Reality has moved off stage right #buildingpassions

The good news, which is real, is that I’ve been offered funding for my PhD in architectural history starting in September at the University of Kent. Really looking forward to that! I’ve previously posted about the research topic.

The not so good news is the ‘Cummings Effect’. Not the fact that Twitter filters the name Cummings because it has a rude word in it. It does that to Scunthorpe and other words with the same content.

No, this is the Dom Cummings saga of how best to handle your family affairs during a lockdown. Many think he got it wrong as the UK Prime Minister’s senior adviser. Be that true or not, the effect has already been quoted by one newspaper as a reason to ignore lockdown laws. You couldn’t make it up!

It has been a moral dilemma with some families applying the rules strictly and not even seeing loved ones who have died from the virus. Cummings believed in herd immunity so you might argue he was happy to see the virus spread from London to Durham, but just wanted to make sure his own children were safe. Double standards? Not for those involved in the murky world of politics, I’d suggest.

Looking back in history, there have always been challenging times when the behaviour of individuals has been questioned. Even IK Brunel, now lauded as the 2nd Greatest Briton after Churchill, had some dubious practices. Some blame him for the huge numbers of deaths caused by building his epic Box Tunnel near Bath. You can read more about Isambard and his family in my book ‘Building Passions‘.

Personally, I like Brunel and Churchill as truly outstanding historical figures of global interest. I just wish some of our current leaders had similar attributes about them during these difficult times.

Read a book while you self-isolate #buildingpassions #BUILT

I’ve not blogged yet about the current pandemic facing the world. It didn’t seem appropriate for my typical themes.

However, now that people are wondering what to do with themselves as they self-isolate (the word of 2020?), it does seem appropriate to encourage them to read more books.

Not only will they derive more pleasure and knowledge, they may learn a few tricks. Equally, they will help authors and smaller publishers such as myself. I would strongly recommend reading ‘BUILT‘ by my structural engineer friend Roma Agrawal, which inspired me to write my own book.

In the case of ‘Building Passions‘, all you need to do is look at the website and then decide if you want to read more. You can only buy the e-book via Kobo.com as a print copy is too risky currently to mail.

I’m also looking into remote casting talks about the book and its related topics, which cover the 19th-century Brunel and Barry families and ‘modern’ Victorian architecture. I know a fair bit now about the highly decorative ‘Art Nouveau’ architecture of the later 19th and early 20th Centuries, as I’m planning a PhD in that area once things have calmed down.

Above all, be wise and stay safe for your sake and everyone else’s.

Anticipating more public speaking #buildingpassions

I’m giving a talk on my book ‘Building Passions’ tomorrow at my local library in Ashford, Kent.

I’ve adapted it a bit from the previous one in Canterbury before Xmas. It will be longer, as my friend Tom won’t be demonstrating how to build a model bridge, so I’ve had to add in some extra content.

I still feel a bit nervous about public speaking as you never know what’s going to happen – from the slides not functioning properly to an audience member asking you questions to which you don’t have answers, or telling you they know more than you about your topic.

However, what matters is that we enjoy ourselves as a group and feel that the time spent has been worthwhile. If people want to buy a copy of the book they are most welcome to, and they will get a personal dedication and a discount, as they have to pay a nominal ticket price to come along (which doesn’t go to me).

I will cover the main personalities in the book, so the Brunel and Barry engineers and architects who I write about, as well as some of my favourite structures such as Tower Bridge and Hotel Tassel. I’m assuming you know the former, but may not know of the latter.

Hotel Tassel, in Brussels, was designed by a Belgian architect called Victor Horta in the early 1890s. I will be visiting it for the first time towards the end of March and am already getting excited about this. Why?

Because it is a landmark in the new style of architecture called ‘Art Nouveau’ which suddenly appeared in Europe at that point in time. The style disappeared equally rapidly before the outbreak of WWI. Fortunately we still have many of the original buildings which have been restored in a number of significant cases.

But what is the link to ‘Building Passions’ you may ask? The book examines the influence of the Brunels and Barrys on ‘modern’ Victorian architecture. It concludes by noting the importance of novel approaches to design and materials in the late 19th Century. This had a global impact, such that in Chicago for example, it led to a unique type of high-rise architecture using steel frames and glass panes which is still with us to this day.

The built environment changes over time, with new design styles emerging according to developing tastes. It is an evolutionary process which sees the fittest options spreading, and the less fit ones sticking to safe niches which either adapt and survive or disappear completely.

Writing fiction is a matter of dialogue #buildingpassions

I am writing a novella based on the life story of my grandfather, who was a spy in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, we think.

I started the process with scoping the story back in the summer, and then some preparatory drafting until November, when I started writing proper. This coincided with NaNoWriMo which is held every November around the world to encourage novel writing. I met a group of local writers and we have continued to engage since then.

I thought I could write fiction as easily as non-fiction, having completed my book ‘Building Passions‘. As it turns out, fiction is equally difficult. While you don’t rely on the accuracy of historical facts, for example, you do need to now how to build a close, personal link to your readership.

The big learning curve for me has been writing dialogue. I found this a challenge as it wasn’t a strong point for me. I’m good at narrative. However, my writing group has helped me develop these skills, so now I feel more confident. I can turn narrative into dialogue fairly easily, though know I must resist the temptation to write a screen or theatre play.

“Tell me John, why do you not want to be an architect like you father and brothers? Why a civil engineer?”

“I like sketching and designing, but I’m more interested in the maths behind those structures first proposed by myself or others. I have no ego about creative proprietorship. I just want to be sure buildings and bridges stay up for ever.”

Such might be a fictional dialogue between a young John Wolfe Barry and a Victorian contemporary.

Perhaps I should write more such exchanges?

The Crystal Palace #10favstructures #buildingpassions

I’ve mentioned the Crystal Palace in previous posts in this series of 10 top structures from my book ‘Building Passions‘.

There is no doubt that it was a hugely significant structure that set an imprint on the industrialising world in the mid 19th Century. Britain had led that rapid new development process and here was a showcase building within which visitors could admire the nation’s industrial pride and heritage. To some extent the now famous 2012 London Olympics opening event was an historical re-enactment of that major change to the world.

I studied the First Industrial Revolution at a British University, so was always going to be keen on a structure that embodied its products. But I’d also gone to school at Dulwich College in South London, near to which the Crystal Palace was moved from Hyde Park, and where it stayed until it tragically burned down in 1936. But a suburb and a football/soccer team still carries its name.

In terms of the Brunels and the Barrys in ‘Building Passions’, the Crystal Palace was one of the few (only?) structures where Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Sir Charles Barry shared combined thoughts on its erection. The designer was Joseph Paxton, an expert in large-scale greenhouses, but of course there was a Building Committee chaired by the civil engineer Sir William Cubitt, to which Brunel and Barry belonged with Robert Stephenson and a few other eminent individuals.

The iron and plate glass design influenced both Brunel’s Paddington Station as well as Edward Middleton Barry’s Floral Hall, adjoining the new Royal Opera House. It also showed the wider world what could be done with these two key building materials. In Chicago this influenced innovative architects to start using them to design taller, lighter (both meanings) office structures with new elevator technology. The word ‘skyscraper’ entered our vocabulary. Steel replaced iron as a cheaper but more tensile metal, and so the industrial era moved into the rapidly growing commercial cities of the world, most typified in the 20th Century by New York and its Empire States Building.

Developing my writing into fiction #nanowrimo

I blogged a while back that I’ve started writing a novel based on the life of my grandfather Baron Lex von Behr.

This fictional story connects with the non-fiction of ‘Building Passions’ and in deed this website, through the theme of families.

As I said at the book launch of ‘Building Passions’ last week, I’m fascinated with family relationships and legacy. My grandfather almost lived out a novel or even a series of short stories. These included his mother, brothers, sisters, cousins, life partners and children.

While I am more comfortable writing non-fiction, particularly linked to history or education or the built environment, I realise that fiction is the big one. You can mould your subjects and develop their stories in parallel with the flow of events around them.

The book will actually be a trilogy called ‘The Other Red Baron’, split between three phases of Lex’s life as there is so much to cover about him. However, the core story is on his spying career and his passionate love affairs in Tashkent, London, Berlin and Paris.

As things develop I will consider how best to communicate on my progress – currently I’m sharing my writing trials and tribulations as part of National Novel Writing Month (nanowrimo.org), its Kent community forum on Facebook and in meet-ups with local authors in and around Canterbury.

Grenfell Tower: some pointers from #buildingpassions #grenfelltower

Today the first report from the official inquiry into the Grenfell Tower tragedy was published.

Its conclusions were leaked yesterday by the Daily Telegraph, despite being asked by the inquiry to wait. This pretty much sums up some of the media nowadays. The focus of resulting headlines was on the perceived inadequacies of the London Fire Brigade when dealing with the blazing inferno. Easy target …

Also today, Boris Johnson is as I write leading a short House of Commons debate about the report, in between keeping an eye on the House of Lords as it passes general election legislation.

This is all of interest to me because I write about Grenfell Tower in my new book ‘Building Passions’. This is in the concluding chapter, where I try to reflect on the wider issues that impact on our built environment.

The book is about the achievements of 19th-century families and individuals in building structures that have become iconic, such as the Houses of Parliament and Tower Bridge in London, or the Clifton Suspension Bridge or Box Tunnel in the west of England.

Grenfell Tower was by no means iconic when it was designed and built in London, but it has become a huge symbol of the frailties of modern society, which is gradually moving more and more away from community-based decisions to globally-determined ones.

The Government’s response to the report can only be fully actionable when UK politics has returned to something near normal after the Brexit hiatus, and when the second part of the inquiry has fully investigated the technical issues around the cause of the inferno, which completely surprised the brave firemen and -women who tried valiantly to tackle it.

In the past similar disasters have led to changes in the law and remedial actions by industry – this time the response needs to be considered and permanent, in so far as politicians are able to engineer long-term change for the good of all citizens, with the support of communities, the built environment sector and those whose job it is to rescue us from dangers to our life and limb.