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When engineers get the knife out, they can be worse than architects

Serious competitions with serious winners should not be the subject of professional sniping says Paul Finch

There is a mythical image of the structural engineer as a sensible, pipe-smoking chap who keeps a low profile and goes around making sure things don’t fall down.

These days, especially in the UK, the role of the engineer is far more proactive, frequently working with the architect as part of a creative coalition. Nowhere is this more true than bridge design, but all is not happy in that part of the engineering world which still believes that dreary Freeman Fox box girders were all that were ever required. In particular, knives have been sharpened over the competition-winning design by Stephen Spence and engineer Techniker, which has recently gone out to tender, for the New Wear Crossing in Sunderland.

An aggressive little campaign has tried to undermine the competition by saying that a cheaper bridge could have been procured, and that the handsome-looking winner is inappropriate for these times of austerity, even though it will be built to last 120 years. Various engineers (who didn’t win the competition) plus ‘consultants’ who weren’t appointed have been moaning.

It may be paranoia, but it’s hard to ignore the timing of a new publication by the International Association of Bridge and Structural Engineers, which issues some dire warnings about inappropriate competitions while also outlining some perfectly reasonable advice on how to run a good one. It has been produced under the chairmanship of Naeem Hussain of Arup (who had to keep quiet about having studied at the Architectural Association early in his career because it annoyed engineering employers - perhaps this sense of engineers being frustrated designers is at the heart of all this).

The report has been partly interpreted by AJ sister title New Civil Engineer (NCE) as an attack on the New Wear crossing because of phrases that refer to the importance of having independent structural engineers overseeing competitions for occasional or one-off clients. Actually this one had two independent audits before and after the competition.

An NCE interview with Hussain reads like a thinly veiled attack on ‘arty’ structures. There is little discussion of the document itself, which has faults as an advisory compendium. Bridges are illustrated, which we are presumably supposed to think are examples of good structural design procured as a result of competitions. A few are captioned as such, but they are a small minority and no explanation is offered as to why the competitions were so successful.

Photographs in the section on what to avoid are (I think) still supposed to be examples of good stuff, but who knows? No costs are given. There is no information about the nature of the competitions, or about the beneficial or otherwise outcomes of what is shown (in beautiful architectural images).

Bridge

Curiously, images of Foster and Arup’s ‘wobbly bridge’ are featured. Why? To illustrate that if it all goes wrong the engineers will stump up the money to put it right? Or that architecture and engineering never really mix? That a conventional box girder would have been preferable? Or that Sunderland shouldn’t get ideas above its station?

Serious competitions with serious winners should not be the subject of professional sniping. The reason architects have become involved in bridges, generally working very happily with structural designers, is that clients and public were fed up with the incredibly uninspiring diet of crossings fed to us for about 40 dismal post-war years.

It is time for the structural design fraternity to let New Wear take its place in bridge history, and assess the results calmly - while smoking (these days) an entirely metaphorical pipe.

Readers' comments (2)

  • Paul Finch's opinion piece is typically pugnacious but it raises an important point about the long term value of design among the unnecessary brickbats aimed at the engineering profession, where widespread debate about design, cost and value is rather more than "sniping".

    The New Wear Crossing is an example of a competition where the client Sunderland Council had a very clear idea of what they wanted, as evidenced by two earlier failed attempts to secure an "iconic" steel and glass bridge designed by Frank Gehry and Schlaich Bergermann, and have pursued this ambition for nearly a decade. In the meantime the world has changed, although this is not the fault of the designers Techniker and Spence Associates who responded best to the brief at the time but whose design is increasingly criticised as anachronistic. In terms of structural design it is undoubtedly illogical, but would there be such a reaction had the economic climate remained buoyant or if this flamboyant design was relocated to Saudi Arabia or Qatar, for example? After all, Calatrava has been successfully applying this lucrative formula for years and there are numerous examples of similarly structurally adventurous bridge designs currently being progressed around the world, mostly led by engineers rather than architects.

    This is not to be an apologist for the design of the New Wear Crossing, which perhaps will be seen as the last UK example of a post-modern trend for "iconic" bridge designs, but the real issue is one of changing context – cultural as well as financial – and not necessarily just of design. However, good designers have nothing to fear from criticism and in returning fire on engineers in general, and the well-respected Naeem Hussain in particular, Paul Finch has reinforced stereotypical divisions between the architecture and engineering professions. Properly organised design competitions do produce excellent design and the IABSE guidelines are a genuine and worthwhile attempt to procure this excellence. Unfortunately, linking the new IABSE guidelines and the eight year old design for New Wear Crossing is simply mischievous.

    In the realm of infrastructure there is a profound need to raise the quality of design and the IABSE document is an important step forward. It is to be hoped that the RIBA embraces these guidelines as an opportunity to work more closely with the engineering profession. In doing so, architects will contribute more to ensuring the infrastructure legacy that will be a major and unexpected benefit of this recession is of the highest quality. Whether New Wear Crossing will be part of that legacy remains to be seen, however in encouraging joined-up, timely and critical debate we are more likely to achieve long-lasting, high quality solutions which are also in tune with our time.

    Martin Knight
    Knight Architects

    Unsuitable or offensive?

  • As an architect co-author of the IABSE Bridge Competition Guidelines I would like to offer a comment on Paul Finch’s piece. IABSE guidelines go back to a Henderson colloquium held in Cambridge in 2007, and it is important to note that the guidelines were authored by both engineers and architects who share passion for bridge design. In a 2010 ICSA conference keynote paper: ‘Architectural values, altruism and innovation in a changing world’ Ian Ritchie said “Intelligent, social and selfless architectural expression capable of the most marvellous and spiritually uplifting engineering structures must challenge turn-of the-century stunt-making architectural gymnastics”. The musician Nadia Boulanger said - "Great art likes chains. The greatest artists have created art within bounds. Or else they have created their own chains." If we treat design as art, including bridge design, should we not be creating our own ‘chains’ when they are not provided for us by others ? If so – what kinds of ‘chains’ result in the best bridge designs? IABSE guidelines are intended to help both clients and designers to create parameters within which masterpieces can be created, and frivolity avoided. As for the Wear Bridge, the Sunderland City Council web site states that the revised cost of this bridge is now some £133m, three times the original budget. A recent pdf document that can be found on www.newsunderlandbridge.com states : “This unique and challenging bridge concept has pushed the boundaries of engineering in order to maintain the architect’s vision.” This is exactly what the objection is to - “maintaining” unchained ‘architectural visions’ not based in the real world, and doing so at any cost. The world is moving forward into a new, lean, efficient paradigm, based on ethics and responsibility, dignity and respect for common sense. This does not exclude beauty. There was not a gram of wasted material on the Concord or the Spitfire, yet the beauty and functionality of these manmade objects was breath-taking…

    Cezary M Bednarski
    Studio Bednarski Ltd

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