I’m launching the print copy of ‘Building Passions’ on Wednesday 20 November in Central London. The e-book has been out since September on www.kobo.com . The full title is Brunel, Barry and ‘modern’ Victorian architecture .
The day before that, English Heritage will put up a Blue Plaque on the house in Chelsea where Sir John Wolfe Barry lived and died.
Both of these events will be a major personal milestone for me as an historian and author. But they also represent the first steps, I hope, in my shared efforts to expand our knowledge about the built environment. As I have recognised in my book, Roma Agrawal really started this for many of us with her fantastic book ‘BUILT’.
What happens after the book is launched?
Well, I’m writing my next one, an historical novel based on the life of my grandfather Baron Lex von Behr, who may have been a spy … I hope to publish it in 2020, a century after he escaped from the clutches of Soviet Red Guards in what is modern day Uzbekistan.
I will continue to promote ‘Building Passions’ through the website and give talks about it to local audiences in Kent where I live.
I’m also thinking about doing academic research linked to one of the themes in the book – what helped define architectural ‘modernity’ in the Victorian era, how does this link to our built environment legacy, and why is it important for the current process of quality design and build?
Or something along those lines …
#buildingpassions is the tagline for my forthcoming book about the Brunel and Barry families of Victorian engineers and architects.
Why I have I chosen it?
Firstly, because I like the play on words similar to the #buildingstories tag used by Roma Agrawal for her ‘Built’ podcasts.
Secondly, because no one else seems to be using it currently so it ticks the U in USP (unique selling proposition if you didn’t know, a marketing term).
Thirdly, because while my book is mainly about the history of architecture and civil engineering, it references the wider built environment in which they belong. This is the key sector which visibly and materially transforms our towns, cities and landscapes, generally for the good.
The nouns ‘building’ and ‘builder’ don’t always have great press currently in the English language at least, as they are mainly connected to the construction industry. This is just one part of the built environment sector, and not always the most reputable bit due to the ‘cowboys’ who operate for lower prices but with a higher risk of serious problems later on.
The worst recent example that comes to mind is the 2016 structural collapse of a church in Nigeria where building regulation corruption is rife – 160 people died! Similar issues have arisen with houses in earthquake zones in Nepal and Ecuador, for instance.
So we clearly need a rebrand with a strong positive feeling to it and I hope #buildingpassions (click for the relevant page) can somehow contribute to this.
This a quick post to promote Roma Agrawal’s new podcast website called ‘Building Stories’.
I have listened to the first three casts on it which are all fascinating and ‘build’ on the stories in her amazing book BUILT.
I particularly like the one on the Shard, so some highlights:
- Roma explains how she helped build the Shard and a colleague tells her how the steel in it was first developed in Sri Lanka in the 3rd Century BC and industrialised in 19th Century Britain.
- Roma was born in India like my brother and I! One of her skyscraper heroes was a structural engineer/architect, born in Bangladesh, who designed the ground-breaking John Hancock Centre and Sears Tower in Chicago. You will have to listen to find out more …
- The legacy business of my favourite civil engineer (hint: this website is about him!) helped construct the world’s tallest skyscraper, the Burj Khalifa.
Finally, I’ve called this post ‘building stories, building passions’ because the second part is in the subtitle of the book I’m writing – for my latest post on progress see the previous one to this.
Why have some people decided they want to build structures?
This was the first question which entered my mind when I started my new job as Education Manager at the Institution of Structural Engineers in January 2016. I was curious to know why young people would want to become structural engineers.
After more than two years of thinking about his, which has included conversations with active structural engineers such as Roma Agrawal author of BUILT, as well as many others in the built environment, I have a few pointers which I list below.
- There are some jobs which require inspiration to get the best out of them – there are others which don’t, and things like money or benefits in kind can be attractive enough to do them.
- Building structures is certainly a type of occupation that DOES need inspiration for the best results. Uninspired structures are a blight on humanity and our environment. In some cases they not only dull our lives but harm them as well.
- Young people like to be inspired by things. Ask a group of UK teenagers what they think of building as a profession and they will say it’s about bricks, concrete, hard hats, physical work and getting dirty. Nothing particularly inspiring there.
- However ask them what architects do and they will go on about designing amazing houses with incredible features, quoting TV programmes and presenters.
- Finally, ask them what a structural or civil engineer does. Be prepared for the worst ranging from complete ignorance to some obscure link to mending a car or the home plumbing.
- There are youth campaigns now such as ‘This is Engineering’ which are trying to fight against the negative cultural stereotype – indeed, a new set of inspiring videos will be released this Monday showing teenagers the excitement of engineering, including a structural engineer helping earthquake victims to rebuild their lives.
- I personally believe that history is another medium to show the value of building and associated professions to new audiences. Roma’s book BUILT has tried to do exactly this. Another is ‘Mr Barry’s War’ by Caroline Shenton which is now out in paperback and describes the trials and tribulations of the architect of the New Palace of Westminster in the 19th Century.
The final word on this?
Yes we all have them and many of us are them. We try to guide our offspring down the right career paths for them. Some of us can be very pushy! We need to be convinced that a job in a specific sector will be fine for our children. We have prejudices about certain jobs. We also aspire to better things, sometimes using our children to achieve this for us. We need to rethink our attitudes and approaches to building structures.
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’m reading a biography of the 19th Century Scottish engineer William Fairbairn. It has been very well researched with hundreds of references to primary and secondary materials. Personally, I find it a fascinating read, but I could imagine it doesn’t appeal to many. Too technical and detailed they might say.
That’s where the challenge comes along to those who would like to spread the lessons from historical biography. These are case studies of significant individuals who have clearly made a difference to an area, a sector, a technology, a community, a nation, a world etc.
As Roma Agrawal has shown with her book BUILT, people are interested in stories about other people. This allows us to entice them in the direction of more scientific and technical issues which have traditionally scared them away.
Even though William Fairbairn didn’t have a proper education, he learned by doing and by reading voraciously in his little spare time. He was driven by a bigger purpose than making money for himself and his family. He wanted to change society for the better. This is surely a reason for knowing a little more about him and his personal and physical achievements.