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.

35 days to go

On 30 June 2019 London and possibly the world will celebrate a day that commemorates 125 years since the opening of a well-known bridge.

No, not the Brooklyn Bridge in New York, opened in 1883, nor the Forth Railway Bridge in Scotland opened in 1890, though both deserve special mention for their uniqueness as huge structures, still in use, which employed steel in a ground-breaking way.

This bridge is of course Tower Bridge.

Not everyone knows that the two famous towers which encapsulate the bridge are also made from steel. It is the same Scottish steel used to build the Forth Bridge first, and then almost immediately shipped down to London for the next big project.

In the case of Tower Bridge, the steel framework was clad in stone, which while acting to protect it from corrosion, was also needed to meet the architectural requirement that the bridge blend with the medieval Tower of London next to it. There was much controversy at the time about this.

The enormous bascule leaves, which still open and shut for river traffic, were a wonder to behold for the royals and public who attended the opening ceremony and were only surpassed in length a few decades later in the United States. I write about them in my forthcoming book on Sir John Wolfe Barry and Henry Brunel (the civil engineers for the bridge), which will also cover their famous fathers Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Sir Charles Barry.

Footnote: Dan Cruikshank, the TV broadcaster specialising in architectural history, has presented programmes on Tower Bridge which are sadly no longer available via broadcast networks. But for an intro to the history of London’s bridges see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8n15w-s1qIM. Tower Bridge itself start from 47:30 minutes in.

How (not) to review (parts of) a book you refuse to reach

This is new for me but I needed to blog about a book I refuse to read. The title and image refers to a famous ad about a beer ‘refreshing the parts other beers cannot reach’,

Let’s imagine that a well-known politician has just launched a book about a dozen characters from Victorian Britain. For context, the politician has right of centre views and is identified with his passionate arguments for a ‘No Deal Brexit’. It is possible that he may have a biased approach to history?

Coincidentally, two of the characters he includes in his book feature in my forthcoming publication, though not as prominently in my case.

One of these is Queen Victoria, about whom much has been written and put on our screens of late. Difficult to be objective possibly?

The other of more immediate interest to me is the architect and designer Augustus Pugin. My book will look closely at his working relationship with Sir Charles Barry in the building of the New Palace of Westminster. Others have already researched and written about this, and a new, long-awaited biography of Barry may eventually appear by the end of this year.

Not wanting to give away my conclusions before publication, let’s just say that I attempt to provide a balanced view between the two extremes presented by Pugin’s and Barry’s sons in the later 19th Century after their fathers had died. One end of the scale suggests Pugin should get all the credit for this iconic structure, the other end goes for Barry. Somewhere in the middle seems more sensible, but like politics that doesn’t always prevail.

Hence my keenness not to read where Mr X stands on things, if indeed this is mentioned at all …

The value of Parliament

The British Houses of Parliament have been in the news lately because of the laborious process for leaving the EU.

This process was clearly set up to discourage any state from doing a Brexit, Grexit or Frexit. Perhaps call it Nexit to be clear? The British people just want a clear decision to avoid current uncertainty.

As I watched the debates in the House of Commons last week I couldn’t help but admire the chamber in which the Members of Parliament sit, assuming they can find a spare place. It was deliberately designed by Charles Barry senior to be cosy, at the express wishes of the 19th Century incumbents who feared it would look vast and empty during an average poorly attended session!

Once completed by Edward Middleton Barry, the New Palace of Westminster would see numerous debates and committee sessions, including an inquiry into building a bridge across the adjacent Thames further downriver next to the Tower of London. One of the expert witnesses was Sir Charles’ other son John Wolfe Barry by then a respected civil engineer, who reassured MPs that despite vociferous opposition from some local commercial interests, the proposed bascule bridge would be a huge benefit to road traffic and a minor hindrance to river traffic. Tower Bridge still operates on this premise over a century later.

The benefit of hindsight ….

Back to school nerves

As I write this I am heading back home from school.

It is one I attended as a teenager and of which I have mixed memories, hence some nerves on my arrival earlier today.

When there I never appreciated the beautiful old building in which we had assemblies and were taught. Too busy surviving as a confused teenager. Now I returned as an alumni who is fascinated by the building’s architect Charles Barry junior.

My final year subjects were history, French and economics. The first two were strong personal preferences and because I wasn’t allowed to do maths with them (shocking but true), I opted for economics which my older brother had recommended to me.

I continually regret not having done maths after age 16 and this in part inspired me to work later in life in maths education policy. An achievement of which I am proud is that we managed to convince the English Government of the importance of as many teenagers as possible doing post16 maths.

I did meet the head teacher but we didn’t discuss education. As it turns out the school is celebrating 400 years since its foundation as a place for poor scholars to study. Part of the celebrations was a lecture a fortnight back by Caroline Shenton on Sir Charles Barry, who like his son had been surveyor to the vast Dulwich Estate. During today’s research I took a photograph of an original 1830 letter of reference from Edward Cust allowing Barry senior to gain his position. Cust had previously chaired the selection panel which had chosen Charles to design and build the seminal Travellers Club in London. He would go on to be one of the judges who selected Barry’s design for the New Houses of Parliament, declaring no personal interest in the outcome.

Such was the way of the world and it still continues to this day. Who you know is more important than what you know. I don’t agree with it but would be foolish to ignore the benefits.

Purveyor of country house upgrades to the aristocracy

Sir Charles Barry established a reputation amongst the British aristocracy for upgrading their country houses in the 19th Century.

His route in was through his design of the Travellers Club in London (see my recent photo), a pivotal building in the history of British architecture. He successfully married his own design preferences with the combined tastes of the elite Club members including the Duke of Wellington no less. This produced a highly admired Italianate structure adapted from its Florentine and Roman influences to suit British culture and climate.

Dukes and Earls came flocking in his direction with commissions and this was further boosted by Barry’s successful bid to rebuild the Houses of Parliament after they were destroyed by fire in 1834. This became his major lifetime work, but he still managed to keep other clients satisfied with his redesign advice. Highclere Castle, Cliveden House and Dunrobin Castle all still stand today as examples of his influence.

This all explains why he was given the single honour of being buried in the aisle of Westminster Abbey at a funeral in 1860 attended by the good and the great.

His sons would never achieve their father’s status. However, I think that John Wolfe Barry deserves the most credit for maintaining the family hallmark of structural excellence, though having moved slightly out of Sir Charles’s shadow into civil engineering. There he established himself by completing Tower Bridge, less an architectural feat and more a triumph of structural and mechanical engineering.

The end of the Year of Engineering but the start of a new age of UK design and build?

New Year’s Eve will mark the end of the Year of Engineering 2018.

This has been a UK Government led campaign to promote engineering as a career option to young people. Simultaneously, it coincided with the bicentenary of the founding of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1818 and the launch of a similar video-based campaign by the Royal Academy of Engineering called ‘This is Engineering’.

I have been privileged to be a small part of this all through my day job as Education Manager at the Institution of Structural Engineers. We published our own careers videos at the start of this year.

What can we now expect of the legacy?

To be honest it’s difficult to tell currently as the Year of Engineering website continues to list and seek submissions for engineering related events into 2019.

What would I like to happen?

I’d like the Government and the engineering sector to broaden out the messages to all those interested in careers in ‘design and build’, but particularly those defined audiences who could be helped to overcome any cultural or other barriers to success. This might include people with specific age, gender, race and other personal characteristics, depending on the nature of any barriers and the proposed solutions to removing them.

This could kick start a new era of design and build capturing the spirit of global volunteer programmes such as Bridges to Prosperity or the Grenfell Tower and similar schemes that have sprung up locally as a result of a terrible tragedy.