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Martin Pawley: should engineers groom for stardom?

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'I like engineers,' said the American humorist Will Rogers. 'They look like people who are minding their own business.' When you think about it, although it was coined 60 years ago, this is still a very good description of people who are otherwise indescribable. Unlike their nineteenth-century forebears, today's engineers don't wear stovepipe hats or stand around in front of giant anchor chains chewing on cigars. No, they ride bicycles, shun tobacco, and fiercely deny having any sort of a name like Isambard. The only place in London you can even be sure of spotting an engineer is in Fitzrovia, where Arup luminaries jog between the islands of their office archipelago, looking exactly like people who are minding their own business.

Now although the life of an engineer might seem like paradise to most of us - gliding effortlessly to the front row of enterprise; building bridges and tunnels; routing new railways; planning new integrated transport policies; hobnobbing with the high-rise crowd; even taking a terrible pasting in the Far East without the media saying a word about it - engineers don't like it at all. They hanker for the old days when everybody stood up when an Engineer came into the room. What they most deplore is the new fashion for only recognising engineers as geniuses when they are dead. The Economist, for example, recently published an article on structural engineers that recognised the existence of Peter Rice and Ted Happold, but only in the form Peter Rice (1935-1992) and Ted Happold (1930-1996). Morosely, it quoted an Arup man as moaning: 'The architectural press cannot conceive that engineers can play any creative part in a (building) project.'

Now, this is an old line that will satisfy only the incurious: engineers do the work, architects garner all the praise. Is it true? Certainly not. For a start, the relations between architects and engineers are almost invariably friendly, and they would not be if credit-pinching really hurt. Besides, like the relations between such historic stand-up comedians as Morecambe and Wise, relations between architects and engineers are much more complicated. Architects not only get a lot of their jobs through the worldwide freemasonry of engineers minding their own business, they desperately need the support of a reputable engineer as soon as they land a job on their own account. Given this symbiotic relationship, can anyone seriously believe that the matter of credit would not be sorted out long before happy hour?

Deep down, engineers are the ring mains of the construction industry while architects are no more than schoolboys warming themselves on the pipes. Secretly, engineers enjoy their insider reputation for saving the architect's bacon, much more than they would enjoy appearing in Vogue and having architects go around saying they wuz robbed. Besides, some modern engineers do have a go at being stars. Didn't Neil Thomas of Atelier 1 pose for the Sunday Times bare-chested with his baby son? Didn't Chris Wise talk up his work on the super-high-rise Commerzbank, but then say we should not build tall at all? Engineers don't do so badly. Earl Spencer would give a lot to live as anonymously as they do.

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