As I write this post I am in a Paris Hotel enjoying a few days in the French capital.
Of all the iconic 19th Century structures in the world, including Big Ben and Tower Bridge credited to the Barrys, for me the Eiffel Tower stands out the most. It is the symbol of Paris, arguably France, somewhat ironic given the temporary nature of the original iron tower built for the 1889 Universal Exhibition in Paris by Gustave Eiffel, as well as the hostile reception from many quarters.
Eiffel’s company had won a competition to build a 300m high metal structure on the site. This was achieved rapidly and systematically using standardised components creating a mathematically stable tower. The essential designs were made by engineers but an architect was needed to beautify the structure and add floors for visitors.
Despite a unique achievement the reaction of many was dismay at the perceived ugliness of the tower and a campaign to tear it down began. Fortunately this never succeeded and we still can admire the structure in its original completeness. In deed 7 million visitors come each year making it the most popular paying attraction in the world.
When John Wolfe Barry was completing Tower Bridge during the same period but over a longer time span, he also attracted criticism from his profession, this time for concealing the metal matrix under cladding.
Which shows that you can’t please everyone and might as well do what you think is right.
I’m getting my book on the 19th Century Barrys assessed by an independent editor. This is because I want to be sure that it is headed in the right direction.
To do this I’ve sent on my draft text so far plus a chapter summary. My chosen editor lives in the States and will skype with me once she has assessed things. I hope I can take her critique!
While awaiting this essential feedback I feel I’m in a bit of a limbo. I’d like to keep writing but see no point in this until I know better where to head. So I am continuing with research for the book and some local volunteering plus thinking of tasks that can usefully be done to our house. This latter means building up confidence in my DIY abilities! The wife and I will also take a break to Paris for a few days, our first mini-holiday together for quite a while other than weekend breaks in England.
The world moves on around us with both certainty and surprises. I’m less keen on the latter nowadays, perhaps out of sheer frustration that we never seem to learn from history, or worse, wilfully ignore its lessons.
I also miss many of my office colleagues, left behind when I committed to writing the book. The loneliness of the long-distance writer.
As blogged before, next summer will mark 125 years since Tower Bridge was opened.
I’ve added a couple of extra pages to this site which is about the man who built the bridge. The first is on how John Wolfe Barry persuaded Parliament to approve the plans for a bascule bridge across the Thames. The second covers the pivotal role of William Arrol in manufacturing and installing the steel framework for the towers that supported the huge bascules. I will add further pages as we get closer to the date.
You can also keep an eye on Tower Bridge’s own plans at its Facebook page and via its Twitter handle @towerbridge .
At least one new book about the history of the bridge will be published, but in the meantime you can read Honor Godfrey’s excellent softback of 1988 through library loans or Amazon.
Sir John Wolfe Barry is credited with establishing the British Standards Institution in the early 20th Century.
In fact it was more complicated than that as you can read elsewhere on this website.
The purpose of technical standards was to bring some order to a complex system. This would benefit all in terms of consistency and wider economic impacts. I have worked on policy reports for the current BSI which have said as much.
But an area of perhaps more controversy is to do with building codes. These are in part technical standards, but they are also partly competence standards designed to prevent unscrupulous builders from erecting unsafe housing. Architects and structural engineers need to be fully aware of them before designing their structures. However, there is a risk that genuine innovation in building may become stifled by the need to regulate bad behaviour. Students of structural design need to be made fully aware of this tension and understand how best to approach it ethically.
The ability to make such judgements requires maturity of thought. Arguably this can only be achieved through responsible education which allows learners to discuss sensitive issues within an evidence-informed environment.
The big question then is whether we are producing enough of this type of learner. Only schools, colleges and universities can provide a satisfactory answer.
On 30 June 2019 many of us will be celebrating 125 years since Tower Bridge was first opened to the public.
More than a year ago I started putting content on this website about the builder of Tower Bridge with the aim of completing it by 22 January this year, the centenary of Sir John Wolfe Barry’s death. I was actually ahead of target.
So I’ll set myself another goal for the 8 plus months until we reach the end of June next year: add more content to this website specifically about Tower Bridge, but obviously relevant to what is already here. As I did with John Wolfe Barry’s biography, I will blog as I go along. Tomorrow I will start with the beginnings of JWB’s involvement with the project to span the Thames further east than had ever previously been achieved with a bridge.
Hope you come back to have a look.
This in my final post in a series looking at a project I’m planning to undertake about a specific architectural style and its local communities.
In my last post I described the role of the Belgian architect Victor Horta in creating a unique ‘modern’ style in Brussels at the very end of the 19th Century. There followed a highly active period prior to the start of the First World War where other architects followed his example.
Horta’s style was somewhat disparagingly called ‘noodle’ or ‘whiplash’ by critics. This is because he used strong visual symbols based on nature within many aspects of it. More importantly, he perhaps unknowingly, trod in the footsteps of both the traditionalist ‘Arts & Crafts’ movement in England, and the ‘modernist’ approach starting to emerge particularly from the Chicago school of architecture in the USA. His was a complete solution to a client’s design brief covering every single aspect of a domestic and/or work residence using a range of materials and solutions.
Other architects in Belgium, Austria-Hungary, Germany, Finland, Scotland, Spain and the Baltic States drew courage from this radical new approach. It became known as ‘Art Nouveau’, ‘Moderne’, ‘Jugendstil’, ‘Liberty’ and ‘Secessionist’ to name a few terms. I particularly like the last one as it best conveys the idea of a break from the past.
In Latvia which was then a part of the Russian Empire, a frenetic period of activity took place for a decade or so after 1899. As a result, the capital Riga has become a World Heritage Centre for the extent of its architecture reflecting this time and style. There is a beautiful museum describing the buildings and key architects, one of whom stands out for me: Konstantins Peksens.
How does any of this relate to Sir John Wolfe Barry, civil engineer?
Probably not very much as he was from an earlier generation and clearly wasn’t an architect like his father and two of his brothers. However, he was in touch with communities: his greatest civil engineering achievement Tower Bridge has resonated with the people of London, in deed the world, for almost 125 years since it was completed.
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.