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.
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.
New Year’s Eve will mark the end of the Year of Engineering 2018.
This has been a UK Government led campaign to promote engineering as a career option to young people. Simultaneously, it coincided with the bicentenary of the founding of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1818 and the launch of a similar video-based campaign by the Royal Academy of Engineering called ‘This is Engineering’.
I have been privileged to be a small part of this all through my day job as Education Manager at the Institution of Structural Engineers. We published our own careers videos at the start of this year.
What can we now expect of the legacy?
To be honest it’s difficult to tell currently as the Year of Engineering website continues to list and seek submissions for engineering related events into 2019.
What would I like to happen?
I’d like the Government and the engineering sector to broaden out the messages to all those interested in careers in ‘design and build’, but particularly those defined audiences who could be helped to overcome any cultural or other barriers to success. This might include people with specific age, gender, race and other personal characteristics, depending on the nature of any barriers and the proposed solutions to removing them.
This could kick start a new era of design and build capturing the spirit of global volunteer programmes such as Bridges to Prosperity or the Grenfell Tower and similar schemes that have sprung up locally as a result of a terrible tragedy.
I’ve been doing some background research for a possible project I’d like to do. It’s about the impact of a specific architectural style on the local communities where it developed and whether we can apply any modern day lessons from this. This first of a series of blogs will reveal more as my thinking develops.
The idea was sparked from my long-term interest in the architectural style, as well as watching a programme last week about building a community centre for those impacted by the shocking Grenfell Tower disaster which happened last year in London.
The initial investigation into the tower block fire has raised a number of issues and recommendations for Government action. However the TV programme highlighted the fact that this was about a local community coming to grips with the design and planning of structures built within it. This is what I want to explore more in my project.
Since I’m a historian by background and have spent time developing a website about an historical figure in civil engineering, it makes sense that I try and apply some of this to the real world. Also, the architectural style I’m interested is called ‘Secessionist’ and was developed during the life of Sir John Wolfe Barry. He never applied it himself as far as I can ascertain, but then it was considered the work of a new generation of younger architects.
However there is a connection.
John’s father Sir Charles Barry had worked closely with Augustus Pugin on the gothic revival details of the New Palace of Westminster. Pugin was a remarkable man who believed in authenticity rather than imitation, hence was somewhat conflicted by working with a classic architect who had made his name through Italianate style buildings such as the Reform and Travellers Clubs in London.
Pugin had developed his thinking on the value of medieval architecture by studying it intensively as part of sustaining his catholic religious and cultural beliefs. This in turn was to impact on Ruskin, Morris and Webb (the architect of the three) as leaders of what became the ‘Arts and Crafts’ Movement in Victorian England. For them it was a return to ancient practices which reflected the real needs of communities.
The break from tradition was encapsulated in the 1860 Red House in Bexleyheath where William Morris and family lived and is now under the protection of English Heritage.
The second post in this series.