Serious competitions with serious winners should not be the subject of professional sniping says Paul Finch
There is a mythical image of the structural engineer as a sensible, pipe-smoking chap who keeps a low profile and goes around making sure things don’t fall down.
These days, especially in the UK, the role of the engineer is far more proactive, frequently working with the architect as part of a creative coalition. Nowhere is this more true than bridge design, but all is not happy in that part of the engineering world which still believes that dreary Freeman Fox box girders were all that were ever required. In particular, knives have been sharpened over the competition-winning design by Stephen Spence and engineer Techniker, which has recently gone out to tender, for the New Wear Crossing in Sunderland.
An aggressive little campaign has tried to undermine the competition by saying that a cheaper bridge could have been procured, and that the handsome-looking winner is inappropriate for these times of austerity, even though it will be built to last 120 years. Various engineers (who didn’t win the competition) plus ‘consultants’ who weren’t appointed have been moaning.
It may be paranoia, but it’s hard to ignore the timing of a new publication by the International Association of Bridge and Structural Engineers, which issues some dire warnings about inappropriate competitions while also outlining some perfectly reasonable advice on how to run a good one. It has been produced under the chairmanship of Naeem Hussain of Arup (who had to keep quiet about having studied at the Architectural Association early in his career because it annoyed engineering employers - perhaps this sense of engineers being frustrated designers is at the heart of all this).
The report has been partly interpreted by AJ sister title New Civil Engineer (NCE) as an attack on the New Wear crossing because of phrases that refer to the importance of having independent structural engineers overseeing competitions for occasional or one-off clients. Actually this one had two independent audits before and after the competition.
An NCE interview with Hussain reads like a thinly veiled attack on ‘arty’ structures. There is little discussion of the document itself, which has faults as an advisory compendium. Bridges are illustrated, which we are presumably supposed to think are examples of good structural design procured as a result of competitions. A few are captioned as such, but they are a small minority and no explanation is offered as to why the competitions were so successful.
Photographs in the section on what to avoid are (I think) still supposed to be examples of good stuff, but who knows? No costs are given. There is no information about the nature of the competitions, or about the beneficial or otherwise outcomes of what is shown (in beautiful architectural images).
Curiously, images of Foster and Arup’s ‘wobbly bridge’ are featured. Why? To illustrate that if it all goes wrong the engineers will stump up the money to put it right? Or that architecture and engineering never really mix? That a conventional box girder would have been preferable? Or that Sunderland shouldn’t get ideas above its station?
Serious competitions with serious winners should not be the subject of professional sniping. The reason architects have become involved in bridges, generally working very happily with structural designers, is that clients and public were fed up with the incredibly uninspiring diet of crossings fed to us for about 40 dismal post-war years.
It is time for the structural design fraternity to let New Wear take its place in bridge history, and assess the results calmly - while smoking (these days) an entirely metaphorical pipe.