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Structural Engineering as Art?

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One of our earlier posts was titled “What’s the point of architecture?” and it’s true that  many of our posts have mentioned shit shapes and stuff. Recently however, I’ve been wondering what’s the point of engineering. I’ll set out my thinking first.

The Statue of Liberty is a good example of what I’ll call the “traditional” relationship between art, architecture and engineering. Designed by Frédéric Bartholdi, it has a shape that’s arty in that there’s no reason, other than someone’s concept of beauty and meaning, for it being the way it is. The internal structure was, as we know, designed by Gustave Eiffel, and is completely concealed. Its only function is to make the art stand up. The structure also functions as a building in some sense because it’s got some spaces and stairs inside it, but this doesn’t matter as it’s basically bad Neoclassic art, supersized.

Buildings used to be made like this, with an ornamental skin hiding the structure stopping them from falling down. In my last post, I mentioned how less ornament and increasingly unhidden structure was a winning formula for the Chicago School architects. Good for them.

architecture with structural logic showing

Next we have two superstar engineers. The first is Vladimir Shukov (1853-1939). This is part of his impressive CV.

  • The first oil pipeline in Russia (1878)
  • An improved water mains system, probably saving thousands of lives in an era of infectious diseases.
  • Oil tanker barges that used less than half the metal previously required
  • The first ocean-going Russian oil tanker
  • Novel method for metal shell strength analysis
  • Inexpensive oil tanks with base calculated using this method
  • Various chemical patents to do with oil refining
  • Oil pumps that enabled Baku’s oil industry to increase its output.
  • A furnace that used waste oil from the refining process
  • Thin shell structures (around 1896) for water towers and other useful structures
  • About 200 hyperboloid steel towers used for communications
  • Vaults using minimal steel and glass
  • More than 180 bridges across the Volga, Yenisey, Dnieper, and other rivers.

He was the first person to really understand steel. Equations he developed are still being used.

worlds first hyperboloid structure (1896) – photo: Sergei Arssenev

Pier Luigi Nervi‘s (1898-1979) CV isn’t as rounded, but he was the first person to really understand concrete. Many of his shell structures were used as exhibition halls and sports stadiums.

Orvieto Aircraft Hanger, Pier Luigi Nervi 1935

Shell structures. Hmm. Here’s where it starts going bad. The year is 1957. These are Jøern Utzon’s concept sketches for the Sydney Opera House. These sketches are an Australian National Treasure.

Apparently Frank Lloyd Wright saw the plans of the Sydney Opera House and sniffed something about the outside being unrelated to the inside. At the time, he would have been trying to get people excited about his NY Guggenheim where form drags function along behind it but, looking at this sectional model, we can see what the old boy meant. We’re now supposed to use the word interstitial space for this gap between the architecture bits and the engineered bits – but more on this in another post.

An original model of the Sydney Opera House byJoern Utzon was handed over by his daughter Lin Utzon at a ceremony inside the Opera House. Photo: Robert Pearce

Not that the outside bits are any less engineered. Here’s a pic of Utzon holding a wireframe model that shows how Ove Arup rationalized the geometry of the shells, thereby reducing the construction cost from astronomic to stratospheric.

For half a century, this set the pattern for the relationship between architects and structural engineers. It is responsible for articles saying things like Koolhaas and Libeskind could never bring their visions to life without the unsung talents of engineers, when talking about Cecil Balmond – the closest thing the world currently has to a superstar engineer. He’s been responsible for many of the world’s most iconic buildings, a lot of Liebskind’s and just about everything that Rem Koolhaas has ever built. It is now time to ask.

“Was this really such a good thing?”

You could say that structural engineering expertise like his has been responsible for the past decade’s worth of buildings known as iconic because they seem to have some extraordinary shape. Sigh. It seems that the past century of architectural history has been a waste of time. Instead of letting clients show how much money they have by spending it on unnecessary ornamental shit on the outsides of buildings, the most successful architects let clients show how much money they have by contrived shapes that require highly contrived structures. Why bother with ornament on the outside when the entire building is an ornament? One way of wasting money has merely been replaced by another. Well done architects and engineers!

It gets worse.

EXAMPLE 1) Behold the Arcelor-Mittal Orbit by Cecil Balmond and the artist Anish Kapoor for London 2012 Olympic Games. “Anish and I were thinking how do you beat the Eiffel Tower?” says Balmond. … We came up with the idea of an orbiting structure on the edge of the vulnerable, one where the form looks tenuous. A structure that was not obvious to read.”

So there it is, an structure that is nothing but structure, yet doesn’t let you know how it’s standing up even though there’s a lot of stuff doing something. In the latest twist to the relationship between architects and engineers, an architect, Kathryn Findlay, had the job of making this structure function as a building. She said it was a case of integrating all those parts – stairs, service ducts – that make the Orbit habitable, and of seeing it through planning permission.” This time it’s the engineer with the artistic pretensions and the architect who is the one who has to make it work. What would Shukov think? Hasn’t Balmond got better things to do? Apparently not.

EXAMPLE 2) Since he left Arup to start his own studio, Cecil Balmond has gone all arty.  From this, we can assume that this is what he’s really been wanting to do all along, or that it’s where the real money is. Here’s his winning design for a sculpture to commemorate that arbitrary line in the sand otherwise known as the Scotland-England border.”

The Star of Caledonia
  • Mr Balmond said he wanted to capture the “powerful energy, scientific heritage and magnetic pull of Scotland”.
  • “The Star of Caledonia is welcome; its kinetic form and light paths a constant trace of Scotland’s power of invention.”
  • “I am delighted to be collaborating with Charles Jencks [!] to create an integrated idea of this concept in both landscape and form”.

Alan Dunlop (of Glasgow based Alan Dunlop Architect and current Visiting Professor at Scott Sutherland School of Architecture at the Robert Gordon University) is on record as having said  “This landmark is where architecture, artistry and engineering goes to die”.  Exactly. An entire career spent devising structural strategies and for what? To design shit shapes with artistic pretensions? Isn’t that what architects are supposed to do? Or maybe, just maybe, shit shapes with artistic pretensions are the endgame? And that a successful career in either architecture or engineering is just a vehicle to “break into” the more lucrative world of Art. After all, the architectural career of Zaha Hadid has never been short of artistic pretension. It is only a small step from this

to this,

to this,

cleverly doing away with the tedious business of designing buildings.

CONCLUSION: If the ultimate aspiration of architects and structural engineers is to produce art rather than sorting out the built environment, then we need to find a new discipline that’s up to the task. Any ideas?




  • BTW, have you read, ‘Exploding the Myths of the Modern Movement’ by Malcolm Millais? It is a very interesting read and it sounds you and he may agree on a lot!

  • “If the ultimate aspiration of architects and structural engineers is to produce art rather than sorting out the built environment, then we need to find a new discipline that’s up to the task.”

    As a an structural engineer at a firm which does a lot of this sort of work, I have spent some time grappling with this question. Part of my conclusion is that it is reasonable that some buildings be intended as monuments, as art, even if most buildings are not. Like any medium of art, many of these will fail even as others are treasured for their beauty. The likes of Hadid/Balmond form a tiny proportion of working designers. Even within a firm such as Arup, this sort of work is a very small proportion of the whole.

    The other factor is that new found computing power, use of FEM etc. have allowed architects & engineers to push far beyond any previous constraints and our culture generally favours individual expression and ‘uniqueness’. A new language/discipline has not formed to keep this in check. Perhaps a consideration of sustainability, the rising cost of energy and resource shortages may force this in the coming decades…

    • Thanks cluster – I’m pleased to meet you. Some architects also spend a lot of time thinking why certain types of buildings that form only a tiny proportion of the built environment, are granted a status totally disproportionate to their usefulness or even their embodied skill. I understand how marketing and media can sell an architectural/engineering product but what really disheartens me is how the standards are so low, even with this new found computing power. You’ll surely know this building, the Yoyogi National Stadium by Kenzo Tange, 1964.


      Although this building is responsible for me wanting to be an architect, I lived in Tokyo for 13 years but never went to see it, afraid I’d find some architectural or structural fudge. There wasn’t. I returned to Tokyo last week for the first time in 20 years, and went to see it yesterday.


      It was perfect. I have never seen or experienced anything like it and I don’t mean the uniqueness of art. I mean the functional integrity of its parts, the balancing of forces, the detail of the detail. I was moved. It’s tight where it needs to be tight, yet in places where such control is not called for (such as with the quadrilateral shape of the holes around the primary tension fixings) it is still restrained. It’s a monument yes, but a quiet one. It’s also fifty years old. I’ll try to find out more about Yoshikatsu Tsuboi, the structural engineer. I expect there’s some structural redundancy somewhere since computers weren’t around in the early sixties but I’ll still love this building for proving that, even with the monument/art type buildings, it’s not the computers that matter.

      I haven’t read “Exploding The Myths of Modern Architecture” but I will. I read so much I disagree with, it’ll a pleasure to read something that I do agree with. I also agree with you, and so does this blog. Many posts are about how “a new language/discipline has not formed to keep this in check”. Other posts try to shift the focus towards how “a consideration of sustainability, the rising cost of energy and resource shortages may force this in the coming decades…”

      I’m fairly sure it will, and it is inevitable, just as the expensiveness of carved stone ornament was responsible for the social appeal of Modernism to those unable (or unwilling) to pay for it.

      • I can definitely understand the sentiment that, ‘certain types of buildings that form only a tiny proportion of the built environment, are granted a status totally disproportionate to their usefulness or even their embodied skill.’

        I suppose that my hope (the straw I clutch onto perhaps) is that for every beautiful painting there are probably hundreds more that we have forgotten about. Similarly for every Yoyogi National Stadium, there are many more ‘monumental’ buildings which will not pass the test of time. A large number of attempts may be required to enable the occasional piece of wonder to be constructed. Whether this is an acceptable attitude fro an activity which uses us so much of the earth’s resources is a different question!

        Civil and structural engineers are often accused of being conservative, the obvious rejoinder being that every building is bespoke and structural failure is not an option. Following one strand of your logic to an extreme conclusion, maybe architectural design should also be conservative and designers (architects, engineers, artists, etc.) should also consider that architectural failure is not an option. This might avoid many of the less succesful, pretensious starchitect buildings but it might also deprive us of the likes of a Yoyogi National Stadium.

        Anyway, Graham, this is a seriously impressive blog. Thanks also for taking the time to respond to my thoughts.

  • BTW, Frank Lloyd Write wanted Falling Water to be horizontal and “prarie-style-ish” with low (6′-8″ I believe) floor to ceiling spaces….Despite his client’s 6′-0″ frame…And FLW’s Liebeskind-ism: Anyone taller than 6 feet is a waste of space!

  • I will not disagree that there is a lot of strange and bazaar structures out there masquerading under the tent of “great architecture”. Expense and practicality aside for a moment, though, Boundaries were being stretched beyond comprehension in Egypt with towering stone piles (shaped like Pyramids) being made to house one (usually) bad-Pharaoh-guy-not-so-god-like-either’s tomb, too. In Rome, 50,000 seat plus arenas were built to celebrate true carnage to victims of Roman conquest (go get ’em tiger, lion, or bear! Oh My!). Near Paris, the Versailles Palace was built to serve one family…and a government of his “yes-men”…(although the people did sort of get their revenge…or “cake”…on that one). China spent billions on their Olympic Architecture (the Opening Show as $400 million by itself – and it’s not even architecture!) and displaced tens of millions to do so. I could go on and on but you get the idea. What is happening in architecture today is what has been happening in architecture throughout history! Is the Arcelor-Mittal Orbit garbage? ABSOLUTELY! But are the botanical gardens in Singapore? What about the Tijibaou Cultural Center in the South Pacific? How about the Sauk Center near LaJolla, California?
    And getting back to the Sydney Opera House: “WOW!” It defines a city, a country, and it is a building that will always be great (and I know, it has its impractical issues). It will be great always like the Pyramids, the Parthenon, the Colloseum, Chartres Cathedral, John Hancock Center (Chicago), and Falling Water (Kaufmann Residence). And remember, most great architecture is unnoticed, and much more affordable, today. And some of the so-called “great architects”, like Libeskind, aren’t so great as they are….disoriented?!?. BUT ALL OF “THIS” IS ARCHITECTURE GOING FORWARD…For worse, yes. But also for better, too!

    • Hello John and thanks. I know I’ve been a bit grumpy lately and not looking for or finding much to be cheerful about in the world of architecture. I promise to look harder and to try to concentrate on the bright side. What you wrote at the end struck a chord. Just yesterday I was thinking how today’s “great” architecture is much more affordable than it used to be. I don’t think architects have suddenly found a social conscience – I think it’s because clients aren’t as rich as they used to be. The architecture of SANAA is a perfect fit for these new conditions.

      I’m not sure if all this “going forward” counts as progress. I don’t feel there’s any end goal it’s working towards or some ultimate perfection that’s always just out of reach. Even the word “evolution” seems to imply some present state that’s better than it was in the past but not as good as it will be in the future. This might be true for medicine and the sciences but where’s the Moore’s Law for architecture? It seems that architecture merely mutates to suit the economic environment of its patrons at any given time. Since the pyramids, there’s been a constant lowering of the threshold for “Architecture” yet, despite this, it remains largely out of reach for most. This seems to be another constant. Oops, I’ve gone all gloomy again!


      • Don’t feel to bad about the pessimism that you feel about architecture sometimes. I wrote an article on my website called “Where is Contemporary Architecture Going” (LINK: where I basically lambast the idea that new prototypical buildings that jut, ooze, stab, and then stuff green “stuff” on them is not really ‘sustainable’ and ‘green’ but rather architect’s using code words to bamboozle people into spending enormous amounts of money for their “fabulous” designs…
        As for cutting the edge on architecture, the reality is that “big” projects often define the new limits and directions of the movement…Whether fair or legitimate is probably not the point. It is what it is.
        Love the conversation.
        John Mele

  • Very very interesting to read.
    I’m a student of Architecture, and i can completely relate to the last few comparisons of artistic pretensions of architects ( and apparently engineers too now that I’ve learnt!) instead of the micro understanding of spaces and functions to cater to the users of the building. Nowadays, the importance given to concepts also add to the failure of understanding spaces through the users and eye and failing to cater usefully as concepts being integrated become more significant than the later.

    • Thanks Remah,
      I usually write about things I’ve come to believe are true after, let’s say, 40 or 50 years of being interested in architecture. Increasingly, I’ve come to think that architecture is not necessarily a force for the good of mankind. I will continue to collect examples of what I think is evidence. Since you are a student, it’s especially important that you look at the current state of architecture and do the same. I think we ought to move away from the Architecture we have now and move towards, not a new architecture but a better architecture.

  • says:

    A very informative post, Graham. I think it made the classical argument that structural engineers usually use (without our help this building would have never came into existence) not as good to humanity as it really sounds. What they’re doing could be perceived as something just as bad as what architect’s have been doing. Yes, without your help all these iconic buildings would never come to existence, but why is THAT a good thing? They’re only helping architects spreading their shit to the built environment and pushing the boundaries of what’s possible to built (in terms of shitty arty shapes and forms).

    As for your question, I think Building Physics might be part of the solution, except it doesnt really deal with planning (not currently), and the way building physicists currently work is ‘greening buildings up’ after the architect had already spread his magic into its form and planning. It’s more of helping the architect’s claim that his building is good to humanity and saves energy, etc. because it looks the way it does, even though that’s bullshit.