Another brick in the wall?

Pink Floyd wrote a song about education back in the late 70s called ‘Another Brick in the Wall’.

The implication was that education was another brick or barrier in life that people had to get through, which together with many others built the metaphorical wall after which Floyd’s concept album was named.

I take a different view about modern education. It’s not about bricks any more. Even education and training on building things isn’t about bricks. Nor is it about complete blue skies thinking and creativity. It is about bringing together knowledge with skills to produce individuals who are occupationally competent. This is what happened with Sir John Wolfe Barry’s apprentices back in the 19th century.

They often came from privileged backgrounds with little practical experience but plenty of basic knowledge. This was harnessed through opportunities to work in a variety of environments: the drawing office, archives and out on site or in a factory or workshop setting. Many of them went on to become more skilled than their master: Sir Alexander Gibb is one who comes to mind.

This was real learning by doing. But it would eventually be taken over by an academic type of learning aimed at the legal and managerial classes or to supply staff to the research laboratories of the great universities.

Sadly we have had to go back and reinvent the wheel. I only hope it’s not too late to get young people enthused again by the idea of work-based learning.

Architectural styles and communities (part 3)

In the previous post in this series I referred to a unique office building in Liverpool, England completed in 1864 and how it had influenced architectural thinking about high rise buildings in late 19th Century America.

This post is about the architect Victor Horta.

I knew little about him until recently, when I began researching the origins of Art Nouveau as a revolutionary architectural style which flourished across the turn of the 19th and 20th Centuries. This connects with investigations related to Augustus Pugin, as well as into the relationship between architectural aesthetics and engineering form, some of which is recorded on this website about the civil engineer Sir John Wolfe Barry.

Horta appears to me to have been a remarkable man. But he was also a reflection of the time and place he lived. Born in Ghent, Belgium in 1861, he eventually moved to Brussels, the Belgian capital, where his unique approach to architecture struck a chord with key members of the city community. One particular building stands out for me and many others who have like me appreciated his efforts. This is the Hotel Tassel.

It was to be the home of a professor of geometry who was a Freemason like Horta. It seems the architect was given complete artistic licence. But he approached this, as Morris and Webb had done with their ground-breaking Red House in England, with a philosophical bent which captured the full expression of his talent in design and the detailed application of materials and techniques.

My new project will look at how this created vision still reverberates within the community that is Brussels.

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.

Is it possible to be too creative in engineering?

The quick answer to the question in the title of this blog is yes.

The longer answer is yes, but in many cases it’s a risk worth taking.

I’ve been reading about a modern day Brunel who has taken huge risks to push the boundaries of engineering. He has launched his own radical space business to achieve his goal of getting humanity to Mars. This is as big a creative vision as any Brunel or Jobs. And unlike them he’s committed significant amounts of his own money in the enterprise. Why?

Because he believed that his creative vision wouldn’t be achieved unless he took the full burden of financial investment on his shoulders at least in the early stages. He also has the technical confidence to back this. Finally he pushes his employees to come up with creative engineering solutions to his problems by asking for impossible deadlines against very tight budgets. If they succeed they get due acknowledgement for their efforts.

If you don’t know his name by now then let me enlighten you. He is Elon Musk. It would be great to have a female version of him and his predecessors in due course as engineering is still a very male dominated environment.