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 can  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.

Architectural styles and communities (part 2)

This follows on from my previous blog in the series.

In that I outlined my interest in a project looking at the Secessionist style of architecture and its impact on local communities. I explained the connection to Sir John Wolfe Barry through his father the architect Charles Barry, who worked closely with Augustus Pugin on the New Palace of Westminster.

In the next blogs I will expand on the development of the Secessionist from the ‘Arts and Crafts’ movement in England and the link to a wider style of nascent modern architecture that hit a number of major European and US cities at the turn of the 19th and 20th Centuries.

Were local communities really involved with these changes? Clearly certain key representatives would have been, but nothing like the levels of consultation we are supposed to have in the present day democratic structures of these cities. Society was different and change could only happen if endorsed by those with influence. New construction materials and techniques were arriving on the scene through developments in steel and concrete. There was risk involved in using them, so someone had to be prepared to stick their head above the parapet and answer to the public acclaim or shame involved. Human lives were less valuable then.

One pivotal moment for me which followed the completion of the ‘Arts and Crafts’ Red House in quiet Bexleyheath, England mentioned in the previous blog, was the building of Oriel Chambers in the heart of the busy City of Liverpool a few year later in 1864. Unappreciated at the time it has since been recognised as a unique early modern inhabitable structure using an iron frame and glass panels, originally the preserve of greenhouses and exhibition spaces such as the Kew Palm House and the Crystal Palace. In deed the building continues to be used as office space more than 150 years later!

Many suggest that this building inspired the architects of the Chicago School to create the first steel and glass skyscrapers in the late 19th Century, which were to become so commonplace globally and are still being constructed to this day, with the use of concrete rather than brick support. One of their number was Louis Sullivan who in turn worked with his protege Frank Lloyd-Wright before they fell out. Lloyd-Wright turned Sullivan’s phrase ‘form follows function’ into ‘form is function’. He himself coined the term ‘organic architecture’ to show the close connection between structures and their natural environment.

To be continued ….

What has inspired people to build?

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?

Parents.

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.

His father rebuilt Parliament

John Wolfe Barry was born the son of Sir Charles Barry, architect of the British Houses of Parliament or the New Palace of Westminster.

For more on how the Old Palace was rebuilt after a terrible fire in the early 19th Century see Caroline Shenton’s website. The story features Augustus Pugin as well as Big Ben.