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.

Who was the first architect to design a bridge?

This year is the bicentenary of the founding of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1818. It is also 100 years since Sir John Wolfe Barry died. Next year we will celebrate 125 years since he completed Tower Bridge in 1894.

Wolfe Barry was President of the ‘Civils’ and in this role keen to ensure that young civil engineers were given the right training to design and build bridges. At that time architects were less involved in the design process for bridges but this was changing.

Was Sir John qualified to design and build Tower Bridge?

Yes, in terms of producing the right physical structure and having the general engineering skills needed to start and finish the project successfully. His drawing skills were also good, no doubt boosted by the family specialism in architecture. However, the original designs for the bridge were not his. They belonged to Sir Horace Jones, the Corporation of London’s architect. Wolfe Barry was consulted by Jones on the engineering practicalities and provided evidence to Parliament on these, which may well have been a deciding factor in getting construction approval. Jones died soon after building began, but was succeeded by his architectural assistant George Stevenson.

John Wolfe Barry’s business partner Henry Brunel was also involved in the design and build process for Tower Bridge. His father IK Brunel had designed and part-built Clifton Suspension Bridge until the money ran out and was also responsible for the aesthetically pleasing railway bridge across the Thames at Maidenhead.

So my question to Twitterati (see @behroutcomes) which became the title of this post was designed to explore the early relationship between architects and engineers in bridge-building. Names that have come up include¬†Vitruvius, Appollodorus, Li Chun and Palladio. Let’s see who else appears …

Engineering versus Architecture concluded

This is my final post on the topic of engineering versus architecture on this website. Previous ones are here and here, respectively. It’s a theme I’m very interested in so will probably explore elsewhere.

I’ve just finished Andrew Saint’s book ‘Architect and Engineer: a study in sibling rivalry’. I won’t go into detail as it is well reviewed elsewhere on WordPress. Suffice to say that is a comprehensive academic analysis of the intertwined history of the two professions.

It refers to Sir Charles Barry’s major project on the New Palace of Westminster as a pivotal moment in the 19th Century. This is because it brought together key individuals (including the highly talented Augustus Pugin) with new materials to create a unique building, at a time when the traditional roles of architects and engineers were being tested by rapid technological change initiated by the First Industrial Revolution in Britain. Iron making had expanded from a village craft to a large scale manufacturing industry. The new textile mills which had proven to be the drivers of industrial growth were being built with iron to protect them from collapse during a fire, the scourge of timber-framed construction. This transferred across to other buildings and Charles Barry was an early adopter amongst British architects.

The Houses of Parliament still contain a large amount of iron behind the traditional wood and stone interiors and exteriors. Most of this is located in the floors and roof spaces, but a significant amount was to be found in the Victoria Tower until it was refurbished in the 1950s and 1960s. Given the sheer size and height of the tower, let alone its significance to the reigning monarch, Charles Barry was clearly keen to ensure that it stayed upright! For all these reasons he sought regular advice from a contracted engineer during construction.

It would seem that ground-breaking projects such as the New Palace of Westminster have forced architects and engineers to work closely together. As mentioned elsewhere on this website, Charles Barry’s sons Edward and Charles, both architects, worked closely with their brother John Wolfe, a consulting civil engineer. Their shared admiration for their father no doubt helped to minimise any sibling rivalries (literally).

Nowadays architects still appear to get most of the credit for the inspiring design side of novel structures. This epitomises the ongoing cultural divide between desk-bound ‘creatives’ and those who get their hands dirty actually building things.

Would Pugin were still here with us to give his views!