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Architecture & Engineering

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I am new to your blog, but i regret not finding it three years ago when I was in shock and depression as to where I found myself in architecture. I joined architecture instead of engineering only because it had lot to do with construction than engineering theoretical entrenchment. Now when i look back, I feel engineering at least is still closer to construction than architecture. All its scientific and mathematical theories are applicable and usable compared to the so called theory of architecture we study these days. If buildings are, like any other human created physical product, a product of utility, then what we are taught is completely pathetic and opposite. Architecture should have been more like engineering rather, scientifically tested and researched to provide, habitable space, which is properly ventilated, receives ample sunlight, and provides spaces that comforts you and not frustrate you. We have become more like industrial designers, though even they learn by making, and we by speculating. My primary concern with engineering is not to become like Calatrava who is more like a sculptor at large scale, but more like mechanical engineers or aeronautical engineers testing their design in wind tunnel.

I just read your article on Eladio Dieste which prompted me to write to you. I just love Eladio Dieste’s work, he fused architecture and engineering in the manner it should be done, Santiago Calatrava studied architecture and engineering, and he rightly fuses these two but the result is more as a personal expression than whole architecture like Eladio Dieste. Eladio Dieste reminds me more of the architecture of true master builders like Brunelleschi and da Vinci and gothic master builders preceding them and the Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan

My question to you is, should architects study more of sciences and math and engineering or study completely engineering as a whole like Calatrava, considering how less of it is taught today in the architectural curriculum contrasting it with required increased knowledge of construction and tectonics in today’s practice. Should architects aim to be master builders of yesteryears and pursue engineering, not like Calatrava but like Dieste and Brunelleschi?

Thank you, and thanks for asking – it’s a very good question. We haven’t heard much about architecture and engineering for oh about a century now. Me, I don’t think the Calatrava way is a very useful one. There are only so many ways to build an efficient bridge or roof like Dieste but there are many inventive and wasteful ways to do it. I’d choose Dieste over Calatrava any day.

Another important difference is that Dieste obtained the best possible performance out of very simple materials and using “low” technologies and he did it in bus stations and market buildings that everybody could benefit from. This is not how architecture operates today. Dieste’s attitude towards construction and how it can benefit society is perhaps more important than the actual engineering techniques he used. Unfortunately, this attitude is something that’s difficult to teach, nobody’s actually interested in teaching it because nobody seems interested in learning it because no company seems interested in applying it. I think that, like Pier Luigi Nervi, Dieste had the gift of being able to see forces. I’ll probably never understand why that church window doesn’t collapse or why that bus station roof doesn’t topple. 

Your post on Hannes Meyer was an eye-opener for me. I wanted to ask you about this passage you wrote,

“Under Gropius, buildings were only one part of a “total work of art”. Gropius left the Bauhaus and went to America to become King of Architecture at Harvard University and promote the Bauhaus way of teaching architects. This meant that architects were more like artists than engineers. This has had bad results for architectural education and for architecture ever since. To put it simply, Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe (with Philip Johnson’s help) hijacked the history of architecture and led it in a direction that has not proven to be very useful at all.” 

If are supposed to be licenced professionals then, rather than wondering what Derrida thinks, shouldn’t we be concentrating more on utilitarian aspects like “1. sex life, 2. sleeping habits, 3. pets, 4. gardening, 5. personal hygiene, 6. weather protection, 7. hygiene in the home, 8. car maintenance, 9. cooking, 10. heating, 11. exposure to the sun, 12. services – these are the only motives when building a house. We examine the daily routine of everyone who lives in the house and this gives us the functional diagram – the functional diagram and the economic program are the determining principles of the building project.”  

Hannes Meyer is one of my heroes and I like to think his list of things to take into consideration isn’t intended as a excuse to personalise buildings but to create buildings that are more inclusive. One ongoing interest of mine is to design a generic building into which all humanity can fit. Meyer, you and I for three, share the belief buildings should be continually improved to serve people better rather than being continually reinvented for the sake of it. About the big split, I think it was Philip Johnson who was responsible. His historic innovation was to present the new architecture coming out of Europe only in terms of how it looked, and stripped of any social content. To their eternal shame, the European refugee architects didn’t disagree. I think what Rural Studio is doing with their 20K house project is wonderful, examining the purpose of every building element and trying to make it multifunctional. They can do this because they have the ultimate goal of maximum value in a house under $20K. It’s a very definite goal for which success is quantifiable. This shouldn’t be revolutionary but it is.

Using technical and climatological parameters in Building Information Modelling might bring us back to the master builder paradigm where everything was fused into a single whole. This will require engineering knowledge and will eventually make us designer–artists and not architects.

I agree there’s not much awareness of parameters as a tool for doing anything more than determining form. As far as design is concerned, it was inevitable that something as deterministic as parameters would have some hocus-pocus added somewhere along the design process, if not with the invention of “irritants” at the beginning then at the end with the subjective selection of when to stop the process.

I also have a secondary objection to adding “ism” and using the word Parametricism to describe a style. For me, parametric design is a technique. The style is Neoliberal Expressionism. 

As you say, parametric design is a technique, a technology for doing stuff and if it were coupled with analysis and simulation software and BIM, we’d have complete design and construction control. But we can’t do that, because we haven’t learned the inherent math and science for such an approach. Engineers can and, if not addressed by architects, will eventually takeover and architects will become like tattoo designers, scribblers on papers. I don’t want to be that, if Elon Musk can make rockets then it’s a moral obligation for us as architects for our designs to be economically sound and efficient and build-able and this is more likely to happen if we know how to construct it. I seriously think Architects should be taught an engineering approach not unlike Hannes Meyer’s approach of Function x Economy. For this to happen, management and engineering subjects should be taught to architects along with the basic approach.

Le Corbusier may have been the first to note a beauty to be found in industrial architecture but all we were left with was a style called “machine aesthetic”. We’re still far away from having the mindset to appreciate buildings designed for performance that people will aspire to in the expectation of leading comfortable lives within it. I used to think the only way out of this mess was to add aspirational content to otherwise well designed and constructed apartment buildings – much like the French projects of Ricardo Bofill, although their famous “postmodern neoclassicism” is a reasoned way to give the joins in prefabricated concrete construction a meaning beyond construction.

Something else we could be doing is being on the lookout for small things that make a building nicer to experience in some way – a generosity of design, if you will. If you look at these drawings below, you’ll see some circular windows overlooking the main atrium. These windows are on the rooftop amenity level for the apartment residents, and are along a access/fire-escape corridor that can be used anytime by the residents. They can see people shopping in the daytime, or deliveries and security happening at night. It’s a private show. It’s not asked for, but it was possible, and it would make the experience of the building more interesting and fun. The application of intelligence can get us a long way. After that it’s the application of imagination and empathy.

What I love about this project is the integration of commercial activity and performance with the day-to-day living, but especially the window feature. Architects design mixed-use building but many times they create a barrier between these activities thinking its unwanted or dirty. I think one should be exposed, that’s how you learn the true value of the building itself. Also, it’s like a business venture in itself. I don’t think one should be greedy and hungry capitalists but if you visit any major city, you can see the very essence of the city’s soul is the economic activity and such buildings only enhance that experience. Would it be possible to integrate a financial and economic aspect into the design problem? Or maybe something construction management related like estimation or costing or scheduling? The world really works on the efficient use of time and money and architects don’t really understand the results and consequences of their design decisions have on people, the city, state or environment.

It’d definitely be a great teaching resource if the some clever cloud BIM add-on could instantly calculate the cost of every design decision and return in real-time a total for how much of the budget has been spent. Actually, it’d be a great design resource period. Inefficient planning, unnecessary spans or cantilevers would all become real, as would the hidden costs of low quality materials. Setting a maximum budget would teach students how every decision has a cost, and also instruct in the arts of compromise and integration. It would quantify design decisions and make design stances explicit. All stakeholders would be able to make informed decisions as to whether a particular design decision was worth it.

This isn’t beyond our means but it’s unlikely to happen as long as design and construction are kept separate in the workflow both physically and conceptually. This is the problem. We know an inclined steel column is more carbon intensive than a vertical one doing the same job but as long as the inclined column is seen as more exciting, daring, or “architectural” there’s not the will to apply it. We really need to get away from architectural beauty as the decadent display of quantity or quality of material resources, contrivedly complex construction processes and technologies, and the decadent display of design resources such as time or computational power.

I’m not entirely pessimistic. The efforts of Lacaton & Vassal have been recently acknowledged but only after they spent many years in the architectural cold for emphasizing useable area over quality materials and finishes. Giving them a Pritzker might just have been a way to make Aravena look good and the Pritzker relevant but it’s more likely that bestowing establishment approval was intended to neuter their maverick appeal by bringing them into the fold, just as inviting them to lecture at Harvard GSD did.