Architecture or Engineering?

Jim Eyre

If the architect just chooses the colour of the paint and the engineer taps out a few numbers on a calculator, who actually does the work?

Until recently the domains of the civil engineer and the architect had rarely coincided but increasingly, nowadays, infrastructure and bridge projects have required a cooperation between the two professions. No civil project team today is complete without an architect on board, and there is a growing recognition of the architect's contribution, particularly in a project's early stages, when concepts are in development.

Engineering as a separate, 'stand-alone' discipline began to break away from architecture/building at the end of the eighteenth century, once the Industrial Revolution had got up some steam. This must have been an incredibly exciting time for anyone interested in design, for as a whole technology for infrastructure and transportation started to emerge, there arose with it a demand for new buildings and structure types. An architect at that time would probably have spent most of his time designing private houses or perhaps religious buildings, and a sideways look then, at all the developing new technology, might have seemed rather seductive. In contrast, the architect's diet today is so interesting and varied, that to consider changing disciplines is almost unthinkable.

The early 'engineers' came from other professions: Telford from architecture, Captain Brown (designer of the beautiful Union Bridge over the River Tweed) from the Navy, Finley in Pennsylvania from the judiciary. These people are not only linked by their spirit of invention and a willingness to innovate; they also share an understanding of the importance of aesthetics. Telford's interest in the appearance of his work is documented and his structures are admired the world over for their clarity and beauty, the quality of their engineering and remarkable durability. On the other hand, with his Scottish Presbyterian background, Finley eschewed aesthetics as being somehow a surplus 'add-on'. He little realized at the time, of course, that he was initiating a whole new aesthetic in the process.

In a sense, the very essence of the misunderstanding between civil engineers and architects is revealed in terms of their diverging attitudes to aesthetics. Historically, aesthetics was generally viewed as an 'add-on': the so-called engineering structures that we admire today (principally stations and bridges) were often subjected to aesthetic add-ons merely to make them acceptable for society. Such additions were usually undertaken by architects. Even when Brunel was designing these 'front-of-house' buildings, however, he abandoned the clarity of thinking that characterized his spanning structures for the sake of good manners.

The early engineering pioneers in Britain and America made progress through experiment. They found out what worked by examination and testing and then built it, using intuition and intelligence to progress the technology. The ability to analyse structures properly came much later. The elitist educational system in France produced generations of engineers who believed in the primacy of a theoretical approach to design – and that rooted in mathematical analysis. The science was undoubtedly advanced but there were some expensive failures: Navier's 1826 Pont des Invalides in Paris, for example. According to the great German engineer of our time, Jorg Schlaich, structural engineering really only began to be meaningful as the ability to analyse structures properly was consolidated. Cottancin's stunning Galerie des Machines in Paris (1889) best exemplifies what can be achieved with this new capability. Here the world of engineering is literally turned on its head. All the thick bits of the structure are up in the sky, while the thin bits are near the ground; the structure has learnt to 'float'. Surely this was a defining moment in architectural history.

The world of engineering thrived during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, creating many fine monuments. Indeed, the mid- to late nineteenth century was widely recognized as the 'Age of the Engineer'. These people had almost taken on the status of gods.

What I call the utilitarian nightmare only really began in the 1930s; before this there was always at least an attempt to produce structures characterized by grace and beauty. In the Reichsautobahn structures of the 1930s banality rears its ugly head, along with dullness and repetition.

Engineering's drive to improve efficiency used to go hand in hand with a desire to develop ways of using as little material as possible (for the sake of lightness), which helped to keep costs down when iron was involved. In the twentieth century, however, engineering began to pursue cost savings at the expense of appearance. Issues of value were forgotten while production methods dictated ever more simplistic forms. This resulted in dull structures that did not even reflect generic structural behaviour. It might be argued that the pared-down aesthetic of the Modern Movement led people to believe that such basic forms were all that they needed. Moreover, uglier and uglier structures continued to be justified by the fact that they made better use of public resources. There seems to have been little – if any – regard for the environment.

It is unfortunate that the civil engineering discipline permits a working ethic which can disregard the one part of the design process that cannot be empirically measured. For this abandonment – by some – of aesthetic values not only degrades a structure's appearance, and its contribution to urban design, it also has negative implications in terms of a structure's real environmental impact, its sense of place and its connection with humanity.

Clearly, this creates an opportunity for architects, as these concerns are central to our thinking. Some people maintain that the essential difference between engineers and architects is that engineers are concerned with controlling forces while architects control spaces. Others separate the two professions differently: engineers, they suggest, are responsible for the safety of people through the strength of structures, while architects function in the realm of social wellbeing – the former always a scientific job, the latter always arts-connected.

Having had the chance to talk on several occasions to Roland Paoletti (architect in charge of the Jubilee Line Project) about the roles of engineer and architect, and in the light of his experience working with the great Pier Luigi Nervi – who understood that good engineering needed to be beautiful – it seems that today, in fact, architects are 'controlling the forces' too, by having a significant input into structural form. Certainly, the architects working on the Jubilee Line stations had a major influence in terms of their general arrangement as well as their appearance. It is curious that the architects' work on these stations is sometimes described as the 'finishes' – as if someone else had already engineered the solutions before the architects came along and chose a few finishes. Obviously the realms and roles of the two disciplines is a very grey area. Paoletti pointed out, however, that a civil engineer can 'conceptualize design, quantify, arrange, let and administer the contract and calculate', and surely this is the only essential difference: the architect's inability to undertake the calculations and analysis. Nothing else is the exclusive responsibility of either one or the other.

Moreover, I take great comfort from the fact that none of the many engineers with whom I have worked, who can talk about design and generate ideas, has ever brought out a calculator. Instead they have relied on an intuition informed by knowledge and experience.

Architecture is a process requiring a series of aesthetic choices, each heavily informed by other (sometimes multiple) factors – light, spatial, programmatic, social, structural, climate- or at least weather-related, environmental, technological or economic. Nevertheless, the part of the creative process that generates the relationship between all the components of a building, or the spaces between them, and the way the whole sits with its surroundings, need not be ignored by engineers. And, by the same token, the architect should not ignore the means by which enclosures are achieved. To make architecture out of a structure is not a soft option; the decision to do so, however, is the biggest single factor in asking whether architecture has become engineering.

The engineering profession seems suspicious of any of its own that dares to step outside the safe science of the discipline into the nebulous world of the arts. Calatrava, for instance, is not admired by as many engineers as architects. Unfortunately, it is also possible to detect a mistrust, in some camps, of the architect who uses the expression of structure to define space, as if this is somehow not pursuing a serious theoretical agenda.

At WilkinsonEyre there is an unashamed interest in structures; engineering and structural form are considered a wonderful resource, there to be exploited. At the same time there is a recognition that to use and exploit that resource requires knowledge. I believe that, through talking with engineers, we have developed an intuitive understanding of what will and will not work and there is an appreciation of contrasting lightness/mass and the efficiency of materials. In this way there is little scope for time-wasting – no room for inelegant structures that mock notions of clarity, purity and our understanding of the legibility of structures. Long gone are the days when the fully planned-out architectural proposal was just passed – with no discussion – to the engineer in order for the structure to be built. How could anyone have been so lazy?

The other great resource in the contemporary architect's armoury is computer technology. Suddenly there is available the capacity to draw and navigate a course around shapes with incredible ease; in the past, we could barely have even drawn the shapes. This is as liberating for the architect as was the invention of the flat roof in the early days of the Modern Movement for the future of the plan.

In the dawn of the new technology the pioneer spirit of Telford, Brown et al. is re-emerging. And just as architects can find new ways of doing things, engineers can analyse them more quickly and, with beautiful symmetry, the same technology facilitates new – and more economic – manufacturing methods. What an opportunity to make technology (only the means of doing work, after all) subservient to art.

The new architecture is a dynamic one, full of movement. The new architect has at his/her fingertips the means and resources to push all those involved to their limits – within the framework of a team that, as a whole and individually, has an increasing knowledge of the common goal.

'Is it architecture or engineering?'
The answer is 'Yes.'

This essay originally appeared in the practice monograph 'Bridging Art and Science' (Booth –Clibborn Editions, 2001).