08 October 2014

The great debate: Who owns bridge design?

I've been in Bristol and took the opportunity to attend this debate, held at the Arnolfini as part of the Architecture Centre's Bridge150 season, celebrating 150 years since the inauguration of Brunel's Clifton Suspension Bridge.

The debate was set up as architects against engineers, but from the start you could tell there would be a happy ending and both parties would make the case for living happily together ever after.

On the side of the engineers were Ian Firth, of Flint and Neill, and Julia Elton, engineering historian and proprietor of Elton Engineering Books.

Firth has been responsible for a significant number of innovative and architecturally interesting bridges. He introduced most of the key points that would recur throughout the debate. He noted the different involvement of the professions in projects of different scale, with the architect's role diminishing in inverse proportion to the size of the bridge. He was clear that both architects and engineers can be responsible for bad bridges, and that this usually occurs where one party fails to properly challenge their co-designer (River Wear and Glasgowbridge were offered as two examples). He tagged badly run design competitions where the engineering was sidelined or the client badly advised.

Firth identified the cult of the celebrity as one recent phenomenon which worked against engineers receiving proper recognition. Architects tend to be better known, and better at presenting themselves, and therefore are sometimes the only designer credited for a structure, however significant the engineer's role may be.

I was most pleased when he noted that good engineers could design very good bridges without architects involved, citing the work of Schlaich Bergermann und Partner in the present day, and Robert Maillart in the past. However, I was left with the impression that engineers should better aspire to working in collaboration with good architects, and that this was where good design was more likely to arise. Firth noted that the engineering education did not produce design-led, creative types, and that architects could contribute a better-trained imagination.

Elton also focused on education, citing a series of innovative engineers in the past who were perfectly capable of designing excellent structures with only minimal architectural assistance. She decried the lack of awareness amongst engineers about their forebears, suggesting this was why modern-day engineers lacked the confidence and context in which to be creative in their own right. Jean-Rodolphe Peronnet was offered as an example: few in the audience had heard of one of the greatest structural engineers of the 18th century. In contrast, architects understand their history very well, and see themselves as part of a tradition of productive, creative personalities.

I have a lot of sympathy for this point, seeing it in both colleagues and students. I see it as an issue of aspiration: designers need role models to learn from and to set scales of ambition. Many engineers simply fail to understand how great they could be, and along with an education which concentrates on analysis to the almost total exclusion of communication, presentation and creative design, this really does hold them back. I don't personally think we need to develop engineers who are good collaborators with architects - I think we need engineers who can be great designers in their own right, and they will then be successful both alone and in collaboration.

The architectural side of the debate was presented by Jim Eyre, of Wilkinson Eyre, and critic Hugh Pearman. Eyre addressed many of the same points, and presented a few quite ugly examples of what an engineer could produce alone, citing Maillart's Zuoz Bridge as the start of an era of boring engineer-designed bridges. Eyre noted that an architect's training made them far more aware of issues of context, culture, the experiential rather than solely functional side of a bridge, and that engineering training produced people ill-suited to addressing these issues.

He highlighted a period post-Zuoz when the engineer became king, and poor quality visual design resulted: the age of the motorway expansion, where least-cost no longer meant least-material (i.e. elegant), but fastest-to-build, and dull identikit concrete structures resulted.

Eyre also highlighted the key role that the procurement process plays in determining the success of design. Projects are increasingly led from a commercial rather than design perspective, with the contribution that design can make devalued. The increase in contractor-led design, in particular, has led to a focus on value-engineering which often reduces cost while simultaneously diminishing genuine value.

These are fair complaints, but appeared to attack the symptoms rather than the cause. Why do clients not value design? I think that both fee-paying clients and end-users, the public, share a lack of understanding of quality, and hence of value. Put simply, they do not know what a good bridge is, particularly where "good" is defined by engineering attributes. This even extends to visual aspects, where a widespread lack of visual literacy leads to some really spectacularly ugly architect-led designs being lauded as if they were actually good. The internet is full of such designs, and design competitons attract them like super-magnets. Instead, clients and the public often fall back on more straightforward yardsticks such as least-cost, or false signifiers of value, such as celebrity (the "it's Zaha Hadid so it must be good" syndrome).

Pearman did draw attention to the role of the public, who would not normally care about who "owns" bridge design. Architects were simply better at articulating their vision, at explaining design, but even they remain for the most part un-named and unknown to the general public.

I think this issue of "credit" for design is, or should be, a red herring. It seems to exercise many engineers who feel their contribution is often ignored, and while this is true, I think back to the motorway era. Although Jim Eyre suggested this period was the nadir of low-visual-quality, engineer-led design, I think there were also some very creative engineers at work during this period, highly innovative, and visually aware. I've recently posted a series of examples from the Sheffield-to-Leeds and Leeds-to-Manchester motorways on this blog: remarkable, sometimes beautiful structures, where no architect was involved, and where the engineers were not seeking any special recognition, but content to serve the public with humility.

I think it's vital that we train better-rounded engineers, who aspire to emulate the great engineers of the past. It's vital that we train people who can explain and articulate their designs. We should aim to encourage great designers who can transcend their training, from whichever background they come. But the relative roles of different designers only serve as the means towards an end, which is producing great bridges. More effort is require to explain to clients and end-users what "great" actually is, and why it can mean structures without flash, bling or spectacle. Only then can the people who use and pay for our bridges be in a position to "own" bridge design, and allow the designers to slip happily back into the shadows.


CC said...

I enjoyed the debate and I believe Ian and Jim raised good issues and presented reasonable arguments, nevertheless all of them were evident for any professional in the bridges industry.

The low point of the night was definitely the participation of Julia Elton, which concluded her arguments with the brilliant statement that engineers own bridge design because they choose the spans and the materials, that is belittling to the profession and as offensive as stating that the architect only exists to choose the colour of the paint.

Hugh Pearman participation was poor too, presented examples of bridges in private complexes that aren’t suited for public use and compared those with bridges that serve a different scope. During the presentation I also got the impression that he does not know the difference between a box girder and a pad foundation.

The debate could have been more interesting if unqualified people were excluded from participating. Overall it was a good event and I really enjoyed the participation on Tania, Ian and Jim.

Imre said...

I've always got a weird feeling when the "good old times" strigs are being played on, like when Jean-Rodolphe Peronnet was mentioned. I think such examples detract from the context. Like the theory of Thomas Kuhn about scientific research and progress: at a certain time, many people are working on a puzzle, but only those adding significant pieces will be remembered in the future. To put an example: it is like asking the question "if Michelangelo / Rembrandt / Delacroix / Dalí (insert the name of any known painter) could paint such excellent paintings, why are there bad/ugly paintings today?" In my opinion, the point that's being missed is: at the time Michelangelo / Rembrandt / Delacroix / Dalí / etc. were creating their masterworks, how many other contemporary painters delivered works that have been forgotten since then? At their times, were all paintings and painters that excellent? As for bridge design: how many "unsuccessful" or ugly bridges had been built in times of e.g. Brunel or Maillart - in the pre-Zuoz-era, to use Jim Eyre's categories? My guess is that the overall scheme was not too different from nowadays. The reasons why we feel it differently may be that we are fare more aware of aesthetical qualities than we used to be some decades ago (see the line of art deco, works of Raymond Loewy, and the ever increasing importance of industrial design in the 20th century). Second, we simply don't remember or know how the "bridgescape" looked long ago, since only the remarkable examples are being remembered, while the less remarkables are gone very often both physically and their memories.

Imre said...

As to the points made in the blogpost "Many engineers simply fail to understand how great they could be, and along with an education which concentrates on analysis to the almost total exclusion of communication, presentation and creative design, this really does hold them back." and "In contrast, architects understand their history very well, and see themselves as part of a tradition of productive, creative personalities."
To put my opinion in a oversimplified way: architects create spaces and buildings for people to live in, with this activity being centered around the human being. Its (minimum) requirements have been summarized comprehensively at least since the Bauhaus times for the "Western civilization" (e.g. Architect's Data - the "Neufert"). From this point of view, learning architectural history consists of examining how these spaces for human were created in different ages and by different architects.
On the other side, the "task" of a bridge designer is somewhat different: it concentrates at less requirements (to bridge an obstacle for certain users) and less social context, but the technical means to do that are changing fast. In this context, learning engineering history would also entail the reasons for choosing a particular structure, the reason why it was built in a certain way, which is also connected with availability of construction materials and techniques in the given time. As a contrast, in the course of teaching architectural history, similar questions, such as "why a building was designed like that, and why not other variants had been built" are only rarely dealt with.
Nevertheless, the lack of historical backsight, or "rootlessness" of civil engineers is an existing drawback of the profession.

And in my opinion, the reason why bridge and civil engineers draw less inspiration from forebears than architects may be the required level of "safety". The measures of architectural or ergonomical qualities of buildings and spaces are quite vague - they are prone to personal taste and cannot be tested objectively. Hence, there is no such thing in architectural design that "quality verified", in contrast to "bearing capacity verified" in engineering design, or a declaration of performance for building materials. On the other hand, this is of course no excuse for caring little about the wider contexts and aesthetics of a bridge design.

The Happy Pontist said...

I think the point about Peronnet was simply to contrast the awareness of engineers of their history with the awareness of architects, rather than because Peronnet's work has any real relevanc today. An understanding of history teaches us not only about what was produced in very different contexts, and why, but about the conditions under which various aspirational achievements may arise.

These are things such as innovation, development of new forms for new materials, use of minimal materials etc. These do not all occur inevitably but require certain conditions to occur together. History begs us to ask whether we can re-create similar conditions.

It also reminds us that most innovations were the result of iteration, prototyping and free exchange of ideas within the engineering community.

History also offers precedents, which need not be copied or pastiched, but which can be turned inside out, reversed, rotated etc to inspire new concepts. Historical awareness can therefore contribute to present-day creativity.

Finally, history helps us identify traps for the unwary. We can learn from failure as well as from success e.g. from bridge collapses, the causes of which are rarely purely technical.

Droichead said...

This is an interesting issue and it is also important to address it in the right cultural context. The education of civil and structural engineers in the UK is quite different than in France,Germany or Spain. For example, if you look at Carlos Fernandez Casado office you can find extremely good bridges without the intervention of an architect, something similar applies to Jiry Stratsky or Michel Virlogeux bridges where the contribution of architects is secondary, and the example mentioned by Ian Firth, SBP. Similarly, one of the best books in bridge aesthetics is written by an engineer (ok,"baumaster") Leonhardt and it is difficult to find any modern text as comprehensive and high quality written by an architect on this subject. My experience is that the role of the architect in bridge design is more of support and less of a lead in continental Europe than in the UK, with notable exceptions such as Calatrava although he is on his own league and this is differenciation comes from the formal education and the power balance between engineers and architects in the anglosaxon countries and continental europe.

I personally find the word "ownership" too strong, usually good designs are team work and ownership is not really a good concept to express the design process, who is better prepared to lead a bridge design team is probably a better approach. Javier Manterola, an excellent Spanish bridge engineer expressed it quite well in an interview: "The bridge usually poses a relatively simple functional challenge: crossing from A to B but in many cases the structural challenge is formidable, on the other hand a building poses a extremely complex functional challenge - to provide a space for human activities - but the structural problem is usually much simpler". Between achitects and engineers, it is quite clear who is better at addressing functional problems and who is more qualified to address structural ones. This distinction clearly shows who is better prepared to lead the design on each case (Buildings and Bridges) either the engineer or the architect. On both cases, the right dialog and support from the counterpart is critical for a better outcome and the ownership is always to the team.

Unknown said...

Hi CC,

I found your comment "The debate could have been more interesting if unqualified people were excluded from participating." very strange. This debate was part of a project that aims to engage the general public in the ideas behind bridge design.

There are plenty of events organised by ICE, IStructE, RAEng and IABSE that are exclusively aimed at qualified engineers. This was not one of them.

I thought all the speakers were great, balancing serious points with good humour. Not an easy task.

My regret is that there wasn't enough time for questions from the floor to stimulate a really meaty debate with the audience.

Glad you found it to be a good event overall.

Anonymous said...

Motorway bridges held as a bad example! I suggest reading-


The Happy Pontist said...

Many motorway bridges are exemplars of poor design, but I think I've featured more than a few good motorway bridges on this blog, and there are plenty more I might cover in the future.