A solid week of building science and technology history and geekery in Brussels, where the 6th International Congress on Construction History has just finished. After helping to organize 5ICCH in Chicago, this was the first Congress in a while where the Americans were able to relax and fully enjoy, and the range of papers, tours, and discussions was, as you’d expect, well worth the trip.
The field really does feel like it’s maturing, with the majority of the papers coming from graduate students or at least young faculty who are bringing energy, fresh ideas, and impressive findings with them. There were still plenty of familiar faces, but I was impressed at how many new names there were on the podium and in the audience–a sign that looking back at how our construction and engineering technologies have evolved over time is proving itself as a topic of inherent interest. It’s clear that there are distinct lines of inquiry–stone vaulting, history of contracting and administration, thin-shell concrete, skeletal iron, and vernacular building in general–that have formed consistent camps. All of these topics were well-represented, and some offered genuine fireworks. But there are also plenty of unexplored, or fresh finds as well. And new territories.
Belgium has been one of the most active centers of CH for a while, now, thanks to active programs at several universities–Antwerp, Leuven, and Brussels all participated in organizing the conference, and were all well represented by students and faculty giving papers. But it also proved to be a rich venue for examples of iron construction, infrastructure, timber roofs, etc.–all of which have large fan bases in the field. I played hooky one afternoon to get a walking tour of Victor Horta sites in, and was happily surprised at how technically rich much of his ‘ornamental’ ironwork is–Sullivanian in both its complexity and, once you see how it was done–its simplicity.
There were at least three highlights that will stick with me. The first was the buzz over a paper by Aleksandra Kosykh and Konrad Frommelt, done under the supervision of Werner Lorenz at Cottbus, that revealed an iron truss in the roof of the Marble Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia, from 1770–a decade or two earlier than any previously documented iron truss in France or anywhere else. Lorenz himself gave a similarly stunning keynote talk that summarized the project he’s had for the last dozen or so years on the lost bronze truss of the Pantheon’s portico roof, just in case anyone thought that the idea was born first in the 18th century. His research has ranged from digital reconstruction based on a demolition drawing by Borromini (!) to having local blacksmiths cold-hammer rivets made from the same bronze formula as the single known surviving rivet from the truss itself–and it’s shown definitively that Bernini did not, in fact, use the bronze for the baldacchino in St. Peter’s. (It went into cannons in the Castel Sant’Angelo, instead). The details will be published in an upcoming article in Construction History.
And, finally, the week’s last keynote was by Tullia Iori, of Roma Tre University, on the long research arc of the SIXXI program there, which is producing a comprehensive history of structural engineering in Italy during the twentieth century. The talk was partly an elegy for Sergio Poretti, who co-led the project until his sudden death last summer. The research that they and their students have produced has been insightful, the work they’ve studied almost universally beautiful, and the presentation heartfelt. Tullia and Sergio were two of the first scholars I met doing the Nervi research in Rome and they were enormously generous and helpful in steering Beauty’s Rigor. Sergio is much missed, but it was clear that SIXXI will continue to explore one of the field’s richest moments.
Heading to Boston next for IASS 2018. Conference season in full swing, but Brussels will be hard to top. Thanks to all the organizing staff and leaders of 6ICCH for a memorable and historic week.