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Fame and fortune

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Isambard Kingdom Brunel: Recent Works At the Design Museum, Shad Thames, London SE1 until 25 February 2001 (Catalogue £20)

Engineers should count themselves lucky. Most people, we are told, barely recognise the names of major figures such as Henry Purcell, Tom Paine and Alexander Fleming, yet Brunel at least is genuinely famous.

He has a university named after him and a shopping centre, not to mention innumerable sandwich bars and even a removal firm. He is both a popular hero and a figurehead to the engineering profession.

So the Design Museum has chosen wisely, if cautiously, in selecting Brunel for its first exhibition devoted purely to engineering. In keeping with popular opinion, the tone of the show is almost wholly eulogistic.

Starting with the Thames Tunnel (a father and son project) and ending with the Royal Albert Bridge in Saltash, it focuses on six well-known Brunel achievements. Each is presented through original drawings and artefacts, photographs and models, plus a commentary from a contemporary guru. So, for instance, we get Jane Wernick on the Renkioi Hospital in the Dardanelles and Nick Grimshaw on Paddington: Grimshaw has also designed the exhibition in a logical and unfussy sequence.

This idea of incorporating project assessments might, in the wrong hands, have ended up like six prize-giving orations, but here it works extremely well.

The commentaries bring alive Brunel's problem-solving mentality, and they incite the reader to engage with the displays in a manner that most exhibitions singularly fail to do. Whether they demonstrate the contemporary relevance of Brunel's projects is another matter.The exhibition, sub-titled 'Recent Works', proclaims that relevance, yet the more we know about Brunel the more we realise that a unique set of circumstances helped make him what he was.

The pedagogic method works particularly well in two of the displays.Tony Hunt analyses the bowstring trusses of the Saltash Bridge, highlighting the beauty of their engineering logic. Alongside his words are some of the construction photographs (see picture) plus, even more amazing, drawings of the erection sequence from the Railtrack records: why have we been denied sight of these momentous documents for so long? There is, in addition, a newly-made model of the bridge but that is spoilt by the omission of the cross bracing, the importance of which Tony Hunt is at pains to emphasise.

Secondly, there is the section on the Renkioi Hospital, probably the least well-known of Brunel's projects because of its location and its short life. In the face of national outrage about the condition of the injured in the Crimean War, Brunel's brother-in-law, Benjamin Hawes of the War Office, turned to him to produce a portable hospital to be shipped out and erected as soon as possible.

Brunel worked with typical speed and attention to detail. Within weeks he issued a specification for a series of timber pavilions, itemising the size of every component, plus the nails, screws, spikes and tools to be used in erection. As Jane Wernick points out, this was a pioneering indeterminate project - a model for future hospital developments.

But what is missing from even the best of these displays is a sense of the relationships which made them possible. Brunel was blessed to have lived at a time when 'the moneyed interest' shared his unswerving faith in technical progress. How otherwise could he have survived so many setbacks and failures? And he was fortunate that his impossibly high-handed manner towards those he worked with was also tolerated, because there were few who were in a position to challenge his role.

However much we wish to emulate his inventiveness and curiosity, those historical circumstances will probably never be repeated.

Now that the Design Museum has celebrated the most renowned of engineers, how about a few more? Telford, Roebling, Maillart and many others would make good subjects, and one day it may be possible to get beyond the cult of personality to deal with engineering ideas on their own.

Robert Thorne works at Alan Baxter & Associates and is the author of Structural Iron and Steel 18501900

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