chris wise engineer

Is a Pooping Man obscuring your view?

Off to Arup’s London Design Week event, where Antony Gormley talks about “Exposure”, his new 60 tonne latticework figure in the Netherlands. As he speaks, the sculpture is settling down for another night perched on its little spit of land surrounded by water. It reflects what its creator calls “the body as an energy system”. It is big, 26m tall even though squatting down, but tiny when seen from the nearest town of Lelystad. Nevertheless, one unimpressed local accuses it of blocking his “view”. The Dutch, prosaically, call the sculpture “De Poepende Man”, the Pooping Man, but as Gormley says “Having a cr*p is one of the most relaxing and intimate moments one has in the world”.

I ask him about differences between his poetic language as an artist and our language as engineers. He says, well, engineers are somehow repressed if they persist in speaking in a way ordinary people can’t understand. He then quotes “polyhedral and multi-directional matrices” at me to show that, anyway, he’s learned our lingo. This of course gets a laugh from the engineers in the room who can spot a home truth but still dearly love it when anyone talks dirty to them.

As I leave, Arup shyly hand out a book of their greatest hits 2010. A bit later, I sit reading it from a Gormley-esque position thinking that, surely, engineers do not need to hitch themselves to the coat-tails of an artist, no matter how wonderful, to justify their existence. I thought I knew Arup well, but the work of just one year described inside their book is staggering in its global relevance and technical audacity. Putting aside my fondness for the sculptor and his work, and for Arup, when they chose Antony Gormley to showcase the engineers’ contribution to human creativity…didn’t they sense just a tiny but very significant lack of confidence in themselves? At this critical time, why is the engineers’ enormously helpful technological light still afraid to come out from beneath a rather small if polyhedral and multi-directional Poop Man?

A partial answer emerged a few days earlier at Imperial College. At a conference on the Education of Engineering Leaders, I was on a panel of industrialists tasked with telling the academics how life really is. Not a task I really relished, as last time I did this at Imperial I had to wear a book inside my coat to avoid being stabbed by the professors. Up stepped well–spoken Sir Peter Williams, Chairman of the National Physical Laboratory and eminent Royal Societician. A former Chairman of the UK’s Engineering and Technology Board, he was just back from the United Nations, where he helped review the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He mentioned a building crammed full of planners, politicians and scientists, but said simply “The engineers were notable by their absence”. Perhaps, he mused, they had something more important to do?

He was preceded by Frank-Stefan Becker of engineering giant Siemens…representing 405,000 staff worldwide. Siemens is so big that they don’t even bother to put their washing machines in their annual accounts. Their figures are staggering… for example just their not-for-profit foundation the Siemens Stiffung has been given an endowment of €400 million, which has been earmarked exclusively for non-profit-activities in social commitment, education, technology, research and innovation as well as art and culture. Worthy though this all is, perhaps they were too busy making trains to go to the IPCC. So the enigma remains…where are the engineers?

Then I meet Richard K Miller from the newly minted Olin College in Massachusetts. Olin has set itself the goal of producing humanised C21st engineers, albeit generously funded by an arms magnate. In correspondence afterwards, Prof. Miller say engineers sometimes don’t engage because their education misses a couple of rather fundamental bits of the creative jigsaw. He says: Innovation = Feasibility + Viability + Desirability. Engineering education usually misses Viability (the business case), and Desirability (the emotional proposition based in the liberal arts), and concentrates instead on Feasibility, usually technical. Exactly the task for the engineers did on the Gormley sculpture but only a part of creativity.

One last reflection about the Arup lecture room….that same basement in the mid 1980’s was the home of the DEC 10, a massive computer which analysed the most complex engineering projects of the age, like Stansted and the Hong Kong Bank HQ. The great machine’s human interface was a mountain of computer printout through which young engineers would sift by hand, looking for the single highest 16 digit number which would make the difference between triumph and disaster. Long gone, the DEC 10 has been replaced by a funky lecture room in which Arup’s human interface has become Antony Gormley and, dare I say it, his Pooping Man. Who says engineers don’t have a sense of humour?

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