Professor David Blockley
David Ian Blockley is an Emeritus Professor of Civil Engineering University of Bristol, UK. He is a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering and was President of the Institution of Structural Engineers 2001-2. He has written over 170 papers and seven books and has won several technical awards including the Telford Gold Medal of the Institution of Civil Engineers. He is working on his latest book ‘Turning Dreams into Reality: What engineering is and why we need it’ due to be published by Oxford University Press later this year. Porfessor Blockley is also author of the book ‘BRIDGES: The science and art of the world’s most inspiring structures‘, from which he draws inspiration for his keynote address.
Reading Bridges: Structure and Meaning
The frequent outward beauty and elegance of bridges is underpinned by their principal duty to be efficient and effective structures. Bridges are a kind of half-way house between the visible simplicity of the form, structure and function of early tools (like the plough) and the external form but hidden internal structure and function of the ‘black box’ complexity of modern technology (like computers and jet engines). Bridges have become important symbols in social life representing barriers, progress, ‘crossing over’, journeys to hope, and opportunities in business, friendships, and understanding, They are sights/sites where lovers meet, deaths occur and ‘bungee jumping’ thrills can be experienced.
In this address and through various examples, I want to explore how we can learn to ‘read’ what I regard as the source of their symbolism and particularly their beauty – a harmonious blend of form, structure and function. For those that build bridges and the many more that use bridges every day, all can benefit from a deeper understanding of the nature of that harmony and how it allows us to experience the sort of awe and spiritual and emotional uplift we feel when we encounter a wonderful bridge like that of the Millau Viaduct in France or the Salginatobel Bridge in Switzerland.
In the past, engineers have designed bridges with hardly a thought for aesthetics let alone their wider symbolism. Possibly as a consequence, architects are increasingly involved in the design of modern bridges. Both architects and engineers are concerned with form, structure and function – but from different points of view. Architectural form is principally about fulfilling the needs of people and reflecting their aesthetic sensibilities and the relationship to setting. Structural engineering form is about the connecting of parts to make a whole – safely.
In learning to ‘read’ a bridge we are able to examine it so as to identify its purpose, function, matter, form and structure that configure change. We are able to see how beautiful bridges convey the flow of natural forces harmoniously. Furthermore, we are better able to understand the deeper meanings that bridges hold and the lessons they can impart with regard to the complex interdependencies that surround us.
Described by The Guardian as “one of the country’s finest pop culture historians’,
Travis Elborough has been a freelance writer, author and cultural commentator for nearly two decades now. His books include The Bus We Loved, a history of the Routemaster bus; The Long Player Goodbye, a hymn to vinyl records; Wish You Were Here, a survey of the British beside the seaside and London Bridge in America: The Tall Story of a Transatlantic Crossing.
The most recent A Walk in the Park: The Life and Times of a People’s Institution was published by Jonathan Cape in June 2016 and described as ‘a fascinating, informative, revelatory book’ by William Boyd.
With Bob Stanley from Saint Etienne, he also co-wrote the script for How We Used to Live, a BFI archive film directed by Paul Kelly, and premiered at the 2013 London Film Festival.
Elborough was the Chisenhale Gallery Victoria Park Residency artist for 2014-15.
He is one of the judges for the 2017 Notting Hill Editions Essay Prize.
Travis Elborough has also lectured on creative and critical writing at the Arvon Foundation at The Ted Hughes Arvon Centre, Lumb Bank and the Royal College of Art in London.
The Tall Story of A Transatlantic Crossing: How London Bridge Went to America
If it was a question of an Imperium, he said to himself, and if one wished, as a Roman, to recover a little the sense of that, the place to do so was on London Bridge.’ Henry James, The Golden Bowl
‘This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend’ – The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
In 1967 – 50 years ago – The City of London Corporation put London Bridge up for sale. Its purchasers were to be the American McCulloch Oil Corporation with the result that this London landmark was dismantled, shipped across the Atlantic and rebuilt, brick by brick, in a decidedly dry corner of Arizona.
Encompassing 2000 years of the capital’s history and a most unlikely journey of over 5000 miles, in this illustrated talk Elborough relates the remarkable true events that led up to one of the oddest incidents in Anglo-American relations.
Musing on the historical cross-cultural currents that underscored this transatlantic transaction and drawing on his researches into the life and lore of London Bridge and his road-trip to Lake Havasu City, Elborough considers what this sale has to tell us today in the era of Trump and Brexit, about post-industrial heritage, mythic pasts and out and out hucksterism.
Along the way we will encounter bridge-building priests, Fleet Street shysters, revolutionary radicals, frock-coated industrialists, Disneyland designers, Thames dockers, Guinness Book of Records officials, the odd Lord Mayor, gun-toting U.S. sheriffs and an Apache Indian.