Structural Engineering as Art?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
- 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
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?