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.

Back to school nerves

As I write this I am heading back home from school.

It is one I attended as a teenager and of which I have mixed memories, hence some nerves on my arrival earlier today.

When there I never appreciated the beautiful old building in which we had assemblies and were taught. Too busy surviving as a confused teenager. Now I returned as an alumni who is fascinated by the building’s architect Charles Barry junior.

My final year subjects were history, French and economics. The first two were strong personal preferences and because I wasn’t allowed to do maths with them (shocking but true), I opted for economics which my older brother had recommended to me.

I continually regret not having done maths after age 16 and this in part inspired me to work later in life in maths education policy. An achievement of which I am proud is that we managed to convince the English Government of the importance of as many teenagers as possible doing post16 maths.

I did meet the head teacher but we didn’t discuss education. As it turns out the school is celebrating 400 years since its foundation as a place for poor scholars to study. Part of the celebrations was a lecture a fortnight back by Caroline Shenton on Sir Charles Barry, who like his son had been surveyor to the vast Dulwich Estate. During today’s research I took a photograph of an original 1830 letter of reference from Edward Cust allowing Barry senior to gain his position. Cust had previously chaired the selection panel which had chosen Charles to design and build the seminal Travellers Club in London. He would go on to be one of the judges who selected Barry’s design for the New Houses of Parliament, declaring no personal interest in the outcome.

Such was the way of the world and it still continues to this day. Who you know is more important than what you know. I don’t agree with it but would be foolish to ignore the benefits.

On the trail of the Barrys

By Barrys I don’t mean Barry Manilow or Barry from Eastenders.

I do mean Sir Charles Barry and his sons Charles junior, Edward and John. They are the main characters in the joint biography I am writing of an atypical Victorian family.

Most of us associate the Victorian period with scenes from a Charles Dickens novel or with Queen Victoria and her Prince Consort Albert. For me it is inextricably linked to architecture (we live in a Victorian house even though it was built a few years after the Empress died) as well as the industrial and commercial expansion of the British Empire culminating in the Great Exhibition of 1851 held in the magnificent Crystal Palace.

That last structure brings together a few strands in the developing book. Sir Charles Barry sat on the planning committee for it together with Prince Albert and IK Brunel. His close collaborator on the New Palace of Westminster, Augustus Pugin, created an amazing display of medieval crafts which typified the Gothic Revival style he defended so vociferously against Greek classicists.

Once the Great Exhibition finished it was decided to move the whole structure to Sydenham Hill outside London, though now in a suburb in the capital aptly called Crystal Palace. To allow access to it a new high level railway station was built at the top of the hill to reduce the walk for visitors. There is some dispute whether Charles Barry junior or his brother Edward Middleton Barry was responsible for this structure since demolished, but certainly the subway from the station to the site of the palace is still accessible with its amazing vaulting and decoration.

Charles Barry junior did build the splendid new Dulwich College in the 1860s just down the hill from the Crystal Palace and shown in the above photo. I went to school there but never realised its architectural significance or link to the Barry family. Not even my best friend Barry knew this. If he actually existed that is ….

A brief pause before the writing really begins

I’m using this blog to share my thoughts about issues related to the life and impact of Sir John Wolfe Barry, 19th Century civil engineer and builder of Tower Bridge.

I’ve been in a pause phase as I’m now committed to writing a book about John’s father and brothers and their relationships with him and each other. I’m planning the book project as I wind up full-time employment commuting into Central London which I have been doing for the last 17 out of 21 years (there was a four year hiatus).

The key goal is to write words!

Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

This is sooner said than done. Words don’t come easy, to quote a song lyric. I’m setting up an environment where I can focus 100% on writing without distraction. My chosen location is the rear bedroom in our house which overlooks the garden. I will remove the temporary bed there and set up a desk in front of the window. It doesn’t get direct sunlight until the afternoon so I will start early and write until lunchtime.

I will somehow need to avoid referring too much to my many sources as this will hold up the flow. Blogging has probably helped with this. The key is to establish a good framework for the text and themes and then fill the space with words.

I know I can do it. I may review the product of my first draft but I must avoid perfecting things continuously as I go along – this just serves to slow down momentum and lead to self-doubt and questioning. Wish me luck!

Why tell a story?

In my previous post I said I am writing a book about the famous 19th Century architect Sir Charles Barry and his five sons, of whom four became well-known in their own right.

Why am I telling this story?

Firstly, because I want to. That’s my prerogative as the author! It will fulfil my personal ambition ever since I started researching one of the sons (can you guess who?) many years back.

Secondly, because I think stories are great ways to communicate with people about things that may hit a chord with them. These can be very personal issues, or more likely because they empathise with certain characters and the good and bad times they may go through. It can also be for purely technical reasons e.g. they love trains so any book about them is bound to be an attraction (hint, mine will have some mentions of trains, but don’t get your hopes up if you’re a fanatic!).

Thirdly, because if people like this story then perhaps they’ll be interested in other ones that follow. This would be good for both me and them as writer and readers. Clearly it’s a relationship.

Last night I watched the new film about the character Mowgli from the famous Jungle Books created by the journalist and author Rudyard Kipling. For those who may not know the tale, Mowgli is a boy who was raised by wolves in the Indian jungle and is conflicted by his upbringing with animals and the fact that he is a human underneath. This is a fascinating paradox which the author explores expertly and weaves his magic in the form of a plausible story.

To my mind this is the essence of story telling, which I hope I canĀ  somehow reproduce through my writing.

The story of the Barry father and sons

I’ve decided to write a family biography of Sir Charles Barry the famous 19th Century architect and his sons who were architects, a surveyor, a civil engineer and a bishop.

This website is about the civil engineer Sir John Wolfe Barry. His brothers were Alfred (the bishop), Charles Junior (architect), Edward (architect) and Godfrey (surveyor).

The plan is to complete a synopsis and a few sample extracts to send off to agents in the hope there may be interest from publishers. If not then I will self-publish.

Why would people want to read such a book?

I hope because they are intrigued by the history of architecture and civil engineering and the structures associated with this family. Caroline Shenton has written two superb books about the Houses of Parliament for which Sir Charles Barry is best known. Alfred wrote a sanitised biography of his father. All of the brothers except Godfrey feature in various biographical compendiums and tributes from their professional colleagues.

Please contact me via @behroutcomes on Twitter if you can help in any way with interesting research or materials about the family and the things they built or people they engaged with.

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!