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Interview: The Essence of Engineering

Sam Price and Max Fordham discuss the Essence of Engineering

AJ: How do we begin to define the ‘essence of engineering’?

Sam: Well, excellent engineering should be simple, elegant and appropriate. It’s instructive to compare, say, the Sydney Opera House with Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. The Sydney Opera House started with Jørn Utzon’s sketch of shapes and Arup tried to do them as concrete shells, but couldn’t. Then somebody came up with the idea that with very little change, the shapes could be cut out of a sphere. Suddenly they were founded on a simple idea - which is, I think, the essence of engineering.

The Gehry building in Bilbao is an interesting crumpled box. Inside there’s a tangle of incoherent steelwork forced to fit to an intellectually unresolved idea. The engineer has no chance of making sense of it. Good engineering has to be inherent in the form; you can tell just by looking at buildings when it’s not right. Engineering must be an inevitable and inherent part of the architecture.

Max: I criticise the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in exactly these terms. Behind the shapes it’s a jumble of nuts and bolts.

With the wealth of society increasing, every rich group wants to become noticed by making sensational buildings. Our criticism is in two parts: the first is aiming for sensation too often on too many buildings; the second is the abandonment of an elegant economy of means. But there are, too, lots of really nice examples around, where everything clicks.

Wooden model showing a ‘geometrical solution for the shells’, Sydney Opera House, Sydney by Jørn Utzon, 1961

Sam: One being Arup Associates’ Mining and Metallurgy building [1966], for the University of Birmingham. This is a heavily serviced laboratory where you, Max, designed the services.

Max: Yes, it set out to resolve the relationship between structure, services and architecture, and it’s absolutely marvellous in so many ways. The organisation of vertical and horizontal services was meticulously worked out.

Sam: It involved thinking about how the thing was going to be made, which is one of my big points about the essence of engineering. Having come up with brilliant ideas, how do they get realised? Realisation of the design is not a separate process - it’s part of the design. At Arup Associates we were so interested in how things could be put together that there would be huge arguments about this or that detail. People minded very much that we were building the right thing.

Max: I think that attitude was particular to Arup Associates. If you look at other buildings they did, such as their undergraduate accommodation at Oxford and Cambridge, you see how ideas were refined. We thought: ‘That one was good in this respect, not so good in that respect. Let’s improve that and do this.’

Sam: Back then there was a theory about ‘structural honesty’. Taken to its extreme, it went: if something was structurally honest, it would be inherently beautiful - which is obviously rot, but nevertheless it was an idea of the time. Arup Associates’ idea was that buildings should be constructionally honest, and this meant knowing how the building was to be built. I think it isn’t really possible to design something if you don’t know how it’s going to be built.

Max: This has all become much more difficult in recent years because everything is now subcontracted. We used to sit around in the 1950s saying that if the government goes on using construction as a stop/go mechanism for the economy, builders will have to stop employing and training people - and that’s exactly what has happened. The main contractors just manage subcontractors. There is very little training going on and not enough skill involved.

The people who make things with great skill in workshops are fantastically important to society. Engineering should be at the core of the arts, manufacturing and commerce. I think that engineers are starting to understand that applying science to technology involves satisfying the needs and desires of real people. Design has to take on the widest scope, and engineers are designers in the widest sense.

Sam: I agree, and of course every designer has to really know their stuff and that applies very much to architects, as well. When I was a young engineer, the Institution of Civil Engineers required all engineers to do a year on site in order to become chartered. I don’t know anyone who didn’t find that time transformative. The one thing that would help the building industry enormously would be if the RIBA did the same.

AJ: What would be the benefit to an architect of working on a building site?

Sam: There are lots of things an architect can do on site - setting out, liaising between subcontractors - all of which are so useful in seeing how things get put together. On site you see the sorts of problems builders face. Until you’ve studied the materials and worked with them, how can you really know what to do with them?

When Renzo Piano thinks about using a new material, he explores and investigates its properties. That seems to me to be what being an architect involves. If you look at the architects of the Italian Renaissance, hardly any of them did a building we think of as wonderful before they were 40 years old. Until then they were masons or sculptors or whatever; they were using their hands, finding out how to make things.

AJ: What are your thoughts about the impact of computers and the future direction of the profession?

Max: I do quite a bit of drawing by computer, because I can’t draw by hand. The effort of defining the particular coordinates of each line makes all the intuitive thought processes more difficult.

Sam: The architects I respect do all the initial stages by hand. There is a real danger now that everything is computerised. Computers are useful, but are no substitute for the brain. Design can be helped by the computer, but not driven by it. When it comes to production information the computer can be a great help, calculating precise dimensions, and transmitting drawings to the manufacturer.

The future direction of the profession will certainly be strongly influenced by computers. Design codes get more and more complicated, and are clearly expected to be incorporated into computer programs. This is definitely not progress in the right direction! It has already become much more difficult to do the things that one used to be able to do easily. Designers should protect builders from these expanding complications: we should be doing everything we possibly can to make their job easier.

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