadays and opportunities for people to shine within them.

However, the down side is that builders have accumulated negative press, particularly those unregulated ones who operate on the edges of the law, interested only in making a quick buck out of unsuspecting clients.

Regulation is one option, but not necessarily the best for society if imposed from above. The fact is, people all over the world will always want a cheaper quote for what can seem very expensive manual work to them.

Alternatively, more of them are trying out self-build for smaller projects. This is a good development as it helps clients to identify, and appreciate more, the skills required to construct something solid and long-lasting.

The biggest worry is that those populations living in regions of the world susceptible to earthquakes or flooding continue to seek the cheapest building option, even though they have chosen t0 stay where they are rather than move to safer ground.

This is why education about the built environment is so useful and why I hope my new book ‘Building Passions’ can somehow stimulate a wider interest.

Families in history and now #buildingpassions

I’m travelling to a family reunion in London to celebrate my mother’s 80th birthday.

Families are important.

I write about two of them in my forthcoming book on the 19th-century Brunels and Barrys. The full title is “Brunel, Barry and ‘modern’ Victorian architecture”. The short title is ‘Building Passions’.

In the book, the two famous families of engineers and architects connect through John Wolfe Barry and his close friend and business partner Henry Marc Brunel. Their fathers were the great Victorians Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Charles Barry, who were both Fellows of the Royal Society like their outstanding contemporary Charles Darwin. They also co-designed the 1851 Great Exhibition and Crystal Palace with Prince Albert, Joseph Paxton and others.

Families have roots and branches.

They come from somewhere and in most cases continue on, even if there are name changes along the way. Personalities appear, disappear and reappear through new generations.

This is all part of evolution and completely natural, in whatever way it may have first started.

The best families strive to work cooperatively with others for the wider good. This despite the temptation to care for their immediate lineage only.

In this way the world progresses and, we hope, avoids the pitfalls of personal greed and avarice that have become so visible today.

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.