chris wise engineer

The whole world in their pencils

In project meetings you sometimes see engineers struggle to draw a line, and then give up as they mutter “I’m crap at drawing”. This self-deprecating rubbish masks a world of lost opportunity. In the hands of a proper engineer, a single line represents everything, as powerful a communication device as has ever been invented. That sketched line conveys a physicality as great as the table on which it is written, describes in 2 dimensions a space as 3 dimensional as the building in which it is drawn, and carries natural forces as powerful as the earth on which we stand. That doodled line, in the hands of a good engineer, is a code, shorthand for things that are really rather profound.

To an engineer, that line is far more powerful than any spoken language. I once heard Chris McCarthy of Battle McCarthy say “I can draw in any language on the planet”, and everyone poo-pooed him as if he was a pompous twit, but of course on this occasion he was right. So, shame on those engineers who allow their feelings of inadequacy when it comes to arty “drawing” to undermine their own value. And shame on those who scoff when they witness such a line being drawn. More fool them….. instead it would repay them to study that line rather well, and treat it with respect, for there are rich rewards for those who can understand its real significance. In an engineer’s line, there can be enough weight to crush a man, enough strength to save him, or enough subtlety to make a lot of people a lot of money. A line like that is not for novices, but properly handled, conveys a proportion that comes from a true understanding of nature, and a rationality that, used properly, informs everything around us.

An engineering line can be so strong that people, trucks and trains can walk right on top of it. It sits upon mighty foundations, even though they may only be drawn as delicate dots. The line is laden with personality….fluid concrete or twanging steel …. glancing ray of light, or the pel-mel of an onrushing racing car. Contained within that line is a certain knowledge of how it is made….it knows about the steelyard and its workers, or the singer and her voice box. The engineer’s line shouldn’t be confused with a picture….it is shorthand for reality, not an reflection of it. An engineer’s line has a physical presence, yet despite all of its knowledge it cannot help itself…the line has to move in response to physical laws learned in 3,000 years of technology.

An engineer’s line is no trivial flighty thing….on the contrary, the hand that draws it knows even then that it will be tested using everything the natural world can throw at it. At a time of rising sea levels, the precision of a line like that could mean rather a lot. To a water engineer, the line is a river running into a hydro-electric power station with enough energy to light up a whole city. If Archimedes’ principle can be reduced to a single line in the right hands, to a ship engineer that gives birth to an ocean liner.For an acoustic engineer, the line becomes something you can hear, the path of a sound of such a beautiful mix of frequency and amplitude that it says “violin” to the listener and moves you to tears. Others like the precise thrust line inside a Gothic flying buttress, can hold up an entire cathedral.

The mediaeval masters spent years agonising about this stuff, and yet we dismiss it so lightly. For example, Leonardo spends many pages of his Codex notebooks using just this type of line…over and over again he explores with a single stroke of the pen why a ladder doesn’t fall down when a man climbs up it, or how water flows down a plughole, or how light moves through the human eye. The historian Martin Kemp rightly describes these drawings, in the right hands, as “Theory Machines”. What mighty satisfaction there is to be found in a single well-chosen line. I am sure modern engineers are not intimidated by someone who died 500 years ago, so how interesting is it that, with the theory machine still there right at our fingertips, we retreat so often away from drawing in favour of the robotic behaviour of the computer. So, more power to those engineers who have the confidence still to draw a line that speaks for itself, and who understand the power and complexity of the instrument at their command. Engineers using knowledge wisely. Engineers with the whole world in the tips of their pencils.

Postscript: After I wrote this, I read Amanda Levete’s moving tribute to Jan Kaplicky (Building 06.03.09), and was struck by her remark that “He knew ultimately you are judged not by how many cubic metres of concrete you pour but by your original thought”. Here here, Jan.

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