Function v. Rhetoric

Peter Campbell

  • Architect and Engineer by Andrew Saint
    Yale, 541 pp, £45.00, March 2008, ISBN 978 0 300 12443 9

It is difficult to work out who gets the credit for a building – so many people are involved, from owners, contractors and governments to bricklayers and roofers – but it is particularly hard to decide what is due to the architect and what to the engineer. Andrew Saint, in his new book, sees them as sibling rivals, and in tracing how their relations have changed over time, looks for answers to three questions. Was there a time when the roles of architect and engineer were indistinguishable? If so, how and why did they separate? And, finally, have they now been reconciled?

Robert Maillart’s Salginatobel Bridge of 1930.
Robert Maillart’s Salginatobel Bridge of 1930.

The modern distinction, at its simplest, is that architects invent – draw or model the shapes they want materials to take – and engineers calculate how those shapes, when realised, would respond to the stresses they have to bear. By that definition architecture is imagination, engineering analysis. ‘What is architecture?’ Etienne-Louis Boullée asked in the 18th century. ‘Am I to define it, with Vitruvius, as the art of building? No … To execute you must first conceive … It is that production of the mind, that creation, which constitutes architecture.’ Boullée didn’t have many chances to build and, freed from practicalities, gave rein to a remarkable architectural imagination in unbuilt – virtually unbuildable – projects. It is because they seem to give access to moments of Boulléan creativity that the scraps of paper and backs of envelopes that record architects’ first thoughts about great buildings become treasured relics.

Engineers too leave evidence of early thoughts, but it is when things get built that their stature becomes evident. In Architect and Engineer: A Study in Sibling Rivalry, Saint says that the 19th-century bridge engineer ‘swells the heart. He tackles challenges, sports skills, takes risks and proffers visions of an order the architect cannot match. A mythical figure, he stands for resolution of humanity’s struggle between matter and spirit. For the full heroic effect he must be isolated from his collaborators and subordinates.’ As time passed, the engineer’s ability to think through structural problems – how to span a gorge or cover an amphitheatre – made his the more important role when it came to challenging projects. The architect became a kind of decorator: the preparatory design for the Eiffel Tower is as stark as a modern electricity pylon, and it took on its final ornamental character only after Sauvestre’s lacy embellishments had been added. In the 20th century, architects, enthralled by what engineers could do, began to borrow from them. Before, architects had been left with the job of making extreme engineering pretty; now engineers might find themselves trying to make extreme architecture buildable. A point has been reached at which neither party says: ‘You really can’t do that.’ Sibling rivalry has become, according to your point of view, a good-tempered marriage in which problems are solved jointly; or a folie à deux in which architect and engineer egg each other on to ever greater excesses.

Saint concentrates on France, Britain and the US, with asides on Switzerland and Germany. Sometimes he follows an audit trail to make sure that credit has been given where it’s due. For instance, the US Army Corps of Engineers owed something of its organisation and training to a French tradition that began in the 17th century. In France and America military engineers had unusually wide remits. They were taught not only how to plan defence works – pontoon bridges and so forth – but were given a grounding in architecture sufficient for the planning and design of barracks, even of public buildings. Work on military projects under the US Corps of Engineers in the 1940s gave the young firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill experience of large-scale building operations, which helped them expand into a firm of architect-engineers of a size never seen before.

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