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

Nudging your audience along #buildingpassions

I told a friend and his teenage son about my book today. It taught me that you can present the same story in many different ways.

I sat them down and literally explained the main characters and the built structures linked to them. This was a good test for my own memory and would help my comms skills when handling larger audiences.

I literally went with the flow, without any planning except my own knowledge of the book.

My main focus was on the two fathers, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Sir Charles Barry, and their sons Sir John Wolfe Barry and Henry Marc Brunel. I mentally pictured the small tree I have drawn showing their relationships, and those with Sir Marc Brunel, father of IKB, and Sir Charles’ other sons and grandsons covered in the book.

I also covered broader issues such as the development of architectural styles and the link between ‘modernism’, Art Nouveau and the Crystal Palace.

I thought, as I spoke, of what would keep a teenager interested in the story. I tried as much interaction as I could, asking questions and then providing answers where he or his father couldn’t do so. It was all about nudging them along, but trying to avoid any topic which might appear too technical for a layperson.

It would be great if I could write books easily this way (think perhaps ‘Sophie’s World’ or ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’), but I have not quite mastered such an approach to non-fiction. May be fiction will be easier?

You can always teach an old dog new tricks …

Families in history and now #buildingpassions

I’m travelling to a family reunion in London to celebrate my mother’s 80th birthday.

Families are important.

I write about two of them in my forthcoming book on the 19th-century Brunels and Barrys. The full title is “Brunel, Barry and ‘modern’ Victorian architecture”. The short title is ‘Building Passions’.

In the book, the two famous families of engineers and architects connect through John Wolfe Barry and his close friend and business partner Henry Marc Brunel. Their fathers were the great Victorians Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Charles Barry, who were both Fellows of the Royal Society like their outstanding contemporary Charles Darwin. They also co-designed the 1851 Great Exhibition and Crystal Palace with Prince Albert, Joseph Paxton and others.

Families have roots and branches.

They come from somewhere and in most cases continue on, even if there are name changes along the way. Personalities appear, disappear and reappear through new generations.

This is all part of evolution and completely natural, in whatever way it may have first started.

The best families strive to work cooperatively with others for the wider good. This despite the temptation to care for their immediate lineage only.

In this way the world progresses and, we hope, avoids the pitfalls of personal greed and avarice that have become so visible today.

Small victories matter #buildingpassions

I had a small victory yesterday in the process of self-publishing my forthcoming book.

After many weeks of email correspondence and occasional calls in the direction of the Gulf States I finally got a result.

Let’s start at the beginning.

The new book is about the Brunel and Barry families of Victorian architects and engineers. It starts with Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the most famous of all the subjects, voted second greatest Briton of all time after Churchill.

IKB’s first major project was working with his father to build a passenger tunnel under the River Thames in London. This was literally a ground-breaking exercise!

Roma Agrawal has covered the tunnel story excellently in her brilliant book ‘BUILT’ for which a children’s version is due to be published in 2020.

In my book I make the link between that early 19th-century underground structure and the world’s tallest skyscraper. Do you know where it is? Hint: the Gulf States.

The connection comes through the story of Brunel’s son Henry and the son of Sir Charles Barry, the architect of the Houses of Parliament (for which the name of this website is a huge clue!). It goes on via Tower Bridge, which the two sons built, to their expanding civil engineering consultancy in the early 20th Century.

Ultimately, the legacy organisation from their partnership was involved in the construction of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, UAE, at the time of writing the highest skyscraper on the globe, but please check with the official database.

You need permission to publish a photo of the Burj Khalifa (worth remembering if you go to Dubai!), hence I have it for my book but not for this website yet.

How wide is your spine? #buildingpassions

I was going to blog about the importance of my new book’s cover and particularly the spine, but never finished it.

Today is a major event for me personally and hopefully for others with an interest.

125 years ago today a bridge was opened in London, the capital of Victorian Britain and its empire.

The challenge was to cross a busy River Thames without blocking ships with tall masts. The answer was a bascule bridge which could open and shut to allow river and road traffic through.

The men who answered the challenge were the City of London’s Architect and two civil engineers. Sadly the former died early in the construction phase so responsibility rested on the shoulders of the senior engineer.

His name was John Wolfe Barry and his famous father Sir Charles Barry had already built the new Houses of Parliament in London. His engineering partner for the bridge was Henry Brunel, the younger son of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the second greatest Briton after Churchill according to a poll.

Together the two engineers, with the help of many others, built an amazing bridge which still works today. Tower Bridge (NOT London Bridge!) is a tribute to all their efforts. It is a technical wonder, whose architecture was designed to fit with the neighbouring Tower of London.

My forthcoming book #buildingpassions (the title is longer!) will tell you more about Tower Bridge and the Brunel and Barry families of Victorian engineers and architects. It is due out by end September and follow this website to see how it progresses.

18 days, 125 years #buildingpassions

The last time I ran a countdown on this website was for the 100th anniversary of John Wolfe Barry’s death in January 2018.

This one is for the 125th anniversary of the first opening of Tower Bridge to the London public on 30 June, only eighteen days away.

I was hoping to publish my forthcoming book about JWB, his family and close friend Henry Brunel, son of IKB, by now. It will happen by the end of September latest.

The good news is that I have had more time to adjust my text to address a broader readership and write more about the famous Brunel family. While the Barrys rightly got the credit for Tower Bridge and the Houses of Parliament, they couldn’t have achieved this without the legacy and contribution of others.

In addition to the Brunels the book covers Augustus Pugin and a little on his father, from whom he inherited his incredible gothic drawing talents. It also looks at William Arrol’s contribution to the building of Tower Bridge and the more structurally impressive Forth Railway Bridge.

Which shows that there are stories behind stories behind stories. Meeting recently with former work colleagues, providing the ‘back story’ to key issues was one area we felt had been part of our career learning.

The trick is to find the key stories, dig up enough relevant detail and communicate this to your intended audiences.