The Crystal Palace #10favstructures #buildingpassions

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.

Continuing my #10favstructures in #buildingpassions

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.

The Leviathan #10favstructures #buildingpassions

Many years ago when I was a child, I remember watching a TV programme about the great engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

The programme covered his early life and construction of tunnels, bridges and railways. But the achievement that most appealed to me was his realised ambition to build the largest steamships in the world.

The first such ship was the Great Western, followed soon by the Great Britain, both designed and built in Bristol. However, it was Brunel’s final project, the SS Great Eastern that most stood out for me. Here was a truly gargantuan vessel which would eclipse others for many decades to come.

The monster ship was launched with much difficulty on the River Thames in London. Brunel also fell out with investors and his notoriously difficult collaborator John Scott Russell. Finally, there was an engine room explosion on the maiden run.

IKB never lived to see what happened to his ‘Leviathan’. His civil engineer son Henry kept an interest in the ship and replaced his father as a close personal mentor with the famous naval architect Sir William Froude. The ship’s greatest role was to lay the first transatlantic telegraph cable.

The Great Eastern therefore features on my list of favourite structures in my book ‘Building Passions‘ as the only ship. It raised all kinds of technical issues as a vast iron structure designed for many people. Up-ended it would have represented a skyscraper far ahead of its time!

The place where they do the annual Xmas lectures #buildingpassions

When I used to work at the UK Academy of Sciences, we often got calls asking us about our Christmas Lecture, particularly as the Autumn days began to darken.

We would politely reply: “I’m sorry, you want the Royal Institution. We are the Royal Society.”

In some cases this led to a follow on conversation about the difference between the two organisation’s titles. We would explain that the Royal Society was one of the world’s oldest science academies founded in 1660, whereas the Royal Institution had been set up in the 19th Century by science communicators with the purpose of educating the public about science. Michael Faraday’s famous lectures on electricity morphed into the annual Xmas events broadcast on the BBC.

I am giving a Christmas lecture in Canterbury on 17 December with the same title as my book ‘Building Passions’. It may not be on the same level as the RI ones, but it is about communicating on the STEM subjects, as we now group them. Mine will focus on engineering and architecture as part of our built environment’s history.

I will talk about the Brunel and Barry families of engineers and architects. Sir John Wolfe Barry and Henry Brunel, sons of famous fathers, worked together on building Tower Bridge in London. I will cover other well-known and interesting structures and there will be a live demonstration of simple bridge building.

Do please come along! Whether you manage or not you can still buy the book and/or donate to my favourite charity campaign Time to Change.

Not just Tower Bridge on the #buildingpassions list of structures

I’ve produced a list of structures mentioned in the book ‘Building Passions‘.

I created the list for indexing purposes, as it naturally flowed out of my text for the book. Perhaps I should have done it the other way round?

All lists need choices to be made. The public voted Isambard Kingdom Brunel the second greatest Briton after Churchill. Does that make his structures the best British ones ever? Of course not!

This website focuses on the works of his son Henry Brunel in partnership with Sir John Wolfe Barry, who really gets the credit as project lead. His father Sir Charles Barry has many buildings on the list, including the Houses of Parliament, but no tunnels, bridges, docks or rail lines and stations. Sir Charles was an architect, unlike the previously named engineers.

Other architects and engineers are on the list, as well as unattributed structures such as the Acropolis or the Burj Khalifa.

Some might say it’s a bit of a dog’s breakfast. I disagree. There are connections between all these structures across and over time.

Which is my favourite structure on the list? No surprise to those who know me, it’s the Travellers Club in London by Charles Barry and his close friend John Lewis Wolfe. Apart from sheer admiration of form and function, my father used to be a member and often stayed there on trips from Switzerland to the UK.

I also appreciate the significance of John Wolfe.

Sir Charles’s fourth son was named after him, and in tribute to his memory and lineage, he continued with the ‘Wolfe’ title in a family name that is still alive today.

Buy a print copy of #buildingpassions now!

My website ‘Building Passions’ now lets you pre-order a print copy of the book prior to its launch on 20 November 2019.

To note, this is currently only for deliveries to UK addresses, as I’m waiting for more clarity on Brexit to see what happens in the EU. The rest of the world will have to wait a bit while I decide on which fulfilment service to use.

If you still don’t know what I’m talking about then here is a quick recap:

  • the book’s full title is Brunel, Barry and ‘modern’ Victorian’ architecture.
  • it covers the story of two families, the Brunels and the Barrys, who were famous Victorian engineers and architects. Think the Houses of Parliament, Tower Bridge, Clifton Suspension Bridge, the Great Eastern etc.
  • the key relationship described in the book is that between the civil engineers Sir John Wolfe Barry and Henry Marc Brunel, respectively sons of renowned fathers, Sir Charles Barry and Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
  • the book also looks at the story of architecture and civil engineering as key built environment professions in 19th- and 20th-century Britain.
  • Finally, the content examines the ‘modernisation’ of architecture globally from the 19th Century on and the modern legacy of the Brunel-Barry partnership, both in terms of structures, but also the connection with physical and product standards.

If you prefer not to buy a hard copy or don’t live in the UK, you can instead purchase the e-book which is considerably cheaper and more interactive – it has an index which helps the readers easily cross-reference people with structures in the book.

Note: I’m very pleased to say that an English Heritage Blue Plaque will be put up on the London building in which Sir John Wolfe Barry died in January 1918. This is planned to take place on 19 November, the day before the book launch.

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.