Living up to Brunel's legacy of innovation
Those of you who pass through Paddington Station may have noticed that Isambard Kingdom Brunel's statue has been moved off the main concourse. It now sits in a side exit, on a brick plinth that lacks as much in presence as it does in craft. It is wholly inappropriate that his memory should be marginalised in this way - and of all places at Paddington, where the gwr line terminated.
The breadth and scale of Brunel's work (tunnels, bridges, viaducts, cuttings, docks, railway lines, stations, ships and 'atmospheric' trains - even a hospital) would not be possible today, due to the ever-increasing specialisation and separation of professional and construction disciplines that has taken place. Such diversity of output is an impossibility.
But it is not only the breadth of his achievements that startle - it is the courage, the invention, the innovation and the beauty of his solutions. Beauty as evidenced by the graceful semi-elliptical twin-span bridge at Maidenhead that, even now, carries high-speed Inter-City trains on spans so shallow that sceptics of the day thought it would not stand.
Or the beauty of the Clifton suspension bridge, strung gracefully across the chasm of Avon Gorge. It is when one compares this single span, so delicately hung from chains and cords, with the alternative and crude masonry schemes that were rejected at competition stage, that one realises the potency of Brunel's designs. It is all too easy to take such work for granted - but in its day it was truly breathtaking.
So also was his ss Great Britain, which lies in semi-restored state in Bristol Docks. Her balanced tiller, screw propulsion, and iron hull were each extraordinary innovations for their time. Today, we have to look far for such beauty in the work of engineers, and invention is rarely evidenced in their work. Witness the miserable concrete structures, whether cuttings or bridges along the endless miles of our new north circular road modifications - or the crudeness of the Docklands Railway bridges in the Isle of Dogs, the new design-and-build bridge across the River Severn, the new roadbridge to Skye, or the ugly new Thames crossing at Thurrock. It seems that despite expressing ever-increasing concern about design, this country has lost its touch in the realm of civil engineering.
There are, of course, exceptions. Mark Whitby and Tim MacFarlane are among a few engineers that delight us with the beauty of their designs, but despite this something is clearly lacking overall.
So, as we ponder the plight of Brunel's statue, it is worth considering whether it is the modern training of engineers that has led to a weakened sensibility, or whether it is the procedures of procurement (with the myriad of measurers and project managers) that squeeze every ounce of joy and life out of their work.
Or perhaps it's the patronage. The Department of Transport is hardly a sympathetic outfit to work for. But as Allies and Morrison and John Outram have shown with their pumping stations, and Chris Wilkinson and Future Systems have shown with their bridges, a poetry and delight can still be invoked in civil engineering projects where the will exists. The engineering profession should wake up to this fact.
The interest in its new exhibition at the nec next week (see page 22) suggests it has the self-confidence to do so.