Recent years have seen an increased acknowledgement of the collective endeavour that is architecture and a better valuing of the different professions that participate in the design process. Within every extraordinary building, structural engineering plays an essential role in delivering the architectural vision. The article highlights the past and present contributions of engineering to the built environment, personalities that have stood in the shadow of architects delivering their design intent, and the collaboration between engineers and architects today.
Innovation in architecture stems from valuing the strengths of each profession involved in the design process. From Utzon's Syndey Opera House to ZHA's Heydar Aliyev Center, or OMA's The Interlace, spectacular projects show the commitment of engineers to achieve the design vision, with solutions that blend seamlessly within the final built object. The following is an acknowledgement of the essential role of structural engineers in architecture.
Engineering Advancing Architecture
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Engineers rose to prominence within the field of architecture in the 19th century, when they created an architectural revolution unfolding an entirely new aesthetic of glass and metal structures. The mass production of steel and glass in countries like England and France made them widely available construction materials demanding new architectural forms. Still, architects were relatively slow in adopting them. While architecture in Western Europe was struggling to define e new aesthetic, engineers, free from the constraints of architectural canon, were quick to use glass and steel to create innovative structures, which in turn prompted the emergence of projects such as Victor Baltard's Les Halles in Paris or Joseph Paxton's Crystal Palace in London.
That episode in history shaped a new aesthetic that would radically transform architecture and pave the way for future bold designs. Since then, innovation in structural engineering has continued advancing architecture. Moreover, contemporary research projects push the boundaries of engineering design and material science, developing innovative structural systems, especially in the realm of computational design. In this sense, for several years now, the Institute for Computational Design (ICD) and the Institute of Building Structures and Structural Design (ITKE) have been creating a series of experimental pavilions with the goal of developing applications for the field of architecture.
Engineers Who Shaped Contemporary Architecture
Architects with engineering backgrounds such as Santiago Calatrava, Eero Sarineen or Frei Otto are well-known for their advancement of architecture. Lesser known are the engineers without which many iconic buildings wouldn't have looked the same. Ove Arup was one of the most distinguished engineers of the 20th century. He defined his practice as "total architecture", meaning that "all relevant design decisions have been considered together and have been integrated into a whole". Peter Rice was another influential figure in both engineering and architecture, who Renzo Piano referred to as "a pianist who can play with his eyes shut", describing his skills in structural design. A champion of innovation, the engineer, was a partner at ARUP and was involved in the creation of buildings such as the Syndey Opera House, Centre Pompidou, or Kansai International Airport. What these and other figures have in common is their understanding of the essential role of a tight collaboration between architects and engineers.
A Collaborative Process
There is an increased value placed on interdisciplinarity and collaboration, which can be seen in how both engineering and architectural firms diversify their scope, bringing complementary specialities in-house. Offices like SOM have integrated architecture and engineering in their work and take pride in the results of the close collaboration between the two professions, while firms such as Arup have expanded their area of expertise into design and planning. In a lecture titled A Manifesto for Structural Design, Foster+Parterns' Head of Structural Engineering, Roger Ridsdill Smith, describes the outcome of this kind of collaborative process by saying that "most innovation comes from the transfer of technology and most of that comes from collaboration and communication". In the lecture, Smith breaks down the engineering work behind some of the firm's designs, such as The Vieux Port Pavilion, Maggie's Cancer Centre in Manchester, or Tocumen International Airport, providing an insight into the structural challenges of each project and how the team managed to deliver on the design intent.
By no means a comprehensive picture of the highly complex field, with numerous outstanding personalities and established history and evolution, the examples illustrate how engineering and architecture interweave. When praising a design and the architect that envisioned it, it is worth keeping in mind the commitment of engineers and many other professionals that delivered the best possible solution to achieve great architecture.
This article is part of the ArchDaily Topic: Collective Design. Every month we explore a topic in-depth through articles, interviews, news, and projects. Learn more about our monthly topics. As always, at ArchDaily we welcome the contributions of our readers; if you want to submit an article or project, contact us.