Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
All jokes aside, engineers are practically creative
The avalanche of angst triggered by my last column – mostly from Grossly Offended, Chief Engineer, City of Widgie-Blackstump – just proved my point really. Engraved in square-bottomed ruler-writing at every engineering-school door in the country are these words. Joke-free Zone. Please Deposit Sense of Humour in Bin Provided. Said bin, writhing with ejected jokes, is emptied hourly, lest the sight of those little twitching corpses should deter. (Uh this, too is a joke – Ed.)
The thing about engineers is they’re such fun to make fun of. Just as prepositions are fun to end a sentence with. Hard men they may be, but soft targets.
In my undergrad days, “engineering student” was code for “lout in whom uncouthness has been nurtured into an art form”. The engineers were known for public nudity, extreme inebriation and random renderings of the haka, often at the same time. Offence? Engineers were offence personified.
Much less enjoyable was the way that, in practice, engineers seemed to enjoy making an elegant structure klutzy and elephantine, shoving false floors and ceilings everywhere to hide a nightmare tangle of services and, as project managers, erasing every feature that might ever give anyone (besides the developer) delight.
But there is another side to the post-modern engineering marvel. For what the contemporary engineer may lack in humour he makes up for in acuity, modesty and (yes, I’m serious) creativity.
The Opera House is our most obvious example. Without the genius of the engineers Peter Rice and Jack Zunz, what we know as Utzon’s glorious shells would certainly have been less glorious – flatter, squatter, less sprightly – and, quite probably, never built at all.
Rice and Zunz – along with others in Ove Arup’s team like the Australian John Nutt – played a role that was subtly different from the traditional. Rather than taking the architect’s fabulous, winged concept and giving it legs, as we’d all been taught, they were engaging with, amending – and yes, improving – the idea itself. As Nutt notes in a recent Opera House essay, “design cannot be undertaken without a construction strategy in mind”.
Of course design without stand-up strategy can be done, and often is – particularly by architects, and most particularly by those architects who (like Utzon) specialise in winning international competitions. Indeed, the absence of a construction strategy is crucial to the winning strategy.
Architectural tradition puts the gentleman genius – the architect – at the apex of the pyramid. Below him, supporting his reach for the top of the ideational tree, are the rest, including the engineer. This is no surprise. What did surprise me, the first time, was to hear engineers talk about design as though they were the ones doing it.
Design, you have to understand, is architecture’s godhead. Design is the sacred and ineffable core of the beast. Design is what turns a job into a calling. So to have engineers talking design is nigh intolerable.
Yet design they do. And in a way that puts the gentleman back into professional. Engineers don’t need to distinguish themselves with funny glasses or chic writing implements or quirky cars. They don’t write – or have others ghostwrite – toadying books about themselves. Ove Arup was arguably the 20th century’s greatest three-dimensional thinker but his biography features the old man’s head, wispy and bespectacled, from behind. The architect gazes at the camera’s reflecting lens, the engineer gazes at the world.
Consider Beijing’s Watercube. There have long been mutterings about who really designed it, and who got the credit. This is no surprise, and to some extent, that’s the game. You work for Frank Lloyd Wright, he’s going to be credited with the lovely window detail you devised for Mrs Heurtley’s house in Oak Park.
John Bilmon, director of PTW, has never been known as a designer. The firm itself has no particular design profile (except for its pretty, curved design for Sydney’s first skyscraper, the 1962 AMP building Circular Quay) and even within that oeuvre, Bilmon is not noted for his design prowess. Yet it is he who travels the world garnering plaudits for the Watercube.
Indeed, hearing Bilmon’s repetitive insistence that the Watercube is “one of the most spectacular buildings in the world today” you might even think him a skite. Except for one thing. It’s not his work. Many architects were involved in the design – half a dozen from PTW (Chris Bosse, Andrew Frost, Mark Butler and Kurt Wagner), three from the Chinese architectural practice CCDI and maybe eight engineers (led by Tristram Carfrae) from Arup.
We may never know who first blew the bubble, although Bosse had been designing bubble architecture before arriving in Sydney in 2002. The Sydney architects all wanted a water metaphor, as architects do, but CCDI’s imposition of the “cube”, for symbolic reasons, meant they couldn’t rely on form.
Beyond that, there are two points of consensus. One, Bilmon wasn’t in the room. And two, it was engineer Carfrae who made the critical leap from a bubble-look to a bubble-form membrane that would admit light, conserve heat, transmit sound, look fabulous and hold itself up. If that’s not design, what is?