Reality has moved off stage right #buildingpassions

The good news, which is real, is that I’ve been offered funding for my PhD in architectural history starting in September at the University of Kent. Really looking forward to that! I’ve previously posted about the research topic.

The not so good news is the ‘Cummings Effect’. Not the fact that Twitter filters the name Cummings because it has a rude word in it. It does that to Scunthorpe and other words with the same content.

No, this is the Dom Cummings saga of how best to handle your family affairs during a lockdown. Many think he got it wrong as the UK Prime Minister’s senior adviser. Be that true or not, the effect has already been quoted by one newspaper as a reason to ignore lockdown laws. You couldn’t make it up!

It has been a moral dilemma with some families applying the rules strictly and not even seeing loved ones who have died from the virus. Cummings believed in herd immunity so you might argue he was happy to see the virus spread from London to Durham, but just wanted to make sure his own children were safe. Double standards? Not for those involved in the murky world of politics, I’d suggest.

Looking back in history, there have always been challenging times when the behaviour of individuals has been questioned. Even IK Brunel, now lauded as the 2nd Greatest Briton after Churchill, had some dubious practices. Some blame him for the huge numbers of deaths caused by building his epic Box Tunnel near Bath. You can read more about Isambard and his family in my book ‘Building Passions‘.

Personally, I like Brunel and Churchill as truly outstanding historical figures of global interest. I just wish some of our current leaders had similar attributes about them during these difficult times.

Yes, I’m a bridge nerd #buildingpassions

My delightful teenage daughter told me I was a bridge nerd the other day. In her terms this would be considered an insult to any decent teenager. Fortunately, I’m not in my teens and I consider it a compliment.

What do I like about bridges? Below is a list of possibles:

  • They are elegant
  • They connect two communities
  • They circumvent a natural obstacle
  • They are historic landmarks
  • They were built by significant people
  • They are structures like buildings

My book ‘Building Passions‘ aims to celebrate historical structures. The website has lists of them with links to further information. I’m even building my own working model of Tower Bridge. Yes, nerdish, but who cares.

Many great engineers and architects were nerds. Isambard Kingdom Brunel was a super nerd. He was also voted 2nd greatest Briton after Churchill. Interestingly, both of them had a non-British parent – Winston’s mother was American and IK’s father was French. They weren’t afraid to be different.

You can read more about Brunel’s family and the Barry family, with their Victorian connections between architecture and engineering. The book is available in print via the website and if you use the code IKBSCB you can get free UK postage.

Developing my writing into fiction #nanowrimo

I blogged a while back that I’ve started writing a novel based on the life of my grandfather Baron Lex von Behr.

This fictional story connects with the non-fiction of ‘Building Passions’ and in deed this website, through the theme of families.

As I said at the book launch of ‘Building Passions’ last week, I’m fascinated with family relationships and legacy. My grandfather almost lived out a novel or even a series of short stories. These included his mother, brothers, sisters, cousins, life partners and children.

While I am more comfortable writing non-fiction, particularly linked to history or education or the built environment, I realise that fiction is the big one. You can mould your subjects and develop their stories in parallel with the flow of events around them.

The book will actually be a trilogy called ‘The Other Red Baron’, split between three phases of Lex’s life as there is so much to cover about him. However, the core story is on his spying career and his passionate love affairs in Tashkent, London, Berlin and Paris.

As things develop I will consider how best to communicate on my progress – currently I’m sharing my writing trials and tribulations as part of National Novel Writing Month (nanowrimo.org), its Kent community forum on Facebook and in meet-ups with local authors in and around Canterbury.

Families in history and now #buildingpassions

I’m travelling to a family reunion in London to celebrate my mother’s 80th birthday.

Families are important.

I write about two of them in my forthcoming book on the 19th-century Brunels and Barrys. The full title is “Brunel, Barry and ‘modern’ Victorian architecture”. The short title is ‘Building Passions’.

In the book, the two famous families of engineers and architects connect through John Wolfe Barry and his close friend and business partner Henry Marc Brunel. Their fathers were the great Victorians Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Charles Barry, who were both Fellows of the Royal Society like their outstanding contemporary Charles Darwin. They also co-designed the 1851 Great Exhibition and Crystal Palace with Prince Albert, Joseph Paxton and others.

Families have roots and branches.

They come from somewhere and in most cases continue on, even if there are name changes along the way. Personalities appear, disappear and reappear through new generations.

This is all part of evolution and completely natural, in whatever way it may have first started.

The best families strive to work cooperatively with others for the wider good. This despite the temptation to care for their immediate lineage only.

In this way the world progresses and, we hope, avoids the pitfalls of personal greed and avarice that have become so visible today.

Engaging young people with engineering careers #buildingpassions

As I write this post I’m sitting in a school sports hall trying to interest the kids in engineering careers.

The problem is they aren’t really attracted by the discipline.

Mention maths and that particularly gets the cold shoulder.

By contrast the person with the fluffy dog which anyone can stroke and hug is like a magnet to teenage boys and girls.

How does one compete with such attractions?

You could train an animal or perhaps a cute-looking robot to design and build a structure.

My preference is to face the stark reality of the fact that maths still scares people. We have to lure them in without them knowing.

Therefore, we can’t oversell the immediate benefits of the profession until they are on board with the direction of travel. This takes careful planning across the ages and stages of education.

I have blogged elsewhere about the role of parents in their child’s education and how this relates to undergraduate level once their son or daughter becomes a legal adult in the UK.

To me good parents and carers have always been the key to unlocking career progress for young people at an early age. They set up the opportunities by helping to keep options open for their wards. Teenagers then take it forward with help from qualified adults in schools, colleges and then universities.

As always the devil is in the detail.

But reading my forthcoming book ‘Building Passions’ or Roma Agrawal’s BUILT may at least help get conversations started between parents and kids about the relevance of the built environment as a professional choice.

What has inspired people to build?

Why have some people decided they want to build structures?

This was the first question which entered my mind when I started my new job as Education Manager at the Institution of Structural Engineers in January 2016. I was curious to know why young people would want to become structural engineers.

After more than two years of thinking about his, which has included conversations with active structural engineers such as Roma Agrawal author of BUILT, as well as many others in the built environment, I have a few pointers which I list below.

  • There are some jobs which require inspiration to get the best out of them – there are others which don’t, and things like money or benefits in kind can be attractive enough to do them.
  • Building structures is certainly a type of occupation that DOES need inspiration for the best results. Uninspired structures are a blight on humanity and our environment. In some cases they not only dull our lives but harm them as well.
  • Young people like to be inspired by things. Ask a group of UK teenagers what they think of building as a profession and they will say it’s about bricks, concrete, hard hats, physical work and getting dirty. Nothing particularly inspiring there.
  • However ask them what architects do and they will go on about designing amazing houses with incredible features, quoting TV programmes and presenters.
  • Finally, ask them what a structural or civil engineer does. Be prepared for the worst ranging from complete ignorance to some obscure link to mending a car or the home plumbing.
  • There are youth campaigns now such as ‘This is Engineering’ which are trying to fight against the negative cultural stereotype – indeed, a new set of inspiring videos will be released this Monday showing teenagers the excitement of engineering, including a structural engineer helping earthquake victims to rebuild their lives.
  • I personally believe that history is another medium to show the value of building and associated professions to new audiences. Roma’s book BUILT has tried to do exactly this. Another is ‘Mr Barry’s War’ by Caroline Shenton which is now out in paperback and describes the trials and tribulations of the architect of the New Palace of Westminster in the 19th Century.

The final word on this?

Parents.

Yes we all have them and many of us are them. We try to guide our offspring down the right career paths for them. Some of us can be very pushy! We need to be convinced that a job in a specific sector will be fine for our children. We have prejudices about certain jobs. We also aspire to better things, sometimes using our children to achieve this for us. We need to rethink our attitudes and approaches to building structures.