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Engineering reassumes a proper role

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One of the welcome developments at the design end of the construction industry in recent years has been the increasingly fruitful relationship between architects and engineers - and not just the structurals, but across the board. A new self-confidence among the engineering profession is one reason for its first-ever fully-fledged exhibition, taking place at the National Exhibition Centre next week (19-21 May, ticket hotline 0123 426467 - it's free for aj readers). Everything from soil mechanics to major bridge designs will be on display, reminding us that the giants who created the uk construction industry were more likely to be engineers than anything else.

Martin Pawley would no doubt argue that engineers produce more 'authentic' buildings and structures than architects, because their field of activities is more focused, and less subject to the interference of the planning system and the heritage lobby (art historians). Oil rigs look as they do because there is no need for them to do any more than fulfil the function of an oil rig. Ditto communications masts; interestingly, the problem facing the Orange group over the latter has led it to invest in a programme to design 'landmarks' incorporating the said masts, to make them acceptable in those locations where planners/conservationists are in control.

There is a problem about the authenticity/ functionalism argument, however: the definition of function. Is it true that the only purpose of a bridge is to get people from one side to the other? Not necessarily, any more than the Sydney Opera House was just an auditorium in which you could perform operas. The function of a building or structure need not simply be to fulfil its primary purpose; there may be a wider programme (and a bigger budget). That is why a folly can serve a function and be truly authentic - without being of any social purpose whatever. In the case of architects and engineers, what we seek in their creative combination is a formula where one plus one definitely makes more than two - and has a social purpose as well.

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