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I am not an implacable enemy of the 'traditional'

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Paul Finch’s letter from London: Despite being in trouble with my old mucker, Robert Adam, I don’t value the ‘contemporary’ over the ‘traditional’

The Building Centre in London is host to an exhibition organised by Price & Myers titled ‘The Essence of Engineering’. It features buildings, structures and other examples of the engineer’s craft, science or creativity, all suggested by engineers, architects and others (see AJ 30.06.11).

Of course if you have to choose between different examples of engineering output to represent its essence, you have to focus on one particular project. But there is a strong argument to say that it is an attitude, a way of thinking, a process, that more accurately describes what engineering is about.

What engineers do not do is become obsessed with the difference between ‘traditional’ and ‘contemporary’. I see from this week’s letters to the AJ that I am in trouble with my old mucker, Robert Adam, for liking the fact that the London Olympic Park is full of architecture which is thoroughly ‘contemporary’. He is tweaking my tail by going on to imply that I am an implacable enemy of the ‘traditional’.

This is of course not the case. I recently agreed to chair a fund-raising appeal to restore the spire of Christopher Wren’s St Bride’s Church, in London’s Fleet Street. I still feel a thrill walking into Charles Barry’s Reform Club. I like the Demetri Porphyrios extension to Selwyn College Cambridge, my alma mater; I admit to a sneaking regard for Quinlan Terry’s Royal Hospital Chelsea medical block – beautifully built and bound to last.

I recall taking part in a constructive CABE crit of Bob Adam’s own building on Piccadilly next to Wren’s St James’s Church. Bob’s building is decent, though since it is designed in imperial it gave Ken Shuttleworth some tricky moments when he did the fit-out in metric… I also remember supporting the RIBA Awards Group decision to make an award to John Simpson’s Buckingham Palace gallery, despite a sniffy report from the visiting panel.

My feeling about the Olympics is that, for once, the architects have been able to go about their task thinking only about present and future, not listing and conservation areas. This is extremely rare in London, and it of course raises the stakes for the designers, since they have nothing to complain about in respect of conditions placed on them by heritage considerations. It is all their own work, limited only by their imagination.

I wonder if anyone ever criticises engineers for approaching their task in a ‘contemporary’ rather than ‘traditional’ manner. It wouldn’t make huge sense, since the approach of that profession, from my observation, is to achieve maximum effect from minimum resources.

That is not the same thing as ignoring the history of engineering itself; readers of this column may remember a description of how the team upgrading the Bell Common tunnel on the M25 used something called a Saccardo nozzle. This achieved much more efficient ventilation than newer technology, even though most engineers had learned about the technique and product in first year – and were also told nobody was using it anymore.

But in general, the history of engineering is about innovation in respect of technology, design, materials or all three. The project I have most recently seen which represents the essence of engineering is by Forestry Commission civil engineer Geoff Freedman. He has completed a stress-laminated timber footbridge, also useable by horse and cycle, in the Yorkshire Dales. This is not a new technique as such, but he has done something new with it. He has designed a triple-arch bridge spanning 50 metres, the first of its kind; to prove it could be done safely and effectively (in the absence of any codes covering the type), he did a PhD to help validate his design.

The result is built. It is elegant and very economical. The sensitivity of the beautiful rural site made aesthetics, dimension and form critical to getting planning permission, so I hope Geoff won’t mind me saying that in this instance, an engineer also had to think a bit like an architect.

The Essence of Engineering exhibition, The Building Centre, London WC1, until 17 August

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