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Beautiful Engineering: Max Fordham roundtable

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What is the equivalent of the Georgian terrace today? How do engineers help clients understand architects’ ideas? And are Jackson Pollock’s splash paintings more like scientific artifacts then great works of art? 

These are just some of the questions raised when Max Fordham and The AJ brought six experts together to debate ‘beautiful engineering’ at the RIBA. 

Read the full transcript here

Design is not a Barcelona chair: Max Fordham roundtable

Chairman

  • Rory Olcayto, AJ editor

Delegates

  • Jane Wernick, founder, Jane Wernick Associates
  • Jim Heverin, director, Zaha Hadid Architects
  • Andrew Whalley, director, Grimshaw
  • Les Postawa, principal and UK director, Thornton Tomasetti
  • Neil Smith, senior partner, Max Fordham
  • Hareth Pochee, senior engineer, Max Fordham

Eight key talking points

Engineers can bring out the logic in an architectural idea
An engineer’s involvement at the very beginning allows architects to better communicate their design. ‘They bring out the logic of our ideas to clients,’ says Jim Heverin, of Zaha Hadid Architects. Heverin says that the iterative and collaborative design process with engineers helps take clients from a position where they are quite wary to a point where you can show there is a very sound logic behind the idea.

Engineering is all about sound principles – and reassurance – and, says Heverin, helps a design team relate a project back to fundamentals: the creation of a new place for humans defined by space and light.

Engineering is focused on making things better – for people
Engineering is too rarely thought of as a human-centred discipline. Yet, whether structural or environmental (building services), the point is always that it’s about people.

As Andrew Whalley of Grimshaw explains, for his recent project, New York’s  TransitCenter, he developed a lightweight cable net structure with their engineers and dressed it with reflectors to bring light down two levels below ground ‘at a fraction of the cost of the original compressive structure’ – or dome – he had first suggested. The original diagram may have been right but, through collaborative design with engineers, the solution was more elegant. Furthermore, environmental systems were hidden behind the ‘veil’ of the reflector. ‘The important thing for me, however,’ says Whalley: ‘is that every day thousands of commuters make their way through the space, look up and see the sky.  So, hopefully, it uplifts a little of their commute.’

Engineers are designers and architects are scientists...
Why do we need to draw lines in the sand between engineers and architects?

We don’t, says Hareth Pochee of Max Fordham. ‘Science doesn’t have to mean equations and slide rulers, it can mean reasoning. And reasoning is something architects do very well.  They use reasoning to gather and analyse evidence and then make a set of proposals based on this procedure.’

So we are all engineers who happen to be working in slightly different spheres that strongly overlap. Equally, you could say we are all designers.

Les Postawa of  Thornton Tomasetti goes one step further: ‘One could even say that that engineering is an art form.’

…and artists are scientists…
Postowa’s claim leads Pochee to relate the curious discovery of fractal patterns within Jackson Pollock’s splash paintings by physicist and art historian Richard Taylor.

Fractals look like haphazard, chaotic marks at first glance, yet each one is composed of a single geometric pattern repeated thousands of times at different magnifications, like Russian dolls nested within one another. Taylor showed that in Pollock’s drip paintings, as in nature, certain patterns are repeated again and again at various levels of magnification and have similar ratios to natural patterns we find pleasing, such as coastlines.

He even went on to show that forgeries of Pollock’s work did not contain fractal forms, thus suggesting that consciously or not, the artist had struck upon a scientific methodology in the production of his art. So – Pollock: art, or science? Both. Just like engineering (and architecture).

…but the real game-changers are politicians
Rules. Laws. Government.  That’s what it’s all about really. Who cares whether architecture and engineering is art or science if there are no rules to follow or kick against?

For example, a building constructed today to current building regulations would have been considered a landmark environmental building 20 years ago. Sure, that’s down to innovation, but the reason you have a superfit building is because it has been enshrined in law. But that’s OK. Architects and engineers thrive on constraints, don’t they?

‘Well,’ says Max Fordham’s Neil Smith, ‘there are problems, too. Because legislation gives you a solution and thereby reduces innovation.’

We need better words…
‘I know architects often talk about innovation,’ says Whalley. ‘I almost prefer the word “ingenuity” because often the test is money and doing things economically and it is actually often more exciting to try and do things on a tiny budget than it is to have a large budget.

‘An example would be the Eden Project.  We had to construct the building for half the price, so we ended up using materials we found on the site – rocks and earth and so on. I take as much pleasure from that as I do from the technology we applied to the dome design.’

…and we need better stories
Look at the tech sector. It has inspired children to learn how to code on the back of products like smartphones and apps. The design of the devices, coupled with the easy to use icon-based software, have encouraged a generation to want to know more – and train as programmers. They sense the future.

But are the stories we tell ourselves in the building sector exciting enough for the next generation of engineers and architects? Jane Wernick says we need to be more sophisticated in our message, and break out of the Grand Designs paradigm. ‘They capture the imagination but what is it really? A show about someone building their own home and all the traumas they have.’

What is beautiful engineering?
It begins with a simple concept. And it continues as a shared project, with one team working towards the same end goal.

Like when Max Fordham worked with Adam Khan Architects on Brockholes Visitor Centre in Lancashire.  They applied a simple concept to the building: every space should have great daylight. Not just the main spaces; every space.  That meant the toilets, the kitchen, the corridor, lobbies and all the main spaces.

‘Once we decided to do that,’ says Pochee, ‘it led down a really interesting design route. If you think about how challenging it might be to get daylight to interior rooms – there were some interesting, beautiful results.’

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