An Offical Entry Submitted to the Kenneth Severn Award 2017 by the Institution of Strcutural Engineers UK (IStructE)
An Essay by Enrico Miguel L. Dalistan, 29 January 2017
Answering the requirements of safety and serviceability almost always come naturally with engineers; because that is exactly what most of us were trained to do. In the context of structural design, safety and serviceability are the main goals together with addressing the constraints of the project budget and schedule. However, once we add the question of beauty and elegance, majority of the time, most engineers would assume that this problem is for the architect to answer. As engineers, we seldom concern ourselves with beauty and elegance, although some of us might have pondered about this at some point, we were conditioned to refer to the architect each time the question arises.
If beauty and elegance come out from simplicity, the question, first and foremost, arises not from the realm of engineering but from art, from aesthetics. This, we all know is a philosophical question. How does one determine if a thing is beautiful? Further, if it is at all, elegant? These are tough questions and even impossible to be answered from a technical standpoint. But we can all agree that an average person even without technical background neither with any education on art of whatever form can identify something as beautiful and elegant. So how do we say if something is beautiful and elegant? The short answer is we don’t. We simply intuit these qualities whether they are present or not. Whether something is beautiful and elegant or not, we cannot easily tell, at least objectively. As humans, we evoke these qualities out from our emotions and experiences. Does this mean that we are doom not to have certain standards of beauty and elegance? No. While these qualities are highly subjective, there exists a popular notion of beauty and elegance; that they are products of simplicity, symmetry and order. Taking it a step further, I say that we should strive to follow nature; more appropriately, the “forces” of nature.
Force Follows Form
I would like to take the tree as an example. The tree is a natural structure. Although it is alive which gives it an advantage (to adapt to its changing environment) over the structures that we build, we can somehow learn a thing or two from it. Try to look at a tree and see it in a purely structural context – the branches act in combination forces of tension or compression and bending. So is the trunk, which is firmly held by the roots below the ground. So we see the tree sways with the wind, as it gracefully resists it. But of course, we cannot make every project into a tree-like structure. But by studying specific forms that handles certain forces quite well, we can produce not only serviceable and safe structures but something more intuitive that can be perceived as beautiful and elegant. It is as if the structure is trying to communicate how it works to handle the forces in its environment including its own weight.
Structural engineers contribute to the beauty and elegance of the built environment by adhering to simplicity as they observe the established laws of physics. We can take a certain structure as beautiful and elegant if they are expressive and intuitive. If it somehow tells us a story of how it came to be; of how it resists and/or transfer certain forces efficiently seemingly from its form alone. Of course, it takes a trained eye to be able to tell. But those who do not have the training in structural mechanics seem to also to catch the same idea by simply looking at the structure. In as much as I would like to expound on it, I am afraid that words are hardly sufficient to give a reasonable description. Nevertheless, I would carry on by illustrating some examples.
Salginatobel Bridge: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Salginatobel_Bridge_mg_4074.jpg
With the advent of sophisticated engineering software programs today, structural engineers are enabled to explore and engage a much wider range of possible solutions which are almost always more complex that simple but efficient solutions are often overlooked. Perhaps one the most relevant examples would be Robert Maillart’s Salginatobel Bridge. It is evident here how Maillart exploited the natural action of the three-hinged arch. But the genius lies on the curvature which follows the assumed distribution of loads on the deck. This also allowed the dramatic reduction of the section towards the foundation. Also, the Cristo Obrero Church in Uruguay by Eladio Dieste, is a thin-shell vaulted structure that utilises curvature to provide stiffness; from the idea that thin structures could have sufficient stiffness derived from folding. In effect, the church arguably stood with elegance. Other good examples could be found in the works of Pier Luigi Nervi. Vaulted ribs, heavy piers and arches; all these tell a story of how they stand and serve their purpose. The non-verbal interaction between the structure and its users or occupants is well expressed.
Cristo Obrero Church: http://www.worldarchitecturemap.org/buildings/cristo-obrero-church
It may or may not have been part of the engineer’s intention to make beautiful and elegant structures in the beginning. They might have been just searching for the most viable solution but these traits are well established with their work nonetheless. Unlike a piece of art, an engineering work is not usually judged by its beauty or form. While it may be the case that a structural engineer’s work is a work of art as well, it could never be considered engineering unless it possesses its required utility. With the principles hitherto discussed, we can contend that beauty and elegance, in structural context, could be judged through simplicity and efficiency. The technical nature of structural engineering enterprise could be taken a step further by staying faithful to these two qualities.
On Pier Luigi Nervi: https://architecturefarm.wordpress.com/2013/11/page/2/
A More Human Approach on Academic and Professional Development
Before I end, I would like to move with some ideas on how make structural engineers more equipped towards this endeavour of striving for beauty and elegance on top of ensuring serviceability and safety.
My educational experience, I think, is not quite unique compared to most structural engineering professionals. A curriculum centred on Mathematics, Physics, especially Mechanics together with subjects on construction and materials science is common; and this is what I had for my academic training. I find this perfectly well in terms of being able to do my job from day to day. However, as I progress in the profession, the work has its tendency to become monotonous. This is not because of the profession itself but due to prevailing culture within engineering environment, especially how knowledge is being passed on from seniors to junior engineers. Often, innovations and new ideas come from younger people but wisdom and conventions are set by more experienced people. I am not trying to generalise this idea but the fact is there exists a certain form of culture within structural engineering profession. Another example is ambivalence towards architects.
As I have said, the type of academic training I had suits me well and it may also be true for others. But I think if we also emphasise more of the subjects within the Humanities, especially Philosophy and History, we would definitely see another breed of structural engineers that could better adapt to the growing needs within the built environment. If this is not possible within the academic circles, it is doable within professional development. This helps in two ways. First, it is primarily the people that we create and develop the built environment for. Understanding our nature as humans, our needs, wants, hopes and aspirations, allows us to connect more with one another. This would definitely enable us to devise solutions that are more human centred. Second, studying the Humanities fosters creativity. Philosophy allows us to engage in abstraction with which we see things that are not obvious otherwise; we link them together forming new connections and ideas that may not have been previously available to us. History teaches us about the past with which we could build and improve our ideas upon. We can learn from mistakes as well as successes. Besides, there is arguably nothing more pleasing to the rational mind than continuity.
Disclaimer: The pictures used in this paper may be subject to copyright. The author does not claim ownership of any of these pictures but merely uses them for commentary purposes (under Fair Use).