Art Nouveau or decorative c***p #buildingpassions

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!

Define, design, refine #buildingpassions

I am scoping a new novella which will be pure fiction.

This is new for me as so far I’ve written non-fiction and historical fiction, which both seem safe ground for an historian/policy wonk by trade.

I decided to start with a blank document on my laptop and see what emerged. Curiously my approach seemed to reflect what probably happens when building a new structure – and I’ve written about many past ones in my book ‘Building Passions‘.

First off, I defined my parameters. What did I really want to write about and what environment would shape it? That was fairly easy with pure fiction, though even at this stage some feedback helped me make a decision.

Then I started to design my main characters. I’d not done this previously as they were already there based on (largely) historical facts. This was quite fun and allowed complete artistic licence. I could make them as mad or as sad as I wished!

My next step was to create an outline plot based on what I now had. This was considerably easier than I thought it would be. I had to pinch myself to believe it!

Last but not least I refined my characters and plot, tightening focus and removing superfluous material. The end product looked great, now I just need to write it …

Define, design, refine. No idea where this came from but a net search just got me to: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/define-design-refine-strategy-your-products-mayank-tiwari/ and https://medium.com/netbramha-studios/define-design-refine-a-strategy-for-your-products-2bbe55df8dcb . I would also highly recommend anything by Oliver Broadbent often on his eiffelover.com (get the pun?) website.

It seems I have surreptitiously found an existing product design mantra which can be extended to writing and structures!

Anticipating more public speaking #buildingpassions

I’m giving a talk on my book ‘Building Passions’ tomorrow at my local library in Ashford, Kent.

I’ve adapted it a bit from the previous one in Canterbury before Xmas. It will be longer, as my friend Tom won’t be demonstrating how to build a model bridge, so I’ve had to add in some extra content.

I still feel a bit nervous about public speaking as you never know what’s going to happen – from the slides not functioning properly to an audience member asking you questions to which you don’t have answers, or telling you they know more than you about your topic.

However, what matters is that we enjoy ourselves as a group and feel that the time spent has been worthwhile. If people want to buy a copy of the book they are most welcome to, and they will get a personal dedication and a discount, as they have to pay a nominal ticket price to come along (which doesn’t go to me).

I will cover the main personalities in the book, so the Brunel and Barry engineers and architects who I write about, as well as some of my favourite structures such as Tower Bridge and Hotel Tassel. I’m assuming you know the former, but may not know of the latter.

Hotel Tassel, in Brussels, was designed by a Belgian architect called Victor Horta in the early 1890s. I will be visiting it for the first time towards the end of March and am already getting excited about this. Why?

Because it is a landmark in the new style of architecture called ‘Art Nouveau’ which suddenly appeared in Europe at that point in time. The style disappeared equally rapidly before the outbreak of WWI. Fortunately we still have many of the original buildings which have been restored in a number of significant cases.

But what is the link to ‘Building Passions’ you may ask? The book examines the influence of the Brunels and Barrys on ‘modern’ Victorian architecture. It concludes by noting the importance of novel approaches to design and materials in the late 19th Century. This had a global impact, such that in Chicago for example, it led to a unique type of high-rise architecture using steel frames and glass panes which is still with us to this day.

The built environment changes over time, with new design styles emerging according to developing tastes. It is an evolutionary process which sees the fittest options spreading, and the less fit ones sticking to safe niches which either adapt and survive or disappear completely.

From celebrity to outcast: William Bankes MP (1786-1855)

Bankes had travelled with a young Charles Barry in Egypt and then recommended Barry to the Church Commissioners for his first architectural projects in Manchester in the early 1820s. Barry also helped Bankes remodel Soughton Hall.

The History of Parliament

Today’s blog is the second of three posts to celebrate LGBT+ History Month. In this blog we hear from Dr Philip Salmon, Editor of the House of Commons 1832-1868 project, about William Bankes who fled the country to avoid prosecution for homosexual offences …

William Bankes was one of the most famous explorers of Regency England. A swashbuckling early 19th-century ‘Indiana Jones’, his discovery of lost ancient sites in Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia made him a household name. A close friend of Lord Bryon, who deemed him the ‘father of all mischief’ during their student days together at Cambridge University, he was renowned for his risqué wit, remarkable good looks and captivating conversation. He was also a serious scholar. His contribution to the emerging field of Egyptology – especially his work helping to de-cipher Egyptian hieroglyphs – is now widely recognised.

In 2017 Bankes’s sexual orientation became…

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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.

Creativity and norms – why they both matter #buildingpassions

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?