“Filling a space in a beautiful way. That’s what art means to me.” – Georgia O’Keeffe
This past weekend my wife and I were in Providence, visiting our daughter for the purpose of meeting her new boyfriend. Walking through our hotel I noticed an interesting diptych among the artwork decorating the hallway – two pieces celebrating the nearby Exchange Bridge. One piece, an engineering drawing used in the construction, had many characteristics – clean lines, geometric patterns, symmetry, and interesting ornamentation – usually associated with many purely artistic works. The other piece was a photo capturing the beauty of the resulting tangle of structural steel that was the bridge itself. The photographer, coming upon this utilitarian object, recognized that it had “filled a space in a beautiful way” – and thus was art, to Georgia O’Keeffe, to the photographer, as well as to many others who walk the streets of the city (or the halls of that hotel) every day.
Thinking about how the bridge’s engineering (both the design and the resulting structure) had evolved into art got me thinking about other cases where the disparate fields of structural engineering and art overlapped. 30+ years ago, I worked as a technical support engineer for Dynaflex (a leading pipe stress program of that era). I, along with the rest of the staff, took pride in the fact (or the novelty?) that nestled in among all the refineries, power plants, chemical processing plants, and nuclear submarine facilities that made up our customer base there was also an artist who used our product to make sure that his sculptures, built of pipes, did not fall down. Today a similar practice continues among artists such as the sculptor Mark Di Suvero, for whom structural engineering is a primary component of his art.
So here were two different examples – the first, a case of engineering unknowingly becoming art; the second, a case of engineering helping to create the art. But certainly there must be other examples – where the intent of the art and the engineering carry equal weight and are blended from the beginning.
It turns out there actually is a recognized name for the practice that embraces these two disciplines: “Structural Art”. The term (and the concept) was first introduced by David Billington in his 1983 text The Tower and the Bridge. Structural Art gives equal weight to the three E’s of a structure: Efficiency, Economy, and Elegance, proving that this discipline is truly as much (or more) dominated by the engineering aspect as it is the artistic. Examples of structural engineers who are recognized (some retroactively) luminaries of Structural Art are John Roebling, Fazlur Khan, Félix Candela, as well as the engineer behind what may be the best known example of Structural Art:
Why is the Eiffel Tower considered the best example of Structural Art? Well in addition to its beauty, it also is apparently one of the world’s most efficient structures for resisting wind, its predominant design load.
As an engineer it is part of my makeup to appreciate economy and efficiency. But sometimes you want to throw economy and efficiency out the window and see what the engineer/artist can create, using the structure as a canvas. For example, consider what the world would be missing if Dubai’s skyline had been built using economy and efficiency as the main criteria!
In my opinion, the most accomplished engineer/artist practicing today may well be the Spanish-born Santiago Calatrava. (Besides Calatrava, I know of no other structural engineers who can claim solo exhibitions of their work at both NYC’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.)
I first became a fan of Calatrava 10 years ago while traveling through Sevilla, Spain, where I saw his absolutely spectacular Alamillo Bridge, designed as the centerpiece to Sevilla’s Expo ’92. I’ve since had the pleasure to come across a few other of his works in the course of my travels. Still others that I would like to see some day can be viewed at www.calatrava.com. What strikes the browser most about this site is the equal attention that Calatrava seems to place on his artwork (sculpture, ceramics, and drawings) as on his engineering accomplishments.
So it seems there are many ways to blend engineering and art – whether it entails placing a spectacular structure on the skyline, or developing a truly elegant engineering design. The first of course can be enjoyed by all; whereas the second maybe only by those of us who get the engineering principles behind that spectacle.
(Oh, and by the way, for those who hung on, wondering how the meeting with our daughter’s boyfriend went – really well, we approve!)
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By Tom Van Laan
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