Do we ever learn from the past? #buildingpassions

I sometimes wonder if we ever learn from what has happened previously in society?

There are so many cases of people blatantly ignoring the fact that their idea or project has simply been recycled. They crave intellectual originality in some form. They deny credit to those who have gone before them. Or conveniently misinterpret the lessons of past mistakes, so it appears that there were no previous errors.

Our political leaders are the worst examples of this. So why do we not use history to point it out to them? Sadly, even highly expert historians can be manipulated by others with unethical intentions. All academics are vulnerable to this. Egos can easily be massaged.

Is there a solution?

I’m not sure really. But we should continue to research and write about history as independently and accurately as we can. There will be differences of view about interpretation, but these should be accepted in good spirit. Each effort to explain the past should build on the work of predecessors. When we make new hypotheses, we should be confident that the evidence we have accrued is sufficiently supportive. This may mean changing our own perspectives. So be it.

Grenfell Tower: some pointers from #buildingpassions #grenfelltower

Today the first report from the official inquiry into the Grenfell Tower tragedy was published.

Its conclusions were leaked yesterday by the Daily Telegraph, despite being asked by the inquiry to wait. This pretty much sums up some of the media nowadays. The focus of resulting headlines was on the perceived inadequacies of the London Fire Brigade when dealing with the blazing inferno. Easy target …

Also today, Boris Johnson is as I write leading a short House of Commons debate about the report, in between keeping an eye on the House of Lords as it passes general election legislation.

This is all of interest to me because I write about Grenfell Tower in my new book ‘Building Passions’. This is in the concluding chapter, where I try to reflect on the wider issues that impact on our built environment.

The book is about the achievements of 19th-century families and individuals in building structures that have become iconic, such as the Houses of Parliament and Tower Bridge in London, or the Clifton Suspension Bridge or Box Tunnel in the west of England.

Grenfell Tower was by no means iconic when it was designed and built in London, but it has become a huge symbol of the frailties of modern society, which is gradually moving more and more away from community-based decisions to globally-determined ones.

The Government’s response to the report can only be fully actionable when UK politics has returned to something near normal after the Brexit hiatus, and when the second part of the inquiry has fully investigated the technical issues around the cause of the inferno, which completely surprised the brave firemen and -women who tried valiantly to tackle it.

In the past similar disasters have led to changes in the law and remedial actions by industry – this time the response needs to be considered and permanent, in so far as politicians are able to engineer long-term change for the good of all citizens, with the support of communities, the built environment sector and those whose job it is to rescue us from dangers to our life and limb.

Now is the winter of our discount tents #buildingpassions

The pleasure of writing your own blog is that you can do what you like with it, even add in the stupid play on words that is in this one’s title.

If you haven’t recognised the phrase, it’s an adaption of the opening line of Shakespeare’s Richard III spoken by the Duke of Gloucester, who would eventually become king. But it’s the way he does it that has attracted attention in history and portrayed him as an evil schemer.

The parody or pun was used by the Sun Newspaper in 2012 to describe a funny story about a tent, but I suspect it originated much earlier, possibly by the Goons or similar.

What has any of this to do with Sir John Wolfe Barry or my forthcoming book about him, his family and the Brunels, ‘Building Passions’?

Not much really.

I’m just excited by the fact that this Autumn will be a busy period for both the book and the country I live in, the United Kingdom, with Brexit probably happening, worst case with no deal agreed with the European Union by 31 October.

The last ‘Winter of Discontent’ was in 1978-79 just before Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister of the UK. It was a period of extreme industrial unrest matched with extreme cold. The ‘Iron Lady’ began her all out fight with Arthur Scargill and the British Trades Unions, which only one person was going to win …

What will happen this winter is anyone’s guess. All historians like myself can do is point out potential lessons from the past and hope that current players take heed. In terms of the built environment, this will continue to develop new architectural styles and find new ways of supplying and then applying the necessary materials and skills.