I’ve finished some content covering John Wolfe Barry’s role in establishing and sustaining the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), the home of the atomic clock.
What matters when designing and planning a building: its aesthetic appeal or the nature of its form and materials? People will have different views about this depending on their tastes, which makes the built environment such a fascinating and sometimes controversial area of practice.
Debates have continued ever since humans first began to shape their environment and introduce the concept of ‘style’ to each other. Different generations may hold vastly differing views about why a particular structure appeals or not.
I’m happy to defend my appreciation of 19th Century architecture and engineering, based as it is on my background as an historian of the first Industrial Revolution, which happened to take place in my country of origin. I suppose when I first studied economic and social history at university I was fascinated by human ingenuity and organisation as an evolving complex system, less so by individual acts of creativity. As time has passed and I’ve moved along with my generation, clearly I’ve started to appreciate the aesthetical side more than I used to.
My challenge now is to address a general misunderstanding of how historical precedent can best be used to help pave the way forward for ‘modernity’, whichever way we may choose to interpret the future.
I believe looking back with hindsight at engineers such as John Wolfe Barry and his contemporaries aids us in this process.
I’ve just written a piece on John Wolfe Barry’s three elder brothers, two of whom were architects like their father, the third became Bishop of Sydney.
Another section is complete describing some of John Wolfe Barry’s other engineering projects in London and further afield. My personal favourite is the Connel Ferry Bridge over Loch Etive in Scotland.
Studying historical people and structures is an excellent way to learn about the present. Telling the story of John Wolfe Barry provides context for the value of technical and personal relationships which persist now and will continue into the future. It also allows us to engage as learners, looking as vicarious viewers into the experiences of others and drawing out our own lessons. So please use this website to expand your knowledge.
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John Wolfe Barry was a distinguished Victorian civil engineer recognised by his peers. His father had achieved the same status within the architectural profession, and John was the only one of his sons to choose civil engineering. Would he have been a successful architect had he decided to follow that path?
It’s a difficult question to answer but it does raise a range of issues about the key differences between the two professions, as well as public perceptions of these, which may not always match reality.
I’ll try to spend some time on this as I complete this website in time for the centenary of John Wolfe Barry’s death which is less than 4 months away now.
You could argue it was more than just a bridge as the two steel towers were clad in stone to provide sympathetic context with the Tower of London.
This stirred up great architectural debate at the time.
Author Jonathan Clarke of the English Heritage monograph ‘Early Structural Steel in London Buildings: A discreet revolution’ explains the basis behind these disagreements on aesthetics and use of materials, which you might say characterised the professional divide between traditional architects and futuristic structural engineers at the time.