ABOUT THE STRUCTURAL ENGINEER
"About the structural engineer", is an article which follows the master thesis submitted in September 2016 at the Ecole Centrale Lyon to receive the structural engineer diploma. It is the result of six months of applied research undertaken within the Norwegian structural engineering office DIFK (Dipl.-Ing. Florian Kosche AS), led by Florian Kosche.
The main topic is drawn on my double degree of architecture (1) and engineering (2), it addresses the evolution of the role of the – structural – engineer over the centuries and the new possibilities the design process offers him.
Figure known since Antiquity, the contemporary engineer inherits from a long history. Throughout centuries, he has learnt how to shape, adapt and affirm his position and his skills, influencing and influenced by the economic, political and social conditions.
Today there is a growing interest for collaborative work which offers new ways of expression. As it will be further explained in the second part of this essay, the place he occupies during the design process is increasingly important thus he must appeal to skills that were not demanded from him before. How can he master them in order to affirm his position within this process?
Antiquity In Plato’s time, “l’homme spécial” (3) is at the meeting point of the two groups which define the Athenian democracy. Since he is able to transmit his wisdom, the engineering profession is related to praxis (4). Nevertheless, it is also closely linked to poiesis (4) – creative action that cannot be transmitted a priori –, since at that time the engineer works mainly in the military field, conceiving numerous machines to protect the city. In reality, his first goal is not the good of the city but rather a search of a perpetual adaptation of his machines and his constructions in order to solve existing problems. This statement, uncertain and progressive, is totally inconsistent with the ideal city philosophers are interested in, perfect both in its organisation and its hierarchy. This ambiguity he faces questions his political legitimacy, preventing him to be involved in the decision-making process.
The Renaissance marks a change of paradigm in the notion of imperfection. From now on, it is not considered as negative but rather offering possibilities of evolution, which contributes to the emergence of the first figure of the engineer embodied by a perpetual quest for progress. He benefits from wars that occur at that time throughout Europe (5) and suggests to nations artillery and fortifications more effective than their neighbours. To do so, he uses mathematics in a theoretical manner, this is the true turning point that the profession is about to take; it is now interested in the “practical sciences” (6) which derives from the encounter of science with the arts. This step away from practical sense is combined with a wish to share his knowledge by taking advantage of the printer, another ingenious invention of that time. It also allows to bond with the Humanist trend which is spreading in Europe in the 18th century. This intellectual movement gives the engineer the possibility to get involved with contemporary thinkers to fight against the obscurantism and promote knowledge, assigning him a moral responsibility.
During the 19th century, he affirms his social and political role by using solid basis he built up in the past. The arrival of the industrial era is an important factor influencing the engineering practices that are emerging at this time. Nevertheless, as suggested by Picon (7), it is not so obvious that the engineer, whose situation is still unstable at the end of the Enlightenment, is the source of the industrial dynamic in which numbers of societies step in. However, this industrialisation process that animates nations represents the possibility to concretise progressive velleities he obviously fights for since the Renaissance.
In France, the State engineer (8) inherits from convictions developed throughout the Enlightenment century defining him as a person in the service of the public good. He attributes himself an important moral role by wishing to determine what is good from what is bad for the society. The evolution of these principles drives him towards an ambitious vision of the capacities technology can fulfil through the search of the common good. From that moment reflexions on urban planning and the understanding of the territory are emerging. Moreover, utopias rising during the first half of the 19th century generate debates about public/private governances, a sensitive topic which affect many cities. At the same time, they also participate to the Saint-Simonism (9) doctrine, root of the modern technocratic engineering according to Von Hayek (10). In England, the civil engineer ideal bases its legitimacy on the industrial success of the United-Kingdom. This devotion for the empirical aspect of the profession opposes him to the “polytechnicienne” figure, scientifically legitimate. Hence, he questions the principle insinuating that a good knowledge of fundamental sciences must precede the study of applied sciences. The British civil engineer compensates his lack of education in mathematics by having a fine control over the industrial systems. It includes an excellent overview of both the technological design process and its rationalization while having the capacity of reaching an economical solution.
According to Picon, the main difference existing in the beginning of the 19th century between the English and the French engineer, is strongly related to “the role they [the engineers] assign at that time to their search of technical skills and of a responsibility”.
These concerns indicate existing links between the technical and the social virtues embodied by the engineer. It emphasizes the importance he grants, since Antiquity, to the definition of its philosophical, political and societal position. It also shows the principal interest dedicated to the formalisation and the transmission of the knowledge he acquires through his practice.
The post-war period initiates a change in the practice of the engineering profession. Indeed, the discovery and the use of new materials - especially reinforced concrete – invites the engineer to exploit his scientific knowledge. Unfortunately, he abandons his other critical capabilities which have however contributed to his evolution along the centuries. This specialisation he has to assume, supports the tendency of the profession to constitute itself as State corps since the end of the 17th century.
Henceforth, his role seems to have been set in the minds of architects, engineers and even the public. A clear limit between a creative capacity and a scientific knowledge appears, as Rice (11) emphasizes it: “[...] the answer of the architect is above all creative, whereas the one of the engineer is essentially inventive” (12).
Is this distinct boundary the source of great successes that happened in structure and architecture, since the second half of the 19th century? In his memoires, Rice explains how deep he was involved in the design of the “gerberette” of the Pompidou Center or in the truss beam of the Menil foundation; suddenly the limit he has himself described is no longer so obvious.
Conscious of his growing necessity, the question of his role - not yet especially in relation to the design process - is reopened since from the late 70s onwards. At that period, Arup (13) gives his Key Speech, insisting on the equal importance the profession should engage in both the scientific and the humanist approach. Nevertheless, he refuses to give a precise definition of the structural engineer to avoid a kind of abstraction which would, to paraphrase Arup himself, “give a restricting vision of the role of the engineer”. According to him, it seems wiser to present a positive context for the exercise of his profession, based on a wider range of potentials (philosophical, political, social and scientific), in order to reinstate the position he used to have during Antiquity, the one of a thinker.
The engineer, still excited by the will to invent but liberated from the weight of his scientific knowledge, can join the creative sphere even though it is only a small part of his practice. He can undertake responsibilities - the realization of stable and economic structures - while associating it with a broader qualitative research which integrates an aesthetic dimension. Therefore, he participates to a Total Architecture as mentioned by Arup meaning that he must be open to all related disciplines.
This process is not innate and the recognition claimed by Arup far from being immediate. Indeed, Rice often recalls a misunderstanding the engineer will face: “The problem, today as yesterday, is that neither the name nor the role of the engineer are known from the public. Engineers work incognito. [...] A lot of engineers are affected by the little interest the society shows towards them and act accordingly” (14).
Notion of culture
The inventive dimension of the structural engineer firstly relies on his culture which taken in a large sense contributes to define him as a person. Here an analogy can be done with the architect who continually refers to his knowledge during the design process as showed by Valerio Olgiati (15) in its Autobiography Iconography. This notion of culture is a key factor that needs to be considered in order to emphasise new possibilities offered to the structural engineer. The reflexion about it can be more accurate by distinguishing an absolute culture from a relative culture.
The absolute culture, sets the framework prior to any collaborations. It represents as well the referential with which the relational dimension is related to and can be assimilated to the cultural context. This aspect must be considered with all the seriousness needed since it can either improve or spoil a project while establishing at the same time a hierarchy among the actors involved in the discussions.
The Scandinavian countries, due to their social democratic model, implemented in the early 30s, form an interesting example emphasising the existence of an absolute culture. The “democratic capitalism” (16) philosophy they chose led them to base their work organization on the principle of horizontal hierarchy. This egalitarian spirit is taught from a very early age and throughout the educational system. It allows everyone to have equal opportunities to share opinions knowing that they will be considered the same way regardless of the speaker. Concerning the design process, this organization offers the engineer a true possibility to influence both the structural and the aesthetic sides of the project, reminding the notion of Total Architecture expressed by Arup, himself Danish.
These open work processes are currently blooming and are used as model in numerous work organisations. Their collaborative and egalitarian aspects raise a notion of relative culture while illustrating the statement of Olgiati presented before. Indeed, each participant of the project is going to use his own and unique culture during the design process.
The action of the engineer, is mainly based on his scientific culture giving him his legitimacy. Nevertheless, by being involved in a creative process, he must be understood using as many a medium as needed: sketches, dimensions or references. For a short moment, he has to substitute his scientific rigour for a form of scientific-creative approximation, based on a concrete experience but applied to the virtuality of the design process.
These two notions, do not really belong to the scientific education which predefined him. Even if they give the engineer possibilities to affirm his place within that process, they are in contradiction with the scientific approach, by definition, objective and linear. Two dilemmas the engineer has to deal with. Indeed, the creation he may have implies some subjectivity meanwhile the virtuality of the design process suggest a possibility of a nonlinear working flow considering the lack of a physical limit.
In a general way, the engineer is used to evolve in a complex environment with numerous landmarks. Today, the time-consuming and emotional aspects of the design process are new factors he will familiarise with but at the same time, the quality of his action still involves his scientific skills. It is rather a careful balance which considers on one side his ability to understand and to assess proposals while being able to make suggestions and on the other side his capacity to defend the science when the creativity goes grotesque.
Conclusion Finally it is precisely this capacity to momentarily step away from the scientific culture which defines him and to get back into it immediately that offers new possibilities to the structural engineer throughout the design process.
One of the main underlying question is how to encourage the development of this capacity, without affecting it, in order to make his input even more relevant all along this process. Schools and universities have an important role to play in that sense and in the new orientation the profession is taking.
1. Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture de Lyon, graduated in June 2013.
2. Ecole Centrale Lyon, graduated in September 2016.
3. Vérin Hélène, Autour du mot « ingénieur », l'identité de « l'ingénieur » quelques repères historiques. Recherche et formation, N°29, p.11-20, 1998. In the english version of Plato’s Gorgias “l’homme spécial” is translated as “tradesmen”.
4. During Antiquity, praxis evokes the action, mainly mental, subordinate to a result. On the contrary, poiesis, refers to the production of a final object more interesting than its process.
5. Ottoman wars which led to fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Hundred Years War but also the Italy wars are important conflicts that initiate the Renaissance period.
6. Id. 3.
7. Antoine Picon (1957), french engineer, architect and historian.
8. French translation: “Ingénieur polytechnien”.
9. This doctrine created by the Count of Saint-Simon (1760-1825), defends economic and social values that wish the loss of the politic for the benefit of the economy.
10. Friedrich August von Hayek (1899-1992), British philosopher and economist.
11. Peter Rice (1935 – 1992), Irish structural engineer.
12. Rice Peter, Mémoire d’un ingénieur, traduit de l’anglais par Luc Baboulet. Paris. Le Moniteur, 1998.
13. Sir Ove Nyquist Arup (1895 – 1988), British and Danish engineer.
14. Id. 12.
15. In the monography published by El Croquis, Valerio Olgiati explained that he tried for many years to create a non-referential architecture. Even though some of his building are intriguing since they do not belong to any style, he admits that this idea of a non-referential architecture is not possible due to the culture we are anchored in: “it is a dilemma I am facing every day. I have not been able to build a building totally non referential yet. In the end, my architecture is a kind of abstraction” (Olgiati, 2013). Conscious of that immutable tie that exists with the notion of culture, he has published his Autobiography Iconography illustrating the culture that influences his daily practice as recognition of powerlessness.
16. Sejersted Francis, Democratic capitalism, Oslo. Universitetsforlaget AS 1993. Francis Sejersted (1936 – 2015) was a Norwegian historian.