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.

Buy a print copy of #buildingpassions now!

My website ‘Building Passions’ now lets you pre-order a print copy of the book prior to its launch on 20 November 2019.

To note, this is currently only for deliveries to UK addresses, as I’m waiting for more clarity on Brexit to see what happens in the EU. The rest of the world will have to wait a bit while I decide on which fulfilment service to use.

If you still don’t know what I’m talking about then here is a quick recap:

  • the book’s full title is Brunel, Barry and ‘modern’ Victorian’ architecture.
  • it covers the story of two families, the Brunels and the Barrys, who were famous Victorian engineers and architects. Think the Houses of Parliament, Tower Bridge, Clifton Suspension Bridge, the Great Eastern etc.
  • the key relationship described in the book is that between the civil engineers Sir John Wolfe Barry and Henry Marc Brunel, respectively sons of renowned fathers, Sir Charles Barry and Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
  • the book also looks at the story of architecture and civil engineering as key built environment professions in 19th- and 20th-century Britain.
  • Finally, the content examines the ‘modernisation’ of architecture globally from the 19th Century on and the modern legacy of the Brunel-Barry partnership, both in terms of structures, but also the connection with physical and product standards.

If you prefer not to buy a hard copy or don’t live in the UK, you can instead purchase the e-book which is considerably cheaper and more interactive – it has an index which helps the readers easily cross-reference people with structures in the book.

Note: I’m very pleased to say that an English Heritage Blue Plaque will be put up on the London building in which Sir John Wolfe Barry died in January 1918. This is planned to take place on 19 November, the day before the book launch.

Family stories are great stories #buildingpassions

I’m currently sitting in our hotel room on Ischia trying to write my next book.

Since recently self-publishing my first book ‘Building Passions’, I now have some time to focus on the subsequent one. It helps that it’s raining all day here and that yesterday we went on a 10k walk which included the 800m peak of the dormant volcano on the island, so my legs are still recovering a bit.

My next book is historical fiction based on a true story close to me. It’s about the eventful life of my grandfather, Lex von Behr, who had no links of any kind to a Batman villain with the same first name. However, he may well have been a double agent for the British and Soviets, possibly also for the Germans. We may never know the entire truth.

We do know that he died in Paris in 1951 from serious burns caused by a fire in his apartment. My grandmother was convinced this was due to his spy work, I have my doubts, but then this is why I’m writing it as historical fiction …

The common theme is family stories, which I feel are both historically and socially important. The former, because they provide a case study in a different context of how human groups have behaved and what they have created. The latter, because we are all part of families, whether fully related or not, and these close networks need to be reinforced by their stories, good or bad. I’ve blogged about this before.

I’m still mulling over whether I need a new website for the new book, or one that brings together the two books under the family story theme. Watch this space.

At last! A Blue Plaque for the man who built Tower Bridge #buildingpassions

After almost four years since applying for one, it seems that we will finally have an English Heritage Blue Plaque for Sir John Wolfe Barry!

I often say patience is a virtue. In this case it really is.

I remember completing the application thinking that it may well be rejected due to the sheer numbers of competing ones. But it was worth a try. The process is deliberately slow and careful to ensure that literally everyone is happy with the decision.

Why does JWB deserve this commemoration, given that he already has a window in Westminster Abbey, and the iconic Tower Bridge he built with his business partner and close friend Henry Marc Brunel is a global landmark?

I could give many reasons, but I think foremost is a tribute to the great metropolis of London where he was born, raised, worked and died. He wasn’t just there all the time, but it clearly was a very significant city for him.

My book ‘Building Passions’ not only covers the story of John Wolfe Barry, but also of his father Sir Charles Barry, architect of the Houses of Parliament (who already has a Blue Plaque at his former home), as well as other members of the Barry and Brunel families. Not least the ‘2nd Greatest Briton’, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, starts it all off.

The location of the Blue Plaque will be adjoining Chelsea Embankment on the Thames, on the outside of the house where John Wolfe Barry died in 1918 aged 81 years. While it has just missed the centenary of his death, I’m hoping it can still mark 125 years of Tower Bridge.

His life was a great innings, to use a cricketing metaphor, and its legacy continued through the organisations and structures associated with him, the Brunels and ‘modern’ Victorian architecture.

Once I know more about the exact details of the unveiling I will publicise it on this blog.

Brunel, Barry and ‘modern’ Victorian architecture eBook by Nick von Behr – 9781916225701 | Rakuten Kobo

The book cover image above should always be credited as follows: Arpingstone (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tower.bridge.7.basculecloseup.london.arp.jpg), size and alignment by Elisa Vernazza, https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/legalcode

The e-book is currently available to order at https://www.kobo.com/gb/en/ebook/brunel-barry-and-modern-victorian-architecture