Architecture has its modern day heroes such as Enzo Piano or Norman Foster.
Civil and structural engineers are less well known nowadays compared to the legends of the past.
What has happened?
I would venture to suggest that people are more impressed nowadays by creativity and aesthetics than by downright structural solidity.
Is this fair?
No, but then it’s not fair that medicine attracts huge numbers of applicants and quite happily rejects large percentages of them in the upper echelons. No shame in not making the cut, you can always try another profession (by implication, easier).
I hope very much that this bias will change over time. I don’t believe it helps any profession. It’s not the obvious that matters, rather the less well perceived.
However beautiful a skyscraper or a bridge, what we need to be sure of is that they will last serving a good purpose. They won’t if they collapse or if they produce more problems than solutions for the communities in which they are built.
The Victorians were huge achievers on a global scale.
Amongst the many contributors to this process were civil engineers such as Telford, Brunel, Hawkshaw, Fowler, Baker and Wolfe Barry.
I attended a wonderful book launch this week for Roma Agrawal’s new book BUILT during which she kindly signed my copy. The occasion was hosted at the Brunel Museum in Rotherhithe on the site of the first traffic tunnel under a navigable waterway, the River Thames. The civil engineers responsible were Marc and Isambard Brunel, father and son. As I’ve posted elsewhere on this site, Isambard’s son Henry became a close business partner of John Wolfe Barry.
The final chapter of Roma’s book is called ‘Dream’. Everyone dreams, literally, but not so many actually achieve them in real life. Roma managed to write her book which started as a spreadsheet and she’d previously designed key structural parts of the Shard, an architect’s dream come true.
Young people ever since Victorian times (and before) have wanted to fulfil their dreams. Civil and structural engineering is one very visible way of doing this – not just a small, invisible component of a household object, but a big, visible, in-your-face statement of how conceptual design can change the world physically for the better.
Where there was no hospital there now is one to treat the sick, where no bridge now one stands to cross a river.
Communities can flourish and in turn have an influence on their environment, gradually ensuring that it reflects shared ideals and aspirations, including beauty, sustainability and using an ethical approach.
John Wolfe Barry would have been happy with such an outcome.
Monday 22 January 2018 marks exactly 100 years since the death of Sir John Wolfe Barry, the man who built Tower Bridge, London. He died peacefully at his home in Chelsea at the venerable age of 81.
His lifetime is commemorated on this website, the culmination of a project that started many years ago. It is also commemorated on a window in Westminster Abbey, below which lies the tomb of his famous father the architect of the Houses of Parliament.
At the time of his death Sir John had achieved many things in addition to building Tower Bridge between 1886 and 1894. He had been President of the Institution of Civil Engineers in the 1890s, a famous organisation celebrating its bicentenary this year. He was credited with founding the Engineering Standards Committee at the turn of the 20th Century, which eventually became the British Standards Institution, home of the Kitemark. He was pivotal in helping to establish the National Physical Laboratory at around the same time.
Less well-known about him was the fact that he chaired the Board of the telegraph companies which were eventually to become Cable & Wireless. His close business partner for many decades was Henry Brunel, younger son of Isambard K Brunel. Sir John took over the lease of the Brunels’ house in Westminster, London and made it his own family home before he moved on to Chelsea.
Finally, Sir John’s civil engineering consultancy eventually became part of the same company which helped build the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, at the time of writing the world’s tallest building.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel is probably the most famous engineer in history and arguably one of Britain’s best recognised heroes. Certainly he had the advantage of an equally talented engineer father, with whom he worked closely from a young age.
By contrast, Sir Charles Barry, who was Brunel’s near contemporary, came from a less auspicious background. His projects were technically less challenging and he sought consensus rather than individual distinction.
Sir Charles’ sons achieved successful careers as architects, a senior clergyman and a civil engineer. Isambard’s eldest son became a lawyer and his youngest son Henry was a ‘junior’ partner to Sir John Wolfe Barry, in the sense that he relied on John’s moral and financial support for many years.
While the Brunel name of engineers died out with Henry after only two generations, the (Wolfe) Barry’s continued in civil engineering well into the 20th Century.
Different families make their mark on society in different ways.
The Institution of Civil Engineers is celebrating its bicentenary this year under the label ICE 200. One aspect of the celebrations is a theme called ‘Invisible Superheroes’, a year long exhibition focusing on the civil engineers behind a range of historical and current projects.
Isambard K Brunel was certainly my hero, if not one with supernatural powers called ‘Captain Innovation’ by ICE. I first came across him when I started an undergrad degree at Bristol University. Everyone in the city knew about him as the man who had built the famous Clifton Suspension Bridge. It turns out that he didn’t complete it himself, but come on, superheroes are busy people!
Brunel was also responsible for constructing the first regular steam travel system between the UK and the USA. Under the ‘Great Western’ brand, travellers could catch a train from Paddington Station in London, disembark at Bristol and join the Great Western steamship for its 16 day trip across the Atlantic. A new museum called ‘Being Brunel’ is opening in Bristol in a few months time.
A number of years after I graduated I came back to the West of England to study a Masters in Social Research at Bath University supervised by Professor Angus Buchanan, one of the leading academics on Brunel. As mentioned elsewhere this research introduced me to Sir John Wolfe Barry who was a close business partner of Henry Brunel, IK’s civil engineer son.
The (locomotive) wheel had come full circle!
The name of John Wolfe Barry first came across my path when I was doing voluntary research for the Bristol Industrial Museum (now called the M Shed) back in the 1990s.
That led me on to a Masters in Social Research specialising in the History of Technology at the University of Bath, supervised by Professor Angus Buchanan OBE (author of an excellent biography of IK Brunel). My first research project for the Masters was on the history of the Port of Bristol. Within that I looked at plans to develop the port first begun by Brunel in the 19th Century and ending in the construction by John Wolfe Barry and Benjamin Baker of the Royal Edward Docks at Avonmouth, opened in 1908 by the monarch himself.
I was struck by the fact that JWB, as I would refer to him, seemed very confident in his knowledge about dock-building in the complex tidal environment of the Bristol Channel. But then he seemed a very thorough man from reading his technical reports. Many years later when I saw his testimony to the Parliamentary Committee investigating plans for a bridge across the Thames, recorded a decade or more earlier, I sensed the same confidence in his abilities as a civil engineer completely familiar with building structures in and across rivers.
Finally, the fact that a window in Westminster Abbey above the grave of his father commemorates his life, appeared to confirm that he was highly respected by his peers.
Since I’ve produced this website about the man who built Tower Bridge, perhaps it would be reasonable to ask why there is such global interest in the structure? Here are 10 reasons:
- It symbolises London. This was used to much effect during the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony.
- It is a must see for those millions of tourists who visit London every year for its history, together with the Houses of Parliament, the Tower of London, Buckingham Palace and St Paul’s Cathedral.
- Many people are fascinated by a bascule bridge which you don’t see very often and even if you have seen one, not on this scale. IK Brunel’s son Henry was closely involved in its design.
- Tower Bridge spans the River Thames with many other famous bridges (including London Bridge, but not the original one) and is the furthest east of those to be found in Central London.
- You can take a boat trip along the Thames and if you travel far enough eastwards towards Greenwich (where the Meridian is to be found) you will have to pass under Tower Bridge.
- The Thames Footpath is a great walking and cycling route along England’s most famous river. If you continue west starting at Tower Bridge you will eventually pass Kew Gardens, Hampton Court Palace, Windsor Castle and Henley on Thames (where the summer regattas take place – John Wolfe Barry and Henry Brunel, the builders of Tower Bridge, loved rowing on the Thames).
- Of course there are some die-hards like myself who actually love Tower Bridge as a working bridge built in the Victorian era.
- Perhaps you’ve made the bridge with a Lego kit or using Meccano and want to compare your model with the real thing?
- Or you’ve watched a movie/film/TV programme which has featured it, for example one from the James Bond series (www.007.com).
- Then there’s the off chance that you might bump into a member of the Royal Family on the bridge on their way back to the Tower of London where they all live … 😉