Monday, 16 August 2010

Hitting the right note

It’s Proms season again, that extraordinary eight weeks of glorious classical music, old favourites, challenging new works and exuberant audiences. With tickets starting at a fiver and the entire programme transmitted live on BBC radio and television, it is a mystery that anyone can describe this joyful summer event as elitist (as Margaret

Hodge claimed in 2008 when Minister for Culture). A mystery nearly as great as the widespread misconception about the skills and contribution of engineering.

The Proms take place in the vast edifice of the Royal Albert Hall, one of the most extraordinary buildings in London. A building that was designed and delivered by an extraordinary man, the engineer Major-General Henry Young Darracott Scott. “Goodness me,” whittered BBC presenter Christopher Cook, in a Proms interval feature between a typically eclectic mix of Stockhausen, Birtwhistle and Schumann. “Why appoint an engineer?"

Fortunately renowned architect Max Hutchinson was on air to provide a robust answer. “Thank goodness that it was!” he replied. “Engineers got things done, like the Crystal Palace for example. Just look at the roof of the Royal Albert Hall, the span is enormous, just like an airport terminal - an extraordinary achievement in the mid 19th Century.”

This support came from a rather unexpected quarter - many engineers have become resigned to seeing their creative efforts overshadowed by their architectural colleagues - but it transpired that Max Hutchinson’s father was a military engineer, like Darracott Scott. “There’s something about an engineer that makes him a hero. Back in the 19th Century people would have trusted Brunel to extract teeth,” he went on.

Whilst listening to this spirited support of the engineering profession, I was reminded of two visits to

the Royal Albert Hall that combined wonderful music with technical ingenuity. Back in 1969, I attended the concert to inaugurate the installation of the mushroom shaped baffles suspended high above the arena in an effort to improve the notoriously tricky acoustic. (I should say here in defence of Darracott Young that the hall was not originally intended to stage concerts.)

Then some thirty years on, I enjoyed a fascinating tour of the dome and the newly created cavernous basement area, followed by supper and a Prom concert enjoyed from the comfort of one of the capacious boxes. The tour was led by structural engineer Michelle McDowell, who as a director of the international multi-disciplinary firm BDP (Building Design Partnership) was responsible for the renovation works at the Royal Albert Hall.

Michelle’s impressive career in engineering has been rightly recognised this year, with a string of honours and awards. In January she became the first woman to chair the Association of Consultants and Engineers, in June she was awarded the MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours and then in July was announced First Woman of Property by Lloyds TSB and the CBI.

So whilst I appreciated the spirited and informative contribution to the debate by Max Hutchinson, I couldn’t help thinking that it would have been rather more satisfying for the BBC to ask an engineer, rather than an architect, to talk about the engineer who delivered the Royal Albert Hall. Perhaps even the woman engineer responsible for the £70m renovation project, including the basement in which the radio programme was being recorded. A sign of the times perhaps. In the 21st Century engineers are rarely seen as heroes - let alone heroines.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Crazy scientists and Mad Men

A dispiriting week for those who thought that the new, business friendly ConLib administration would bring a fresh approach to career aspiration for girls. It started well enough, at the launch of the UKRC report Women mean Business at the House of Commons where LibDem Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone spoke strongly in support of the need to attract and retain more women in science, engineering and technology. She said, “There unfortunately exists a culture in some circles of science – reminiscent of how workplaces were 20 or 30 years ago – which puts off women from pursuing a career in the industry, and makes it extremely hard for those who work in these occupations to progress.”

So it was a pity that the Minister chose to illustrate her speech with shock horror stories that were almost as old as the workplace culture she was criticising. She regaled us with the comment made by a Russian cosmonaut to astronaut Helen Sharman back in 1991 (space is not for women, apparently), referred to the ‘recent’ US experiment with schoolchildren drawing scientists (all eccentric men with crazy hair) which was carried out by the University of Leicester ten years ago and repeated the comment made by Larry Summers when President of Harvard (women haven’t got the brains for maths and science) back in 2005.

No mention of the fact that just days earlier another Harvard luminary, Professor Niall Ferguson, presented a lecture at St Paul’s Cathedral entitled Men, Money and Morality: How can trust in banking be restored, during which he commented that, “It was men, not women, who made the financial crisis.” Or that a month ago NASA successfully sent into space three women astronauts, to join a fourth already circulating the planet on the International Space Station. Or that there is now a woman in the Thunderbirds team or the UK’s Red Arrows. Or the number of female presenters on the increasing number of science and engineering programmes on tv.

Instead the following week we hear from the Equalities Minister that the actress Christina Hendricks is an “absolutely fabulous” role model for girls. Hendricks, a curvaceous size 14 actress, plays the role of predatory secretary in Mad Men, the tv series about the world of advertising in the 1960s. As more than one commentator has remarked, the new minister seems to be rather behind the times – something the world of science and engineering cannot afford to be.

Angela for President!

Great news this week. Angela Brady has been elected President of the Royal Institute of British Architects. Not only is Angela a talented architect, she is a charming, determined, entrepreneurial and dynamic ambassador for the profession at all levels. A persuasive and engaging presenter, she has appeared frequently on tv and radio, is a tireless committee member, judge and external examiner.

And yes, like the other successful women reaching the top of royal institutions (including her immediate predecessor Ruth Reed), she runs her own successful practice. Brady and Mallalieu was set up in 1987 and has an impressive portfolio and private and public sector clients.

The headlines from Angela’s election manifesto are unequivocal, stating her commitment to:

  • Effective campaigning to promote the value architects and quality architecture should have in our society.
  • Championing all architects and the smaller practice to increase work opportunities and simplify procurement frameworks.
  • Increasing national and global networks between all professions in the construction industry
  • Tackling climate change locally and nationally and promoting sustainability in schools and to the public
  • Valuing Architectural Education
  • A younger and more diverse RIBA which reflects this era and the majority of its members.