I sometimes wonder if we ever learn from what has happened previously in society?
There are so many cases of people blatantly ignoring the fact that their idea or project has simply been recycled. They crave intellectual originality in some form. They deny credit to those who have gone before them. Or conveniently misinterpret the lessons of past mistakes, so it appears that there were no previous errors.
Our political leaders are the worst examples of this. So why do we not use history to point it out to them? Sadly, even highly expert historians can be manipulated by others with unethical intentions. All academics are vulnerable to this. Egos can easily be massaged.
Is there a solution?
I’m not sure really. But we should continue to research and write about history as independently and accurately as we can. There will be differences of view about interpretation, but these should be accepted in good spirit. Each effort to explain the past should build on the work of predecessors. When we make new hypotheses, we should be confident that the evidence we have accrued is sufficiently supportive. This may mean changing our own perspectives. So be it.
Weird title for a post, I know. But humour me a little.
My book ‘Building Passions‘ is about the history of architecture and engineering in Victorian Britain, seen through the eyes of two key families, the Brunels and Barrys. I came up with the short title (there is a long one) while drafting the text. It seemed to fit sections describing how and why a built environment is important to the communities that live within it.
‘What about STEAM engagement?’ you might ask.
Well, it’s what I am trying to do through this blog, my websites and my book. STEAM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics. In the UK it once used to be SET, so without the maths or arts included. I had the privilege of once working closely with Professor Dame Celia Hoyles, who became England’s first Maths Czar in the early 2000s, and she definitely got the M into SET!
Since then there have been pushes to get an A into the acronym. Again, the US leads the way on this. I am a supporter because the built environment needs young people with all five facets. This is a big ambition! It is also broad and there is a risk it all just turns into words rather than actions.
Styles and fads have cyclical lives, adapting as they develop and reinvent. The same may happen with STEAM.
So be it.
But while it is alive let’s make the most of STEAM’s potential impact and stoke up some passion for buildings amongst wider audiences.
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?
I am finalising an application for PhD funding, prior to interview on 5 February.
I’ve decided to focus on a specific type of architecture, Art Nouveau, I mention briefly in my book ‘Building Passions‘. This late 19th-century style or movement lasted about 20 dynamic years in the lead up to WWI. It was novel, organic and often highly decorative. It then disappeared!
My research as proposed would look at the influence of building standards on the development of Art Nouveau in a few key countries. This means how professional skills, building regulations and specifications for materials all impacted on the architectural design and final buildings.
Why on earth might this be of interest to you?
Well, it’s important to be aware of your built environment and where it came from. This gives you more say over what may or not happen to it, rather than simply trusting the experts.
As I argue in the book, ‘modern’ Victorian architecture developed as new building materials such as iron, steel, plate glass and reinforced cement came on stream. Designers and their clients reacted to this technical change with creative ideas and technical support from engineers.
This goes on all the time with, for example, new, fire-resistant cladding being developed on the outside of buildings. Local communities need to be fully engaged with the process to ensure that tragedies such as Grenfell Tower don’t occur.
Dulwich College is an independent school in South London, England.
It is best known for producing Ernest Shackleton, the Antarctic Explorer, and PG Wodehouse, the writer of the amusing Jeeves the Butler series.
More recently, it has been in the news for educating Nigel Farage, the leader of the Brexit Party in the UK. It isn’t known for schooling me, but yes, I did go to it for almost four years in total, split between two stays.
Why, you might reasonably ask, is it on my list of 10 favourite structures from my book ‘Building Passions‘? The answer is simple: I love it as a building complex, and it was designed by Charles Barry junior in the 19th Century.
The structure was an Italianate homage to the Houses of Parliament, designed and built by his father Sir Charles Barry, with assistance from his other son Edward Middleton Barry, as well as the famous Gothic Revival designer Augustus Welbin Pugin.
I particularly like the beautiful Great Hall with its hammerbeam roof also reminiscent of medieval Westminster Hall, now the main entrance route to Parliament for the public.
Sadly, I didn’t appreciate the architecture while at the school – at least I’ve finally come round.
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.
So far I’ve spread my top 10 list between different types of structure including a bridge, a club house, a ship and an opera house with an appended iron and glass hall.
In this post I will cover one of the two remaining structures not included in my Twitter poll before Christmas. It will be the only railway station in my 10 favourites.
But why did I choose it as I actually like many Victorian stations? Because it was distinctive and connects strongly with Isambard Kingdom Brunel‘s Great Western Railway.
Paddington Station may be better known for the eponymous teddy bear in the story and movies. It was a station I came to know well after I started university at Bristol, where the Great Western Railway began originally in the 19th Century.
Brunel wanted something magnificent and cutting-edge to establish his railway as THE gateway to the West of England and in deed to his superb transatlantic steamships docked in Bristol Port.
Another connection I describe in the book and is in my list of favourites, is the Crystal Palace. Like that vast structure, Paddington had a huge iron and glass roof that survives to this day. Brunel was involved with both. Passengers can still take Great Western trains to Bath, Bristol, the South West and South Wales.