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 …
I applied for an English Heritage Blue Plaque for Sir John Wolfe Barry at the end of 2015. It’s a long process which requires evidence and research on the individual concerned and the buildings linked to them.
I get occasional updates from English Heritage as to progress and am still optimistic that something will happen by the end of 2018, the centenary year of Wolfe Barry’s death. If I hear any news I’ll blog about it of course.
If the plaque has to wait until 2019, that’s not too bad as Tower Bridge will be celebrating 125 years since its completion in 1894. I believe there’s at least one book in the offing to commemorate this and I assume it will give due coverage to Sir John as the lead engineer.
As mentioned before, there has been plenty of celebration of engineering in this bicentenary year of the Institution of Civil Engineers which is also the UK Government’s Year of Engineering. There’s also been a great video campaign by the Royal Academy of Engineering to promote careers in the sector to young people. Finally, Roma Agrawal’s book BUILT is doing well and she is planning a version for young children, to help explain the stories behind structures and point out that while architects often get the credit for designing buildings, there are many others involved.
I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a project manager.
It’s certainly much better defined nowadays than it was in the 19th Century when John Wolfe Barry first started in civil engineering. Indeed the father of project management ‘appeared’ in the early 20th Century when Wolfe Barry was still alive: Henry Gantt had worked for Frederick W. Taylor the originator of scientific management approaches to industry, beginning with US steel in the late 19th Century. He is attributed with inventing the Gantt chart around 1915-20, an all too familiar tool for modern day project managers, though much credit is also due to Karol Adamiecki who was a contemporary of Gantt’s from Poland.
But even if a science of project management didn’t get off the ground until after Barry had died, I’m sure there are aspects of its operation which he would have easily recognised as part of his daily activities in civil engineering from the very start. For example, you need to make sure your scoping exercise for a project pay heed to the demands of all key stakeholders who will be impacted by it. This requires listening skills, not just the ability to direct others. Wolfe Barry seemed to have had these in abundance.
Then there is the whole process of planning and supervising the effective delivery of a project to meet the end requirements of the commissioners. You require a core team of technical experts to work together in harmony towards the same vision. You need to regularly assess progress in reality versus the plan and decide how much you can afford to shift deadlines and resources. You must keep an eye on the financial details or you may blow the budget prior to satisfactory completion. There are many half-finished white elephants out there!
These were all skills which John possessed and building Tower Bridge was arguably as big a test of them as he ever underwent in his career, just as his father had tried to do with the New Palace of Westminster. He must have felt incredibly confident with his project leadership when the bridge was finally opened by the Prince of Wales in 1894.
Admittedly it was over budget, but in his defence it was a unique solution to a unique problem where others had failed in the conception stage.
I often use the term ‘built environment’ to encompass a knowledge and skills sector that covers civil and structural engineering, architecture, construction, building services, surveying and other related disciplines.
This is an important sector for the world economy because without it we wouldn’t have much of the infrastructure we rely on in a civilised culture. It may also help us build the platform for expansion of humanity off the planet, an increasingly important issue given the ongoing risks to us of global warming, population increase and religious/cultural intolerance. These all mirror previous reasons for exodus if we look back at mass migrations of the past.
But ‘BUILT’ is also the title of Roma Agrawal’s first book which is reaching out to broad audiences with stories about building structures. For example, she describes the biological origins of bridge-building by looking at the amazing Darwin’s bark spider which can shoot 25 meter silk lines across rivers. Roma posits that perhaps one day humans will be able to do the same on a much larger scale with innovative new materials.
So the BUILT environment is a play on words.
It tries to capture the fact that we need to create a wide community of interest in the value of designing and making structures, particularly in those largely Western countries where this basic skill set has been superseded by the ability to argue a highly technical legal case before a judge, or undertake intricate surgery to keep bodies functioning longer than they might naturally be designed to do.
This is not to undermine those professions, but perhaps to re-balance things back to where they used to be in ages gone by. Hence the Year of Engineering in the UK this year and the associated longer term ‘This is Engineering’ campaign. Not to forget the Institution of Civil Engineering’s 200th Anniversary in 2018 which includes celebrating 200 great global civil engineering related accomplishments during the course of the year. One of those added to the list is the foundation of the British Standards Institution (BSI) in 1901 by Sir John Wolfe Barry, more about which can be read on this website.
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.
Monday 22 January 2018 marks exactly 100 years since the death of Sir John Wolfe Barry, the man who built Tower Bridge, London. He died peacefully at his home in Chelsea at the venerable age of 81.
His lifetime is commemorated on this website, the culmination of a project that started many years ago. It is also commemorated on a window in Westminster Abbey, below which lies the tomb of his famous father the architect of the Houses of Parliament.
At the time of his death Sir John had achieved many things in addition to building Tower Bridge between 1886 and 1894. He had been President of the Institution of Civil Engineers in the 1890s, a famous organisation celebrating its bicentenary this year. He was credited with founding the Engineering Standards Committee at the turn of the 20th Century, which eventually became the British Standards Institution, home of the Kitemark. He was pivotal in helping to establish the National Physical Laboratory at around the same time.
Less well-known about him was the fact that he chaired the Board of the telegraph companies which were eventually to become Cable & Wireless. His close business partner for many decades was Henry Brunel, younger son of Isambard K Brunel. Sir John took over the lease of the Brunels’ house in Westminster, London and made it his own family home before he moved on to Chelsea.
Finally, Sir John’s civil engineering consultancy eventually became part of the same company which helped build the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, at the time of writing the world’s tallest building.
Roma Agrawal is publishing her book ‘Built: the Hidden Stories Behind our Structures’ on 8 February.
I’m fortunate to know Roma and we share common interests in opening up (structural) engineering to a wider base, particularly getting more females into a profession traditionally dominated by men.
One of the stories Roma writes about in her book is on the Quebec Bridge in Canada. It’s a bridge I don’t know too well so I decided to find out more using my favourite search tool, Google of course! This brought up the Wikipedia reference used in the above hyperlink. If you want to delve further you can connect to other steel cantilever bridges around the world including the Connel (Ferry) Bridge by Sir John Wolfe Barry, and the most famous example of all, the Forth Railway Bridge built by John Fowler and Benjamin Baker (a close friend and business partner of Wolfe Barry).
But what is so special about the Quebec Bridge?
It is a world record holder as the longest spanning cantilever bridge ever built – this was to prove the downfall of the first version of the bridge which collapsed during construction on 29 August 1907 with the loss of many lives. Roma will tell you more in her book.
Famous bridges aren’t the only structures to have stories behind them. The building you live in may have more than one stor(e)y. Perhaps not as exciting or indeed tragic as the Quebec Bridge …