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John Burland CBE FREng

John Burland and the Tower of Pisa Courtesy of James Hunkin

The italian job

The summons to help with the tower was one of the many coincidences that have shaped John’s life. It all started in 1990 when he received a call one day from a friend who lived in Italy. The customary “How are you?” greeting didn’t get the usual cheery answer. Instead his friend said “I was fine until I opened today’s newspapers and found that I was chairing a committee to decide how to prop up the Tower of Pisa.”

“Commiserations,” said John. “Save them for yourself,” came the reply, “the paper names you too!” It was only later that the formal invitation came from Rome to undertake the first of his journeys to Italy to work out how to prevent the tower from collapsing.

The rest is history, and very well described on the tower’s own website. Even before he was called to Buckingham Palace to collect his CBE, he had received a couple of Italian “knighthoods,” along with another letter from Buckingham Palace granting him permission to wear the medals in the UK.

While John is justifiably proud of his achievements in Pisa and elsewhere, he is happier talking about the project as an example of just what it is that makes engineers tick. Straightening the Leaning Tower – enough to stop it from falling over without making it so vertical that visitors felt cheated – needed a thorough understanding of soil mechanics. Not bad going for someone who confesses that soil mechanics was his worst subject as an undergraduate studying Civil Engineering at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa (his family had moved out there after the Second World War). John puts this early lapse down to teachers who “bored the hind legs off everybody”.

When it came to finding an MSc project, John wanted to work on hydrology. Chance intervened once more as the university couldn’t run the course that year, so his professor suggested a soil mechanics project. It was only then that the boredom evaporated. “Once you start to get into a subject, then you really become interested in it,” he says.

Going underground

The next move in John’s career came via another twist of fate when Jack Zunz recruited him to work for Ove Arup. Sir Jack, as he later became, told John that the job would end his work on soil mechanics. “It will be structures from now on,” he warned. Wrong. Within days of joining the firm, a major project came up – Britannic House in London, with a basement that needed expertise in soil mechanics. With little inhouse knowledge to call upon, John found himself in demand.

After a couple of years in industry, John decided that he hadn’t quite finished with academic life, so he went to Cambridge to study for a PhD. Once again, chance took over. On this occasion it was a coincidence of timing and science. ‘Plasticity’ was taking off as a research subject and was influencing many areas of applied mechanics, including geotechnics.

Armed with a PhD, John then moved into the public sector, to the Building Research Establishment (BRE). Currently a privatised contract research business, BRE was once a government-run research laboratory. John is still involved with the organisation’s current commercial incarnation, as one of the trustees of the charitable organisation that owns the company.

At one time BRE was one of many government-funded research labs, working on projects that were of immediate interest to people trying to turn science into technology. These labs are now an almost extinct species in the UK, something that upsets John. “It is crazy to stop doing that sort of research. At its best government research has been absolutely superb. The research establishments were reservoirs of expertise available to the nation.”

Public knowledge, private enterprise

The trouble started when the government decided that there should be a ‘customer– contractor’ relationship between the suppliers and ‘consumers’ of research in government departments. “I could see the writing on the wall,” says John. “Government departments were beginning to take more and more power for themselves.” The concept, he says, “looks eminently reasonable. But the average policy-maker in Whitehall is really not interested in research.” Today, he adds, there is very little understanding of civil engineering in the Department of Trade and Industry, the department responsible for sustaining British industry, despite this area being one of the UK’s major engineering successes.

Sure, John agrees, universities can pick up some of the work, but they don't have the continuity that comes with an established lab which does not rely on a constant flow of PhD students to do much of the research. “The work that I did at BRE would never be funded today,” says John. He quotes such long-term ventures as the instrumentation that went into the London Underground or the work on the car park below the Palace of Westminster: “We didn’t have to go up before a customer committee in Whitehall before getting agreement to go ahead.” The end result, though, was seminal work that civil engineers throughout the world still turn to when they set out to dig tunnels and other holes in the ground.

It is much harder to undertake such projects now and John has direct experience of this. He had to pick his way through a minefield of bureaucracy to monitor 30 buildings on the extension to the Jubilee Line of the London Underground. “The amount of work involved in getting that project together was unbelievable.”

Administration no more

By the time Whitehall’s committees really began to influence BRE, John had moved on to Imperial College to become Professor of Soil Mechanics. At that point he had reached the position of Assistant Director at BRE. “I had to decide if I wanted to become an administrator or stay with my subject," he explains. Civil engineering won out.

The move into the academic world was not the sudden release needed to get on with research. In a university you face different challenges, not least the tension between teaching and research.

But John is not one of those academics who sees teaching as a distraction from research. Far from it, he has campaigned to get proper recognition of teaching, even though excellence in teaching has none of the money-raising power that the research assessment exercise (RAE) bestows on research excellence. John is proud of his success in persuading Imperial College, no slouch at playing the RAE game, to enhance the promotion prospects of academics who show excellence in teaching. Well, not ‘teaching’, a word that carries its own baggage: John prefers the tag ‘education’. Here he acknowledges the support of the Rector of Imperial, Sir Richard Sykes, an honorary Fellow of The Royal Academy of Engineering who “backed the idea to the hilt.”

The move also went down well with Imperial’s medics, says John, who sees a lot of similarities between engineering and medicine. As well as the applied nature of the knowledge, there are parallels in the professional nature of their trades. But John is dead against the idea that education is all about cramming into students the knowledge they need to pursue careers.

“A university is not an instructional institution, it is an educational institution,” says John. So he is less than enthusiastic about tagging on to courses detailed classes on the nuts and bolts of health and safety, for example. Then there is the pressure from some, but by no means all, companies to teach business management.

Learn to create

John understands the demands to teach vocational skills, but he would not want these to replace the essential mindset. “We are not a technical college.” At university, he explains, “you are freeing the mind to do the essentials. You can pick up the professional stuff, codes and regulations for example, later.” As he puts it, quoting Sir Charles Inglis, an earlier role model, “The heart and soul of a university education is instilling the habit of mind that you retain after you have forgotten everything that you were taught. ”After all, information taught today soon becomes out of date.

If you want students to understand the importance of health and safety, he says, teach them about risk. Then they will realise that ticking all the check boxes in a safety case can still end up in something that goes wrong. “I can think of a few projects that have gone through all the quality assurance, but still fell down”, he says, because no one had asked those important “What if ?” questions.

As well as leaving university inculcated in a certain way of thinking, students should also depart with the ability to communicate: “If you cannot express yourself clearly, you are not thinking clearly.”

Indeed, communications in general is, says John, “something else I feel passionate about”. And he manages to create a link with another of his passions, golf. When worrying about communicating with the public, engineers should understand why Arnold Palmer was such a crowd puller. Some golfers play like machines, boring boring, says John. Palmer intrigued the crowds because he managed to get himself into trouble, and out of it.

Tunnel vision

“Crowds will relate to people facing a dramatic situation,” says John, whose own retirement has not allowed him as much time on the golf course as he would have liked. John says that it was when thinking about Palmer’s popularity that it dawned on him that there is a large amount of engineering that is challenging day to day. “If you are digging a tunnel you come across the unexpected. But we don’t tell the public about this. We don’t even tell one another,” he adds.

Perhaps displaying his failure to catch up with today’s Lego world, John complains that it is all too easy to convey the message that engineering is like Meccano: “Unless you can convey the day-to-day challenge of it, the public will think it is all done by numbers. We fail to get across to the public what an exciting, creative and challenging professions this is.”

That’s why the phone call from Italy turned out to be such a great opportunity. “I could open up on TV a view on the real challenges we face. It was a wonderful platform for talking about engineering and getting people interested.”

More recently, John exercised his own communication skills on TV as an on-air pundit in the Geronimo! series, which according to the BBC “threw down the gauntlet to industry, schools, universities and anyone who has ever fancied themselves as an inventor or designer”.

It didn't work out as planned, much more rushed and “seats-of-the-pants stuff” than expected, but, ever the optimist, John draws encouraging lessons from the exercise. He decided to enter into the fun and talk about why the participants had done what they did and, perhaps more importantly, to talk about how to fix things when they went wrong. “That is what engineering is all about. It hardly ever works first time. The important thing is to learn from setbacks, big or small”, says John.

Talking the talk

Clearly there are lessons here for engineers. TV teaches you to be simple and flexible. Engineers, says John, should learn how to communicate properly. “You can't expect the public to understand the complexity of engineering.”

But John’s optimism kicks in again when he says “our media coverage is improving”. There have been some great TV programmes and like many engineers he highlights Jeremy Clarkson’s passionate promotion of Brunel as a “great Briton”. Some universities point to this programme as contributing to recent successes in recruiting engineering students. John agrees that the programmes “did us a power of good”. But engineers cannot afford to relax, he warns. Yes, student numbers may be rising again. “But the job is never done,” John insists. “You have to keep working at it.”

John certainly lives up to his own exhortation. He is Vice President of the Institution of Civil Engineers, as well a member of this year’s Evaluation Committee for the MacRobert Award, not to mention his role in guiding the content of Ingenia. Clearly, then, John Burland is still active in more institutions than is good for his golf handicap.


1936 Born 4 March in Buckinghamshire. Educated at Parktown Boys’ High School, Johannesburg. 1958 Graduates in Civil Engineering from the University of Witwatersrand. 1961 Joins Ove Arup and Partners, London. 1968 Completes PhD research at University of Cambridge and joins the Building Research Establishment,Watford. 1972 Head of Geotechnics Division at BRE. 1980 Professor of Soil Mechanics, Imperial College London. 1989 Kelvin Medal for distinguished service in the application of science to engineering. 1990 Italian Prime Minister’s Commission for stabilising the Leaning Tower of Pisa. 1997 Gold Medal of the Institution of Structural Engineers. 2001 Gold Medal of the Institution of Civil Engineers. 2002 Becomes President, Engineering Section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. 2002 Becomes Vice President of the Institution of Civil Engineers. 2003 ‘Commendatore’ of the ‘Ordine della Stella di Solidarieta Italiana’. 2003 The Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran Prize of the Foundation for Science and Technology. 2005 Commander of the British Empire (CBE).

Biography – Michael Kenward OBE

Michael Kenward OBE has written about technology for 35 years. A freelance writer for the past 15 years and currently a member of the Ingenia Editorial Board, he previously worked on New Scientist for 20 years and edited the magazine in the 1980s.

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