Shock of the Old

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When the Centre Georges Pompidou opened 30 years ago, Parisians were shocked. Architects Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers had left the structure of the museum visible rather than hiding it in a concrete shell. That bold stroke was the catalyst for a movement in architecture to make engineering obvious. Today the architects' names are famous, but the engineers from the Ove Arup partnership, who made the construction possible, are barely known outside their profession. We regard architects as the creative brains behind our structures; engineers are mere builders.

In the 19th century it was different: engineers were famous and immensely respected. The men who built the infrastructure of the Industrial Revolution the railways, bridges, factories were household names. One of the most innovative and important of them was Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the designer of some of the landmark achievements of Victorian Britain's transportation system many of which still stand today. The breadth of Brunel's vision can be seen until the end of February at London's Design Museum, where contemporary architects and engineers have mounted an exhibition to assess his legacy.

Born in 1806, Brunel started work when society was eager to extend the uses of new technologies. Though his suspension bridges and railway stations are today his best-known works, he designed 125 other bridges, 25 rail lines, three important ships, as well as numerous docks and piers during a 37-year career.

Brunel approached his projects with energy, meticulous research and originality. Appointed engineer to the Great Western Railway in 1833, he designed every part of the Bristol-to-London line, from trackwork he insisted on a broad 2.14-m gauge to bridges, stations and even lampposts. At the London end Brunel produced one of the earliest and most beautiful of the great railway terminals, Paddington Station, using the then thoroughly modern materials of iron and glass.

Today it is easy to look at the work of the Victorian engineers and forget how innovative they were. One of Brunel's famous bridges, the Royal Albert at Saltash in Cornwall, showed how confidently he could produce a revolutionary design the closed-system suspension bridge in which all the forces are contained within the structure. The 335-m span blends compression arches, wrought iron tension chains and a beam deck, a combination that had never been used on such a scale.

If Brunel's bridges remain the most visible of his works, the most important ones are hidden underwater. His first ship, the wooden-hulled Great Western, propelled by steam-driven paddle wheels, became the first effective transatlantic steamship. His second marine creation, the Great Britain, revolutionized shipping with its iron hull and screw propeller. Early forms of the screw performed inefficiently because they turned too slowly, but Brunel's higher-powered six-bladed propeller, combined with a balanced rudder, was the key feature of a vessel that has been called the mother of all modern ships.

Brunel nevertheless had his failures. His third ship, the Great Eastern, the first to be built with a double hull, was so heavy (18,915 tons) and so long (211 m) that it took three months to launch sideways. The ship then proved too big for all but a few ports on the trade route to India, the task for which it was built. His railway designs also had their problems. He never created a steam locomotive that worked properly, and the broad-gauge track of the Great Western, though technically sound, was ultimately rejected in favor of the narrower gauge in use elsewhere.

Those failures cannot diminish the importance of Brunel's innovative solutions to engineering problems, a genius that still inspires designers and architects to push the boundaries of what is possible, and to do so visibly. And the more they push, the more likely that engineers will achieve fame again.