Vulpes Libris

Architect and Engineer: A Study in Sibling Rivalry, by Andrew Saint

Article by Michael Carley

Without engineers nothing would stand up; without architects, we would not want it to. The world we live in is the world engineers have made;  the world we see is the architects’. How could we possibly expect such  people to get along?

Yet they do: sometimes well, sometimes grudgingly, sometimes badly. The surprise is that, in practice, they rarely fall out and Monet, Crane and Wordsworth have profited from their work. Andrew Saint’s book explains where the siblings came from, how they have  learned to get along, and how they have made us.

First, it should be said that the book is as beautiful as its subject:  just short of five hundred pages of text and heavily illustrated with  well-chosen images, it could stand up as a photographic exhibition or  as an unillustrated essay. Saint knows the history of his subject and  can explain it and why it matters. The book covers the development of  engineering (mainly structural) and architecture, together and apart,  as professions and as buildings in America, France and Britain with a  strong showing from Germany and the odd glance at the Netherlands and  Russia.

A good way to understand engineering and how it works is to look at a  product, any product, and ask yourself `why is this the way it is and  why is it not some other way?’ Saint explains why engineering and  architecture are the way they are and why French engineering and  architecture are not the same as American which in turn is not the  same as British.

In the beginning the trades of building were without form and there  was little, if any, distinction between engineers, architects and, don’t forget, contractors: the modern categories do not really apply to Brunelleschi’s work on the Duomo of Florence. The beginning of the separation lies in the French state’s extension of its reach and the  establishment of a military engineering school initially concerned with fortifications and other military works. The works of Vauban,  still standing in many places, are examples of the beginning of the  tradition that carries through to the grandiose relics of twentieth century French presidents. By 1664, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, minister of  finance, was establishing the centralized state apparatus which would  extend this military engineering prowess into the civil state,  notwithstanding his knowledge of “the pride and jealousy of  architects”. The Académie d’Architecture was expected to  establish an architectural doctrine while the Ponts et Chaussées  and the Génie would do the engineering. The attempt to set a  standard failed, and “the highest echelon of French architecture  eloped in a love affair with the fine artists”. Plus ça change …

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Channel, the English were muddling  through. Charles II was probably right when he told Pepys that “England has never bred an able engineer of its own”. Nor would it  for a while. Training of military engineers was sketchy and the  reconstruction of London after the Great Fire was a missed opportunity  for civil engineers and architects. The great British flowering of  engineering would have to wait until the Industrial Revolution it  started and was nourished by. The attitudes established then, of  practicality over theory, remain the basis of a British engineering  education, distinct from the strongly scientific approach of the  continental engineering schools.

In the Americas, meanwhile, developments had to wait for the importing  of European, mainly French, know-how to get things started. When the  Army Corps of Engineers, still responsible for much of America’s  infrastructure, was established, many of the early academic staff were  French, because the French had an idea of engineering education and,  as the superintendent of West Point said, “I cannot find any full  English idea [for] what the French give to the profession.”

The seeds of an American style of engineering were there, however: in  a country with, at the time, a relatively low level of technological  development, certain forms of construction developed because they had  to. A Pennsylvania farmer, James Finley, invented the suspension  bridge by hanging a deck from chains to form, in effect, a glorified  rope bridge. He had bridged 150 feet with double spans of 150 feet and  244 feet with a single span when his ideas began to be taken up  elsewhere. The great suspension bridges that are part of our image of  America at its best began with a farmer who needed to get a wagon  across a river when masonry bridges were not an option.

The bulk of the book is a discussion of technologies, not the beeping, whistling gadgets that appear in the `technology’ column of newspapers, but the fundamental matter that makes us civilized: iron,  concrete, steel; girders, slabs, cables; bridges, skyscrapers, stations. These technologies worked their way from engineering  structures — factories and railway bridges — to become standard  methods for architects and engineers working together to produce the  buildings that make our cities.

There are beautiful things throughout the book: iron churches;  glasshouse rooves becoming train stations; engineers innovating in  structure and architects innovating in form. These innovations  happened as both siblings understood the possibilities a new  technology offered. As they challenged each other, the new materials  were first concealed, to make new buildings look like old, and then  revealed to make new buildings look modern.

It may be a surprise to learn how much of London was built using the  daring new technology of structural iron: Buckingham Palace, the Royal  Opera House, the Houses of Parliament, the British Museum. While Marx  sat in one predicting the supersession of another, he sat in a  building of iron girders carefully concealed where decent society  would not be scandalized by them. This new structural technology  initially caused architects some problems, usually solved by encasing  the girders in “timber or plaster”, until they realized that a  competent founder could cast a variety of patterns and iron could be  decorative.

Outside London, the railway engineers, now lionized as their creation  festers, were building bridges and stations. The early stations were  characterized by a “ludicrous tinge” as architects were hired to  make the new structures more palatable to the good burghers of  Liverpool and Manchester. Moorish arches and classical facades  sprouted up. Stations copied their technology from hothouses.  Liverpool Lime Street’s curved iron roof was supplied by Richard  Turner who had built the Palm House at Kew; a technology developed to  let light onto tropical plants was adapted to allow light onto  passengers in a large covered station.

The book is a series of such stories where engineers use a new  technology to extend their reach, to make buildings taller, spaces  wider or bridges longer and architects see the aesthetic  possibilities, the chance to let us live differently. The heroes — not  too strong a word — of the book are those engineers, architects and  engineer-architects who saw possibilities in things now done so well  that we ignore them: concrete was a new technology once. If we notice  it at all, it is usually for the graffiti, but the Sydney Opera House  is made of the same stuff as a multi-storey car park. The story of how  the architect’s vision was made possible is usually presented as the  story of “the technologists moving in dutifully behind to make things work. Things are seldom that simple.” The leap of insight that showed  how the Sydney Opera House could be made, could be turned into a thing and not be left a sketch, is one of the highlights of the book. When  the solution was devised, Ove Arup had to throw away four years of  work at the expense of a row in a team of talented engineers. But they  did it, and a great building was made possible.

In the account of the work of Le Corbusier is a short statement of  what it is that makes architects different from artists and, whether they like it or not, makes them siblings of the engineers: “from  watchmaking he learnt the deepest lesson an architect can take from  handicraft — a feeling for the nature and limits of materials.”  Engineering students who will never use a spanner in anger take workshop courses for the same reason: the end result is a thing and that thing will be tested against reality in ways that art is not. Bridges are not failures because artistic fashions change, but  because they fail the test of reality. The engineer and the architect  are both looking for a creative solution to the problem of  manipulating matter to make it do something useful. They are usually only noticed when they get it wrong. When they get it right, silent  assent is gratitude. This book tells us about the struggle to get it  right and why useful things are the way they are and not some other way. When Saint describes a bridge as “moving”, he is right to do so  and not only for the “architecture” of the bridge but also for its “engineering”. A simple concrete bridge can be moving, as Hart  Crane’s Brooklyn Bridge can be, not for the people they link, or for  the bridge as a metaphor but because the bridge is a human attempt to  do something and to make it right and to make it work so well that you  take it for granted.

If this seems too much to claim, Saint’s book contains a full page  photograph of one of Robert Maillart’s concrete bridges at  Salginatobel in Switzerland, completed in 1930. The structure appears  almost impossibly frail, “a trough leaping the gap from precipice to  precipice”. As the caption notes, “the build-up of trees has made  this view impossible today”. How often can we rightly say that a view  has been ruined by trees?

Yale University Press, 530 pp, ISBN-13: 978-0300124439