Small incidents sometimes put big matters into sharp focus, writes Frank Duffy. Having lived in New York now for three years, admittedly in the somewhat melancholy aftermath of 11 September, I find myself frequently wrestling with the question of how such an energetic and inventive nation as the United States can tolerate so many conservative buildings and interiors - especially in my field of office design.
Recently Tony Hunt, the British structural engineer, presented in his diffident, slightly quirky and entirely idiosyncratic way, an array of very un-conservative and inventive engineering design projects. The context was the lunchtime colloquium on the relationship between architecture and engineering that I am currently helping to run for firstyear graduate students at the School of Architecture at MIT. Hunt's projects spanned 30 years - from a tiny shelter for Team Four to the Willis Faber building in Ipswich, past the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich, via Waterloo Station to the Eden project - each more elegant and daring than the last. The first question was: 'Why can't we have the same open-ended and innovative collaboration between engineers and architects in the US?'
Don't misunderstand me. The studios and corridors of the architecture school at MIT are humming, not only with computers but also with intellectual power.Architecture students are exploring the wildest frontiers of computational design. Fundamental questions are being asked about using the computer to skip directly from imagination to fabrication, thus eliminating the deadweight of outmoded professional structures and constructional processes.So it isn't shortage of talent or skill or daring that is the problem. Nevertheless, there does seem to be an enormous distance between the liveliness of the MIT design studios and the heaviness of so much conventional construction in Boston and New York.
So what is the answer? Is the contemporary British love of elegant, Minimalist engineering that is integrated so closely with architecture simply a consequence of the particular personalities of Ove Arup and Felix Samuely, the two great founders of the modern structuralengineering tradition in the UK? Or is it something to do with the legacy of the Victorian aesthetic, of the arts and crafts movement, or even of the Festival of Britain? Tony Hunt advanced historically based theories such as these at the colloquium.
In fact, it is much easier to understand why the generality of American engineering and architecture is heavy handed, formulaic and divisive than it is to explain why the very best of British current structural design is so inventive and integrated. It is not just that New York is a hard, aggressive and competitive place where professional collaboration is never to be taken for granted. Much more fundamental factors are the sheer size of the US economy, its history of rapid growth and its overwhelming success. Within such a vast economy the overriding imperatives of variety reduction and of divide-and-rule have had so far the unfortunate result of making the clumsiness of much construction and engineering inevitable.
Tony Hunt's wonderful structures impressed MIT deeply. However, are they not a little too close to reviving another age? May there not be more hope in discovering, somewhere down those long MIT corridors, a postTaylorist aesthetic for a post-Taylorist economy, based on computer processes that integrate, not divide, architectural and engineering skills?
Frank Duffy is a partner in the international design consultancy DEGW