chris wise engineer

Preface review for the book: “The Size of Shape”, Agusti Obiol

Engineering is not an abstract condition….it is an Art practiced on behalf of society by a special subset of all human beings. One explanation of the special role of the structural engineer is to set up 3 dimensional space and to keep it there, for use, in the 4th dimension. Of course, every young child experiments with this, and so in our formative years we may all be engineers in general, and structural engineers in particular. In those early years many of us go through an intense, if ad hoc, education about the behaviour of forces and structures and systems in the natural world. Structures in particular are highly suitable to anthropomorphic understanding. It is no surprise that in architectural design teams, everyone imagines themselves to have at least some knowledge of engineering practice, in a way that we don’t about other technical disciplines such as, say, atomic physics or the manufacture of jet engines. But engineering is also seen as mathematically demanding, meaning that, especially to those with an arts education, to begin a conversation without high numeracy risks revealing a personal weakness. Because of this contradiction, engineering, especially in architecture, often occupies a curious middle ground…on the one hand it is perceived as too numerically and theoretically complex to engage with safely, on the other, it is so commonplace and childish that it doesn’t require any special expertise at all.

The evolution of structural engineering from its ancient trial and error days, through the development of applied mathematics, into today’s virtual analysis has gradually shifted the emphasis away from the physicality of what we do. It is now perfectly possible for an engineer or an architect to draw something apparently amazing in a computer without any real awareness as to whether it would “work” as a viable structure. So, unfortunately, we can now jump evolutionary steps without subjecting our creations to the “survival of the fittest” test that would be normal for most good designs in a physical world.  So as today’s engineers and architects we have great power in our hands, but also great vulnerability.

Agusti Obiol is a practicing engineer of the better kind…in working with him and his practice BOMA on the Las Arenas project in Barcelona I witnessed the behaviour of a man whose pragmatism is mapped firmly onto physical reality. That is why in his book we find the core engineering themes which underlie so much of our architecture discussed with insight. This book is no place for fantasy. Nor is a place for uncertainty…the concepts are discussed here by Obiol with precision. But hidden within, perhaps written between the lines for the reader to discover, there lie the present echoes of great imaginations of the past….because every example required a human being to conjure up an idea, and to have the determination to test it, to refine it, and eventually to build it. And the very best ideas are those that stand such scrutiny again and again when they become physical artefacts standing on Planet Earth, and evolve from generation to generation. It is these most tested, if often the simplest, which Obiol describes here with their context.

We may ask why Obiol works this way, and a clue comes in the word “engineer”. The origin of this is the Latin ingenium  meaning “mother wit, natural quality”. Ingenium may be contrasted with scientia (knowledge), from which of course we take the word “science”.  Here I might mention that there is often great confusion even among engineers who confuse engineering with science. This is wrong, because the role of the scientist is to observe the world and to make sense of it…so the intellectual process of science begins externally and ends up as a theorem or concept inside the mind.   Engineers (and architects too by the way), on the other hand, begin with inside the head with an idea. That is to say, they begin in the mind, and eventually turn that idea into something that can exist outside as a physical reality, as a project.

The important conclusion here is that, contrary to much popular misunderstanding, engineering is actually the opposite of science.  This is not to say that scientific knowledge has no place in engineering projects…of course it does, and scientific knowledge is a vital tool for engineers. Many of the concepts presented in this book are the results of scientific enquiry, often of the scientific process applied to engineering works. But in practicing the art of engineering, the engineer uses every available tool, including scientific tools but also weaving in an understanding of human need, of finance, of performance, of efficiency, of intrinsic beauty. Good engineering, as part of good architecture, relies on the well-judged interplay between these and many other project-specific issues. It is the art of the search for the solution to an open problem, rather than the linear application of some closed theorem. While you can’t “science” a project, you can definitely “engineer” one.

So, to return to Obiol and his explanation of engineering through examples of  “mother wit, natural quality”…why does he do that? Well, I believe he is trying to help those of us who want to engage with the world of engineering to conceive ideas better…helping us to take a shortcut through the conceptual process by laying out some of the best tried and tested products of many generations of human thought, in a way that can be used by engineer or architect as a fruitful starting point for their own new ideas.

There is another reason that these concepts are important, and that is to build in the fledgling designer an understanding of the degree of tolerance, of flow, of the “wriggle-room” that a given idea might contain. To put it another way, how much room is there for manoeuvre, for improvisation, before the just-born precious idea fails a critical test and has to be cast aside.  The architect Renzo Piano’s phrase for this is “the turbo-charged application of experience”. The architectural critic Jonathan Glancey says of the Irish engineer Peter Rice, Piano’s long time collaborator: “His poetic invention, his ability to turn accepted ideas on their head and his rigorous mathematical and philosophical logic made him one of the most sought-after engineers of our times”.  In this way is to be found an  increasing confidence in one’s ability to generate well-founded ideas, and many of them, sometimes by deliberately inverting received wisdom to see what happens.

I would say that one way to find the new is to properly understand the old, the classic, the proven. In this book there is a strong sense that these concepts, properly understood through their natural wit, provide both engineers and architects with an accelerated path along the journey from novice to, it is hoped, eventual mastery of their art.

2nd November 2011

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