A Tower of strength and an inspirational example

January 7, 2005

In a league table of hobbies from hell, taking responsibility for protecting two of the world's most iconic and irreplaceable buildings from collapse due to subsidence must come close to the top.

But this is just how John Burland, who has been appointed a CBE in the New Year Honours, has enjoyed himself for years. The British academic was engaged in stopping the Leaning Tower of Pisa from toppling over and Big Ben from dropping into the deep pit of Westminster Underground station.

"Yes, Pisa was 12 years of high-profile stress, all while doing the day job. But, you see, it was my hobby," Professor Burland said.

The day job was, until recently, professor of soil mechanics at Imperial College London, where he is now emeritus professor.

Professor Burland's enthusiasm for his hobby is self-evident as he talks of the two projects - his task at Westminster being to stop the giant clock tower sliding into the deep excavations made to accommodate the Jubilee Line extension - as mirror images of each other.

"At Pisa, we reduced the inclination by taking soil from under the high side, and at Westminster we pumped in grout beneath the side that was settling," he said.

Professor Burland makes it sound simple, but he is one of what he calls "a small fraternity" in the world with the expertise and experience to carry out such work.

Imperial has a strong engineering faculty, but as vice-president of the Institution of Civil Engineers, Professor Burland is concerned by falling student enrolments and engineering course closures at other institutions.

"Engineering is not properly recognised in this country," he said.

"If this continues, then very quickly the state of the infrastructure deteriorates and the jungle sets in."

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