Magazine article The Spectator

Hero for Our Time

Magazine article The Spectator

Hero for Our Time

Article excerpt

The Design Museum has surely never looked more coolly elegant. A row of fat red columns runs down the centre of the exhibition space, dividing it into bays in which models, engineering drawings and photographs of selected examples of Isambard Kingdom Brunel's colossal and varied achievement are displayed. The only jarring note comes when it is realised that the show is sponsored by Railtrack, that incompetent and unworthy successor to the enterprises responsible for the heroic Railway Age. But perhaps it is not so inappropriate, as Brunel himself made great mistakes as well as being involved in ruthless and often blinkered private enterprise. His original track design for the Great Western didn't work; the `atmospheric railway' system adopted in South Devon was an expensive catastrophe; and he was no good at designing locomotives. Even so, between London and Bristol he laid out and built the finest stretch of main line railway in Britain on which, today, despite poorly managed track and signalling, high speeds are sometimes achieved even by the company which besmirches the once-great name of Great Western.

What with the shameful national collapse of the railway system since the Hatfield crash, it is good to be reminded of the colossal technical and moral achievement of the pioneer railway builders to whom we remain in debt. Also, with the superstar status of `High Tee' architects posturing as engineers, an exhibition about Brunel is timely. He lived at a time when architecture and engineering were still close, and this shows in his structures - is there any metal roof more beautiful than that over Paddington Station? Brunel is certainly an inspiration and, if we must have heroes, he fits the bill - especially with his unusual and euphonious full name. In a hectic life of 53 years, he built not just magnificent railways but suspension bridges and pioneering transatlantic steamships. He was also - as Adrian Vaughan's revisionist biography emphasised - arrogant, tyrannical and difficult to work with. The photograph of a raffish Brunel smoking a cigar in front of the giant chains for the Great Eastern steamship is one of the most powerful images of the 19th century just as the description of the dying engineer lying on a couch on a special railway wagon being slowly drawn across the Tamar to inspect his last great bridge is one of the most poignant.

The exhibition is accompanied by a wellillustrated book containing (with the exception of that on Paddington Station) some stimulating essays perfectly accessible to the non-engineer. …

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