chris wise engineer

The exhibition “Panamarenko” at the Hayward Gallery….and my impossible bike

Once upon a time, I designed a bike which would enable me to break the land speed record. It was a long time ago…. I think I was about eight. The idea seemed so simple….just join a series of bikes together so that the small cog at the back of one powered the big cog at the front of the next. The more times you did this, the faster the back wheel would go.

I planned to make the bike in our garden and test it in the field behind the house. Although the soil had just been ploughed I thought that the bike would go fine once it overcame the lumps. I asked my dad to buy me the gears. He said he’d like to, but he didn’t think it would work…. he was absolutely certain, but I didn’t understand why…..but in the end he convinced me that the world’s fastest bike couldn’t work…it was impossible and I had to reluctantly forget about the idea………

….until this week when I was in the Hayward Gallery in London looking at some pieces of work by a sculptor named Panamarenko. There were flying machines and jets and devices to enable you to move around the world in ways that no-one had ever thought of. As an engineer it was blindingly obvious to me that they would never work (which is probably just as well as Panamarenko hates flying). There were some artists nearby who said that was fine because he didn’t want them to fly anyway, and that the work was filled with sublime “pathos” because Panamarenko had tried so hard to make them fly, knowing all along that they never could. Everything had been lovingly crafted not to work. The engineers in the audience bristled when they heard this…scathing at the folly of it all. After all, why would anyone deliberately make something that couldn’t work? (Of course it depends on your own definition of “working”). I much preferred Leonardo’s designs for aerial machines at the Science Museum.

Later on the same evening it struck me that Panamarenko and the critical engineers might have been part of the same continuum…and so were their evening’s adversaries the nearby artists. And so, of course, were the architects who stood quietly by and weighed up the evidence. The only difference between the most devout engineer and the most pagan artist was their place on that continuum. Whether they were at the dreamers’ end or in the realists’ bunker. It is said that architects dream dreams, and engineers turn those dreams into reality. Engineers design something that has to work somehow. At the far-realist end of the continuum is the engineer who only ever copies what has been done before (just beyond that is the sur-realist). Maybe there is a code or a theory to help things stay real. For these engineers, everything works, but nothing new ever happens and eventually they lose their spark. Inventive engineers push the boundaries so that more things work tomorrow than would work yesterday. They design things which are at the limits of what’s possible. And they have to do this first in their imagination and then build it and woe betide them if they’ve pushed it too far. And just disappearing over the opposite horizon is the artist who doesn’t care in the slightest whether things work…they just have to exist. Somewhere in between is the sculptor Panamarenko…..perversely designing things that approach the “working” threshold from the “wrong” side….you get the feeling that if he is not careful he just might design something that would actually work and then he’d be in very deep water.

And somewhere else near that “working” threshold is the architect….the dreamy ones sometimes step across into areas that don’t function and mess around there for a bit before they step back…..their colleague the hard-pressed project architect doesn’t ever get near that boundary as absolutely everything has to work first time or there’ll be serious trouble.

This is a bit like the way that children play…a young child dreams of making a rocket to go to the moon out of a few sofa cushions and a couple of jam-jars. And some architects dream of making their vision out of not much more and then hand it to an engineer to sort it out and make it work. Which is to say that they indulge themselves on the far-side of the working threshold and allow themselves or others to pull them back to reality. This approach is intrinsically interesting. The product designer Phillippe Starck works this way too, often very successfully. As designers we sometimes talk about working from the ideal towards the constraints. Of course, engineers have a lot of knowledge of constraints…they come from the forces of nature. The consequences of “failure” are rammed down engineers’ throats and so they have a tendency to start from the constraints….and sometimes stay there. Engineering jargon is full of it…we design for “progressive collapse”, “failure”, “yield”, “crushing”…we might as well design for “torture”, “murder” and “the slaughter of the innocents”. With such a fund of constraint knowledge, it takes a lot of courage to venture even a little way into a place where the answer isn’t so predictable. A bit of celebratory language wouldn’t go amiss…why not jump up and say “We engineers have been brilliant…we work with Mother Nature so that we can do amazing things like make buildings reach to the heavens and bridge fly across canyons…..not bad, eh?”. And some architects or even artists might reply “ That’s fantastic…..and we’ve worked together with you to make it beautiful, so that we can like it….. and it “works” on other levels too, perhaps just for itself”.

How can we learn more about this and get the message across to each other? As part of my first year engineering class at Imperial College I ask the students to make a paper and string plane and fly it. Sometimes they make a passable model of a recognisable aircraft and it flies averagely. And sometimes they make a new sort of aircraft that obviously couldn’t fly at all. This year some of them made a triangular pyramid-shaped plane like a flying tent. It was quite big…about two metres across. It took three hours to make and eventually they stood on the launch pad and raised their creation aloft. They knew that was the moment of truth…the engineer’s acid test…..either it would work , or it would crash and smash into smithereens. They all held it aloft, counted to three and threw it into the void. And the plane imploded after a tenth of a second and crashed. It was beyond salvation. They were mortified.

Last year another group made a completely flat diamond-shaped plane with no recognisable fuselage or wings, and no tailfin or control surfaces. They launched it, and it too crashed at their feet, accompanied by much jeering from their peers. Everyone knew it obviously couldn’t work. The designers took it away into a nearby private corridor and played with it to see if they could improve things. When they came back, it still crashed down. So they went away again and came back for a last try after everyone else had thrown their planes. This time they launched the diamond, and it flew straight and level past all the other planes and on and on until it hit the back wall of the classroom 20 metres away at the same height as it had been launched. Their paper stealth bomber had confounded everybody’s expectations, not least mine. They had the trim and balance just right, and they had worked out how to make their idea work. To them, their plane became beautiful because they had invented it, made it, and then worked at it to get it to float through the sky. I don’t know if an architect would have done the same, but I like to think they would understand the end-product and share in the enjoyment just as much.

I didn’t much like Panamarenko’s deliberately “pathetic” flying machines at the Hayward Gallery. I just wanted to fix them so that they really could fly.

But he made me think again about engineers, architects and artists …and so perhaps his stuff did “work” rather well, after all.

(Written with apologies to all practical architects and visionary engineers)

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