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Engineers come into their own with new £1m QEII Prize

Posted by Ram Kumar Shrestha on May 18, 2013


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Only one member of the Standing Committee of the Chinese Politburo is not an engineer or scientist. More than half American senators are lawyers. In Britain only one MP is a former research scientist. Soon China will be the world’s richest country and we wonder why. Perhaps this should be self-evident.

When the architectural writer Charles Jencks featured on Desert Island Discs last summer his first choice of music was a simple one: “Male architects are so vain,” he said. So that would be Carly Simon’s ‘You’re So Vain’, then? Indeed it was.

What would he have picked for engineers, one wonders?

For more than a century, engineers have always been the bridesmaids, never the bride, when it comes to making architects’ flights of fancy structurally sound. More than that, they have often provided the core aesthetic of the building, the iconic image by which it is seen and remembered.

An early example is the Eiffel Tower in Paris, by Gustave Eiffel (1832-1923) – a supposedly temporary building (like our London Eye) which has become the defining image of a capital city. It was built for the 1889 Paris World Fair.  At first local people hated it, but it attracted millions of visitors. Four years earlier the engineer had designed the wrought-iron skeleton structure inside the Statue of Liberty in New York harbour.     

Our nearest equivalent would be the Crystal Palace, designed by the gardener and amateur engineer, Joseph Paxton (1803-65). He came to the rescue when 246 other designs were rejected. His first sketch dates from June 1850. It was published in the Illustrated London News in July. By March the following year it was completed – an astonishing achievement given that it was 563m long (1,848ft), 139m wide (456ft) and 41m high (135ft). His secret: off-site prefabrication. It is still revered as one of the greatest buildings of its century.

From 1975 until 1998, not that long ago, the tallest building in the world was the 110-storey Sears Tower (now Willis Tower) in Chicago. It stands 442m (1,451ft) high, putting New York’s Empire State Building in the shade. Many could name the architect of Sears as the local practice, Skidmore Owings and Merrill (SOM), and specifically Bruce Graham.

But the engineer? Fazlur Khan (1929-82) a brilliant mathematician from what is now Bangladesh, who came to be known as the ‘Einstein of Structural Engineering’.

The ‘bundled tube’ design he invented saved the owners $10m in steel costs alone. The engineering defined its form. Earlier, and even more emphatically, his John Hancock Centre, also in Chicago, used giant cross-bracing on the outside of the tower to provide stability and free up internal lettable space. As a motif it has been copied hundreds of times around the world.

The great architectural historian, Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, creator of the famous Buildings of England series of guidebooks, was one of the first to remark on the key role played by engineers since Victorian times. In his seminal book of 1936, Pioneers of Modern Design, he cited the three most important influences on Modernism (prior to 1914) as William Morris and his Arts and Crafts movement; Art Nouveau; and pioneering engineers of the nineteenth century.

Iron (at first wrought, then cast), then steel, and later reinforced concrete, all played their part in innovation and pushing the boundaries. In Britain, names such as Darby, Telford and Brunel came to the fore and are still celebrated today. In fact Brunel beat all-comers in the Great Britons competition run by the BBC in 2002.

But then a curious thing happened: High-Tech architecture came into vogue – and it was the architects who stole all the glory.

Sydney Opera House? Ah yes, that was designed by the Dane, Jorn Utzon. The Pompidou Centre in Paris? Easy, Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers. The Reliance Controls Factory of 1967, credited as the very first High-Tech building? Team 4, otherwise known as Norman and Wendy Foster, with Su and Richard Rogers. The Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia? Foster again. And the Leicester Engineering building and History Faculty at Cambridge? Why, Sir James Stirling.

Yes, but who has ever heard of their respective structural engineers: Peter Rice, for the Opera House and Pompidou; Tony Hunt for Reliance Controls and the Sainsbury Centre; and Frank Newby for Leicester and Cambridge?

As the critic Martin Pawley wrote in Blueprint in 1989, what these engineers all had a common was a “quiet, unassuming” nature, and a willingness to perform structural gymnastics at their architects’ bidding while themselves remaining in the background. Such acts of selflessness make them the saints of construction. No wonder the real patron saint of engineers is St Patrick, known for his humility and courage, while architects have St Thomas – the Doubting Thomas of the scriptures.

In a lecture at the RIBA in 1984, Newby admitted what was really going on: “High-Tech is the use of redundant structure for decorative purposes”. Later Rice added: “Architects started to allow the way a building was made to be part of its image”. Did the style lead to the development of new engineering structures at all? No, it did not, insisted Newby. The engineering was stuck in the 1950s. It advanced technology not one whit.

While John Ruskin maintained that “ornamentation is the principal part of architecture”, Shakespeare had warned (in The Merchant of Venice): “The world is still deceived with ornament”. Then, in 1908, Adolf Loos famously declared, in Ornament and Crime, that it was responsible for inflicting “serious injury on people’s health, on the national budget and hence on cultural evolution”.

Yet here were our greatest contemporary architects, who would agree with Loos, using such decoration to define the Zeitgeist! If it was the result of structural engineering and truth to materials, well, that made it okay!

In most recent years it has been just two things that have led to genuine technological progress in architecture: the soaring imagination of its greatest creators, such as Zaha Hadid and Santiago Calatrava; and advances in Computer Aided Design to do the heavy lifting. It often comes at a heavy financial cost too, however.

Which reminds me of that old adage: “Anyone can make a bridge stand up. An engineer can make a bridge that only just stands up”.

Architects have done a great job with their hubris and self-promotion. Think of all the prizes they award themselves, from the $100,000 Pritzker Prize and the Royal Gold Medal, awarded on behalf of the Queen but nominated by the RIBA, to the annual Stirling Prize – architecture’s equivalent of the Turner Prize – that was for many years televised, recorded or live, with Kevin McCloud on Channel 4 and then BBC2. The Stirling, worth £20,000 in cash, still exists but it is no longer on the box.

What we do have now, thanks to the Royal Academy of Engineering, Lord Browne of Maddingley, formerly chairman of BP, and Anji Hunter, formerly Tony Blair’s gatekeeper at No.10, is the £1m Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering. The Queen will present the award at Buckingham Palace next month, on 25th June.

As for Hunter and her role in promoting engineers, and engineering as a suitable subject for women to pursue, she was profiled in the December 2012/January 2013 issue of Kensington and Chelsea Today.

While the first award is to five engineers for their development of the Internet and the World Wide Web, perhaps some of the kudos will rub off on other engineers, including the structural engineers, on the shoulders of whom so many architects have made their reputations.

Time to redress the balance.

Only one member of the Standing Committee of the Chinese Politburo is not an engineer or scientist. More than half American senators are lawyers. In Britain only one MP is a former research scientist. Soon China will be the world’s richest country and we wonder why. Perhaps this should be self-evident. Based on a letter by Ewart Parkinson, former President of the Royal Town Planning Institute, published in The Times on 11th July 2012.

 @kensingtonandchelseatoday.

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