I’m on a lengthy journey which started at the end of October.
This is when I first approached my local university about doing a PhD in history.
Since then the topic has been moulded into something more focused and relevant. Currently it will look at how Art Nouveau emerged as a distinct architectural style in Brussels in the early 1890s.
More importantly it will get under the skin of how building standards impacted on its development as it spread through Belgium and to the rest of Europe. This creep was resisted in England and parts of Austria and Germany. In the end the style died an early death before WWI, to be replaced by Art Deco and Expressionism in the 1920s.
For opponents of the style, resisting the creep became about highlighting decorative c**p. Adolf Loos in Vienna ranted about the moral decay of over-decoration. Charles Voysey in England stressed the greater importance of function, a feature of the earlier Arts & Craft style which had been taken up by the Chicago School of architects when building skyscrapers in the States.
Others were happy to let Art Nouveau flourish as a holistic design trend, but preferred the simplicity of emerging modernism, aided by the use of reinforced concrete as a smooth exterior feature, strengthened with a steel core.
At any rate, if I manage to do it, the research could be fun!
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.
As part of scoping for a potential PhD in the history of architecture and engineering, I have been considering the tension between being creative and sticking to norms.
It’s a topic I’ve skirted around already on this website and in my book ‘Building Passions‘.
Imagine you have to design a new house for someone you admire and respect. They have given you a brief which tells you they want the building to be unique for them, but that it needs to conform with local health and safety regulations. This immediately produces creative tension in the design process.
That’s not a bad thing in itself and forces you to think about new approaches to form and function, but which can still meet the set standards. It is possible that artistic recognition may come out of this process. This will depend on the nature of the materials used and the skills employed at melding them into an original work of beauty.
What makes humans different is our ability to appreciate our wider environment. Other creatures just live in theirs. They may have unwritten rules, but these are purely designed to serve the group rather than the individual.
So creativity and norms can co-exist in societies. But we humans need to rise above our basic motivations and reflect on the bigger picture.
Can we do this?
I am finalising an application for PhD funding, prior to interview on 5 February.
I’ve decided to focus on a specific type of architecture, Art Nouveau, I mention briefly in my book ‘Building Passions‘. This late 19th-century style or movement lasted about 20 dynamic years in the lead up to WWI. It was novel, organic and often highly decorative. It then disappeared!
My research as proposed would look at the influence of building standards on the development of Art Nouveau in a few key countries. This means how professional skills, building regulations and specifications for materials all impacted on the architectural design and final buildings.
Why on earth might this be of interest to you?
Well, it’s important to be aware of your built environment and where it came from. This gives you more say over what may or not happen to it, rather than simply trusting the experts.
As I argue in the book, ‘modern’ Victorian architecture developed as new building materials such as iron, steel, plate glass and reinforced cement came on stream. Designers and their clients reacted to this technical change with creative ideas and technical support from engineers.
This goes on all the time with, for example, new, fire-resistant cladding being developed on the outside of buildings. Local communities need to be fully engaged with the process to ensure that tragedies such as Grenfell Tower don’t occur.
I am considering studying for a PhD.
I will only do this if I can get grant funding, otherwise it’s not worth it.
My reasons are partly self-satisfying. I like the sound of being Dr von Behr. But, I also want peer validation for my historical research and analysis skills.
However, if I do undertake doctoral studies, then I am determined to ensure they produce something of benefit to the system. What precisely this will be is still unknown, but ideally it builds on the work I have started in STEM and built environment education and public engagement. This is likely to use historical examples, as I have done in my book ‘Building Passions‘.
Once I am clearer on things I will of course share my research proposal more widely, so watch this space.