15 December 2010

"Robert Maillart: Builder, Designer and Artist"

There can't be many bridge engineers who don't regard the Swiss engineer Robert Maillart as one of the finest bridge designers in history.

Maillart's lasting reputation beyond his native country was generated in large part by the writings of Max Bill and Siegfried Giedion, both of whom saw him less as an engineer and more of a modern artist. The art world's interest in engineering culminated in Elizabeth Mock's 1949 book, The Architecture of Bridges, published by the Museum of Modern Art (featuring a good dozen of Maillart's designs), and the same institution's Twentieth Century Engineering exhibition in 1964.

Maillart's reputation amongst his fellow professional engineers has been encouraged by the redoubtable efforts of David P Billington, in books such as Robert Maillart's Bridges (1979), The Tower and the Bridge (1983), and Robert Maillart and and Art of Reinforced Concrete (1990). These focus generally on the engineer's built works, rather than the engineer as a person.

I'd read all these some time ago, but only now got around to Billington's Robert Maillart: Builder, Designer and Artist (368pp, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0521057424, 2008, originally published 1998) [amazon.co.uk].

This comprehensive biography is the only one available in English, and the thoroughness of Billington's research is such that it is likely to remain so. He had full access to Maillart's papers and correspondence, and the result is a book that is admirable in its depth but never loses sight of what made Maillart such a special engineer.

Maillart's innovations in bridge design are now well known. He didn't invent the three-hinged concrete arch, but by combining it with the idea of the concrete box girder, he made it his own, most notably at Salginatobel. Nor did he invent the deck-stiffened arch, but again he became its master, with the Schwandbach Bridge being perhaps the best example.

Maillart wasn't notable only as a designer. As Billington's biography makes clear, he was a capable theorist when he needed to be, deriving the principle of the shear centre, and espousing a theory of design that broke with the elastic analysis prevalent amongst his more academic contemporaries, and prefigured the limit state approach now commonplace.

Billington places a considerable emphasis on various disputes and confrontations which arose between Maillart's pragmatic approach to design, and the prevailing orthodoxies of the time. Many of those concerned with the architecture of bridges sought to maintain the monumentality familiar from the age of masonry, and the presence of such people on design competition juries significantly hindered Maillart's career. Similarly, the engineering academics of the time sought to shackle the possibilities of design within the confines of what could be properly theorised, an attitude that Maillart ridiculed.

These tendencies are still with us today. As in Maillart's time, the common understanding of what makes an attractive modern bridge owes only a little to the logic of structural engineering, and much more to preconception, fashion, and the taste for spectacle.

Similarly, engineers remain hamstrung by our design codes. Improved understanding of the engineering science is a helpful tool in the designer's armoury only until new materials or forms are introduced, and then it often becomes a hindrance.

On several occasions, Billington notes the division between the designer and the analyst, and the extent to which it is reinforced by bureaucracy, especially the bureaucracy of engineering education. This too has change little, with a gap between academia and the design world which is difficult to bridge, and which inculcates a narrow-mindedness amongst engineering students.

Billington recounts in detail the intersection of Maillart's personal and professional life, particularly the way in which his radicalism, intransigence, and innovative spirit led directly to a lack of work and financial hardship. Although in many cases Maillart's design concepts won through because they resulted in a structure which was more economic to build, this was not always the case, and the conservative engineering culture which surrounded him often failed to allow time or space for innovation. It's still true to some extent today that innovation in structural engineering is beset with difficulty, and must survive in small pockets where politics, funding, and client receptiveness come together in the right way.

I was also struck with the results of the various bridge design competitions which Maillart entered. Despite becoming the best known and most respected pioneer of reinforced concrete in his native Switzerland, Maillart rarely won competitions. He had most success as part of a design-and-build team where money mattered more than highly subjective judgements of visual quality, and his flare for economy could play a central contribution. There are examples of where Maillart had to go against his own best judgement in order to respond to what he knew were key juror's prejudices. Several instances are also reported where the results of competitions were subject to intense criticism in the Swiss engineering press, often instigated by Maillart's friends, something that's sadly all too absent today.

One area where Billington is perhaps a little reticent is on the actual engineering itself - there is little here which discusses or explains Maillart's designs in any depth, and a general shyness about technical matters that sometimes leaves the reader having to take the author's assertions at face value. To some extent, Billington's other books fill this gap.

It's also often difficult amidst a minefield of detail to see Maillart's achievements in context. He was not the only innovator of his time, and while Eugène Freyssinet is mentioned, others such as Alexandre Sarrasin or Rudolf Dick are absent. Without these points of reference, Maillart's genius is apparent but his place in history is less well understood.

Overall, it's an excellent book, putting a context to Maillart's individual structures which makes adds to their appreciation. I can think of few engineering biographies which even come close to its thoroughness, which is a shame.

1 comment:

Xosé Manuel Carreira said...

I have not read the book about Maillart but Billingtong's The Tower and the Bridge is a classic and a must read for every structural engineer.