Architecture has its modern day heroes such as Enzo Piano or Norman Foster.
Civil and structural engineers are less well known nowadays compared to the legends of the past.
What has happened?
I would venture to suggest that people are more impressed nowadays by creativity and aesthetics than by downright structural solidity.
Is this fair?
No, but then it’s not fair that medicine attracts huge numbers of applicants and quite happily rejects large percentages of them in the upper echelons. No shame in not making the cut, you can always try another profession (by implication, easier).
I hope very much that this bias will change over time. I don’t believe it helps any profession. It’s not the obvious that matters, rather the less well perceived.
However beautiful a skyscraper or a bridge, what we need to be sure of is that they will last serving a good purpose. They won’t if they collapse or if they produce more problems than solutions for the communities in which they are built.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel is probably the most famous engineer in history and arguably one of Britain’s best recognised heroes. Certainly he had the advantage of an equally talented engineer father, with whom he worked closely from a young age.
By contrast, Sir Charles Barry, who was Brunel’s near contemporary, came from a less auspicious background. His projects were technically less challenging and he sought consensus rather than individual distinction.
Sir Charles’ sons achieved successful careers as architects, a senior clergyman and a civil engineer. Isambard’s eldest son became a lawyer and his youngest son Henry was a ‘junior’ partner to Sir John Wolfe Barry, in the sense that he relied on John’s moral and financial support for many years.
While the Brunel name of engineers died out with Henry after only two generations, the (Wolfe) Barry’s continued in civil engineering well into the 20th Century.
Different families make their mark on society in different ways.
I’ve managed to populate this website about Sir John Wolfe Barry with a fair amount of information about him and things, issues and people linked to him. I’m now wondering what to do next and would appreciate your help. Please respond to this post with your thoughts in the comments part.
For example, should there be more content about the history of civil engineering or architecture as technical disciplines?
Or perhaps more on the commercial and contracting side of John Wolfe Barry’s professional activities?
Or just more stories about Victorian and Edwardian characters who lived and worked in the same circles as him?
The choice is yours.
What matters when designing and planning a building: its aesthetic appeal or the nature of its form and materials? People will have different views about this depending on their tastes, which makes the built environment such a fascinating and sometimes controversial area of practice.
Debates have continued ever since humans first began to shape their environment and introduce the concept of ‘style’ to each other. Different generations may hold vastly differing views about why a particular structure appeals or not.
I’m happy to defend my appreciation of 19th Century architecture and engineering, based as it is on my background as an historian of the first Industrial Revolution, which happened to take place in my country of origin. I suppose when I first studied economic and social history at university I was fascinated by human ingenuity and organisation as an evolving complex system, less so by individual acts of creativity. As time has passed and I’ve moved along with my generation, clearly I’ve started to appreciate the aesthetical side more than I used to.
My challenge now is to address a general misunderstanding of how historical precedent can best be used to help pave the way forward for ‘modernity’, whichever way we may choose to interpret the future.
I believe looking back with hindsight at engineers such as John Wolfe Barry and his contemporaries aids us in this process.
John Wolfe Barry was a distinguished Victorian civil engineer recognised by his peers. His father had achieved the same status within the architectural profession, and John was the only one of his sons to choose civil engineering. Would he have been a successful architect had he decided to follow that path?
It’s a difficult question to answer but it does raise a range of issues about the key differences between the two professions, as well as public perceptions of these, which may not always match reality.
I’ll try to spend some time on this as I complete this website in time for the centenary of John Wolfe Barry’s death which is less than 4 months away now.
I’m reading a fascinating book about the use of iron and steel in buildings in Victorian London. One of these structures was Tower Bridge which John Wolfe Barry built with his partner Henry Brunel.
You could argue it was more than just a bridge as the two steel towers were clad in stone to provide sympathetic context with the Tower of London.
This stirred up great architectural debate at the time.
Author Jonathan Clarke of the English Heritage monograph ‘Early Structural Steel in London Buildings: A discreet revolution’ explains the basis behind these disagreements on aesthetics and use of materials, which you might say characterised the professional divide between traditional architects and futuristic structural engineers at the time.