25 January 2009

Bridge criticism 5: Criticism as a learning tool

In a recent post, I noted that structural engineering degree courses make little or no attempt to help students develop a critical attitude to design quality. They're given little if any tuition on aesthetic issues, and it's doubtful how much they really learn from design projects.

Design projects are usually artificially simplified to match them to the abilities of the students. I know from experience that these projects are difficult for academics to mark, as designs that would never see the light of day in real life may still need to be marked well if students at least show they understand key issues such as buildability. The end result is that while students often enjoy their design projects, I doubt that they actually learn much of long-term value about the design process, whether that's the interpersonal dynamics of design teams, or techniques for jump-starting creative thought.

While few in the field would see this as an opportunity to introduce a confrontational "crit" such as architects undergo, it could be an opportunity for student peers to challenge each other’s work. This would encourage them to analyse the merits of their own designs more thoroughly, and also open them to alternative ideas and options that they may not have considered. Such a process clearly needs to be facilitated in such a manner that criticism is constructive.

One question is whether they could learn more about design without actually having to do it. In professional life, there's little doubt that we learn as much from considering other people's designs as from the process of developing our own.

This approach is being included as part of a bridge engineering course at the University of Bath directed by Professor Tim Ibell. In this course students are asked to collect data on an existing bridge, critically analyse its aesthetics, carry out a simple structural assessment, and comment on how it was built and whether better alternatives were available. The aesthetic analysis is based on a set of formal considerations set out by Fritz Leonhardt in his book Brücken. The resulting papers offer a comprehensive critical review of each structure, combining both objective and quantifiable issues with matters which can only be treated subjectively.

I personally believe the focus on existing structures may give students a greater understanding of the challenges of bridge design than does the conventional student design exercise. They have to consider how design choices have been made, without being asked to make choices for which they lack sufficient knowledge and experience.

As well as improving their understanding of bridge engineering and of the design process, the course must encourage them to be more confident in forming and expressing opinions on structural engineering.

The student papers from 2007 and 2008 are available online, and cover bridges as wide-ranging as Brooklyn Bridge, the Millau Viaduct, Sunniberg Bridge, the Clyde Arc and the Menai Suspension Bridge. They generally make interesting reading - you get a real sense of the students beginning to understand structural engineering beyond the confines of the calculator, although inevitably many of the judgements presented are either mistaken or in some cases plain daft.

The value of the "case study" approach is its realism - it forces students to confront real problems of buildability, aesthetics of real structures, in a way that never works as well with the creations of their own imagination. I think it would be great if more universities would take up this idea!


Anonymous said...

As an engineering graduate of the University of Bath, I have fond memories of the 'crits' that were part of every design project.

Being challenged by professional engineers (and on the joint projects, professional architects) was a *real* learning experience!

There was a great sense of achievement by the final year when crits stopped being a litany of your failings, and started being a two way conversation with the judges.

The Happy Pontist said...

From the other side of the fence, I've been called on to comment on student design projects, and I'm continually surprised by how often student engineers resent the advice given. They can be very defensive of their work. The worst offenders seem to be when given the chance to do something a little bit architectural, they run off thinking they're Norman Foster and come up with a design that is neither attractive nor workable - they seem to think they don't have to defend the pure engineering concerns so long as they've got something architecturally "exciting". Personally, I blame this on the wider culture which still sees landmark bridges as the architect's sole province.

Good to hear it works well at Bath, though!

Anonymous said...

The Bath course sounds excellent although it is a sad state of affairs that this kind of sensible thinking might be considered innovative. Engineering (of bridges in particular) should not exist in a vacuum and even though design exercises might be focussed towards certain topics (wood, shear, cable-stay etc) every young or old engineer should be capable of rationally explaining the whys and wherefores of their design. This would ensure that the appearance of the solution is founded in a process of good design, rather than falsely leading the solution. When bridges are often as influenced by their cultural location as their physical location, it is essential that the designer considers the project in an broad, open way rather than through narrow analysis. Why not more interaction between engineering and architecture courses, and more cross-pollenation of these once united disciplines?

The Happy Pontist said...

I think one difficulty is that civil engineering courses generall offer a "one-size-fits-all" approach: they have to cater every bit as much to people who design drains as people who design bridges, and drainage engineers have a very different range of people to interact with than bridge engineers (and even then most bridge engineers may pass through their entire career without ever having to interact with an architect).

More specialised courses would address this, but run the risk of alienating young students at a stage in life where they have no idea what field of work they may enjoy specialising in later (or find employment in - fresh structural engineering graduates will have a tough time this year, for example). I ended up in bridge engineering by accident after already employed, not by choice as an undergrad.

What would be helpful, however, would be a recognition that pretty much every engineer can benefit from engagement with the world beyond technology, some sort of broad humanities element in their course. As the engineering curriculum is already somewhat full, the challenge is to work out what else would have to give way!