Architecture has its modern day heroes such as Enzo Piano or Norman Foster or the late Zaha Hadid.
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.
The Victorians were huge achievers on a global scale.
Amongst the many contributors to this process were civil engineers such as Telford, Brunel, Hawkshaw, Fowler, Baker and Wolfe Barry.
I attended a wonderful book launch this week for Roma Agrawal’s new book BUILT during which she kindly signed my copy. The occasion was hosted at the Brunel Museum in Rotherhithe on the site of the first traffic tunnel under a navigable waterway, the River Thames. The civil engineers responsible were Marc and Isambard Brunel, father and son. As I’ve posted elsewhere on this site, Isambard’s son Henry became a close business partner of John Wolfe Barry.
The final chapter of Roma’s book is called ‘Dream’. Everyone dreams, literally, but not so many actually achieve them in real life. Roma managed to write her book which started as a spreadsheet and she’d previously designed key structural parts of the Shard, an architect’s dream come true.
Young people ever since Victorian times (and before) have wanted to fulfil their dreams. Civil and structural engineering is one very visible way of doing this – not just a small, invisible component of a household object, but a big, visible, in-your-face statement of how conceptual design can change the world physically for the better.
Where there was no hospital there now is one to treat the sick, where no bridge now one stands to cross a river.
Communities can flourish and in turn have an influence on their environment, gradually ensuring that it reflects shared ideals and aspirations, including beauty, sustainability and using an ethical approach.
John Wolfe Barry would have been happy with such an outcome.
I’ve commented previously on this site about the relationship between civil engineering and architecture.
The Barry family are an interesting case study because John was the only civil engineer amongst a father and two elder brothers who were all successful architects. It isn’t clear whether it was his choice to follow a different profession or his father’s decision. But we do know that he worked together with his brothers on a few projects.
One of these was the construction of railway stations with adjoining hotels at Charing Cross and Cannon Street in London during the early 1860s. Edward Middleton Barry was the architect for both hotels. John worked as a civil engineering assistant to Sir John Hawkshaw who had overall responsibility for the two extensions to the rail line from London Bridge Station.
Another project which linked brothers was the construction of a new HQ for the Institution of Civil Engineers at the time John was it’s President. His other brother Charles was asked to advise on the design from an architectural perspective. Sadly the building was demolished not long after it was completed to make way for the Government’s new Treasury offices in Westminster.
It would be interesting to know how the brothers discussed built environment issues together, whether informally or in a business context. How passionate did emotions get over the use of form as opposed to aesthetics or vice versa?
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.