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.

SOM’s Lever House in New York – the ‘earliest of the “Miesian” office towers to blunt the Manhattan skyline’, as Saint sees it – was a precocious expression of a new city vernacular of exposed frame and curtain wall. Lever House is one of a string of examples, from Vauban’s fortifications at Lille to London’s Millennium Bridge, that Saint discusses. These exemplary buildings are on the whole familiar, many of them landmarks: taller, wider or more original or refined in their structure than anything that had gone before. Since Saint’s focus is on the history of building and its management, not on architecture, many of the book’s illustrations are of work in progress. Photographs from 1907 show La Samaritaine, the Paris department store, under construction. With its bones on display, you can see how an iron frame met the demands of the building type: maximum open space and light. The store had to be conceived, in the words of its architect, Louis-Charles Boileau, not in terms of masses but of the space it envelops. In an illustration of the exterior of Grand Central Station in New York you see the opposite: massive masonry used to encase an elaborate steel frame, giving weight to a ceremonial statement. A picture of the Pompidou Centre shows the huge cast-steel gerberettes that transfer forces from the horizontal spans via vertical rods to the foundations; an engraving of 1764 by Piranesi shows centring and stonework for Robert Mylne’s bridge at Blackfriars. Saint, by attending to the problems, dangers and triumphs that pictures like these illustrate, makes you better able to appreciate the final results.

Saint is more sympathetic to good builders than to proselytisers. ‘In order to woo his audience,’ he writes of Le Corbusier, ‘he reaches ruthlessly beyond the materials he uses and the men and women who help him transform them … Many of his practical dealings with engineers were fuzzy, unlike the sharpness with which during his propagandising heyday he flung down the challenge they represented.’ He is most enthusiastic about engineer-architects and architect-engineers in whose work technical and aesthetic innovation meet seamlessly: Auguste Perret, Robert Maillart or Frei Otto. For them, construction – the business of embodying a design in brick, stone, steel – takes on its proper importance. In the heroic age of English engineering, engineer-contractors like the Stephensons dominate. Professional institutions have encouraged their members to keep the commercial side of building at a distance. Architects had little trouble staying in line; the Perrets (there were three brothers, the sons of a master-builder) were exceptional in calling themselves ‘architectes-constructeurs’. (Firms of ‘ingénieurs-constructeurs’, like Eiffel’s, were more common.)

The Perrets were masters of reinforced concrete. Its use was at first covered by a number of patents, the holders of which sometimes licensed rights, sometimes tendered for projects, sometimes both. Reinforced concrete didn’t necessarily make a strong contribution to the appearance of the resulting building – in early examples, exterior walls of brick and masonry often concealed the structural system – but it proved amazingly versatile. Unlike iron construction it did not bring with it a recognisable look: concrete posts and beams could take the place of timber, concrete frames could take the place of steel, while vaults and domes could match shapes already established in masonry. Shell structures of a kind not seen before were now possible. More than just an economical, fireproof way of building, it became a stimulus to the imagination. For a time, reinforced concrete so dominated the ideas of modern designers that at least one engineer, Ove Arup, a concrete specialist himself, became impatient with architects who could imagine no other material to build with. The patents eventually expired, but designer-engineers continued to work closely with patent-holders well into the 20th century. Freyssinet, the great French bridge-builder, Pier Luigi Nervi and Arup were all contractors, or closely connected with contractors, at one time or another. In Auguste Perret’s work, the full expressive potential of reinforced concrete was realised. His masterpiece, the church at Le Raincy, was begun by a ‘hapless architect-engineer’ and ‘purloined and dazzlingly transformed’ by Perret. It was not the first or the last time that Perret, offering economy as well as competence and architectural skill, took a project over. One can only rejoice, Saint says: ‘The Le Raincy church combines profound historical reflection with a genuinely rational approach to cheap construction – something the century never managed again.’

In Maillart’s concrete bridges of the early 20th century in the Swiss Alps, mundane infrastructure becomes poetry. They aren’t as majestic as great masonry multi-spans like John Rennie’s Waterloo Bridge (with its demolition in the 1930s the Thames lost its finest crossing), or as Promethean in their ambitions as the great American suspension bridges, but the low curves of Maillart’s spans manage to look as if, for once, an analogy with bones or wings – the kind of thing that made D’Arcy Thompson’s On Growth and Form so dear to 20th-century architects – could be justified. For a while he worked with a firm building under the Hennebique patent; later he designed and built for himself; finally he became a consultant engineer. Some of his bridges were embellished by architects; and even when he began to work alone as a designer he continued to take engineering advice from his old professor, Wilhelm Ritter. But in the slim, shallow arches that are most typically his own – ‘masterpieces of art-structure … bestowed on the byways of tiny rural communities’ – there is no longer a clear division between ideas and calculations. Saint reckons they owed as much to imagination as technique: ‘An aesthetic of 20th-century bridge design had sprung to life, with the architects miles away.’ Architects have typically asserted the rationality of designs in which aesthetics play a large part; engineers assert the converse. Saint quotes an aeronautical engineer who said (in 1922, but it is still convincing) that ‘aeroplanes are not designed by science … there is a big gap between scientific research and the engineering product which has to be bridged by the art of the engineer.’

While there is art in Maillart’s bridges, they can also be read as solutions to engineering problems involving dimensions, money, time, materials, strength and stability. When architects become enamoured of the visual elegance of solutions over and above the beauty of the statics and economics, when they imitate bone structure in face paint, puritans frown. Saint gives an example of this in a long extract from a debate between Hugh Stubbins, the architect of the Berlin Congress Hall, and Frei Otto, a young German architect. The hall, built in 1956-57, mainly with American money, stood close to the border with East Berlin. Its suspended roof dipped down between two inclined arches. Although it followed a pattern set by a building in Raleigh, North Carolina, the Dorton Arena, it was structurally less lucid – and less stable (a sad picture shows the mess left when the ring beam failed in 1980). Otto, who knew and admired the Raleigh building, complained that the Congress Hall was oppressive: ‘It is hard for anyone to speak freely in the shadow of such overpowering forms.’ Stubbins replied: ‘What we are talking about here is monumentality. Even though humanism is at the roots of modern architecture, man should not be deprived of the true and eternal qualities of contrast in scale.’ Stubbins would have agreed with Wren that public architecture has a ‘political Use; publick Building being the Ornament of a Country; it establishes a Nation, draws People and Commerce; makes the People love their native Country, which Passion is the Original of all great Actions in a Commonwealth.’ Otto, on the other hand, said that ‘in reality “free speech” is something that cannot be built but a building housing free speech can … When art tries to teach a lesson, it ceases to be art.’

Otto was later involved in the design of remarkable tent-like cable-supported structures, in particular the German pavilion at the Montréal Expo of 1967 and the covering of the stadium and other areas for the 1972 Munich Olympics. The market for tented arenas is limited, and so cable and mast-supported fabric roofs that draw on Otto’s example are rare (the Millennium Dome is one example), but the feeling they give that forces can be read in curves of cables and membranes and in the precise configuration of anchor points brings them close to the perfect legibility that theorists have, over centuries, regarded as the aim and reward of good design. The one example other than Otto’s that Saint describes is the Haj Terminal in Jeddah, designed by SOM. It is made up of a very large number – though fewer than the 200 originally planned – of 150-foot-square modules, each with a tented roof. To judge by the photograph it is, despite its grand scale, made light, in both senses, by the translucence of the fabric shading the pilgrims gathered beneath it. The design evolved through cycles of tested models; that is how Otto worked, too. Ted Happold, whose firm took charge of engineering on the Dome, said that Otto’s model tests were necessary, in part because they were ‘the only protection against the heavy hand of the engineers’. He adds that Otto’s approach to form sprang ‘from a knowledge of structure rather than a knowledge of sculpture’. In this he was entirely different from Jørn Utzon, the architect of the Sydney Opera House, who ‘seems to know the sculptural form he wants and then sets about, or sets others about, finding how to achieve it’.

Structural intuition of that kind is what the very different buildings of Perret, Otto and Maillart have in common. In those cases, there wasn’t room for the usual antagonism between architect and engineer, but such harmony isn’t always possible. One reason is the tension between the rhetorical and the functional that comes and goes in the way buildings and structures are designed. At the moment we are in the middle of a rhetorical phase in which high-profile architects such as Gehry, Libeskind and Hadid are challenging engineers not to build wider, lighter or more economically but to find a way of constructing sculptural shapes, some of which challenge our sense of what is stable (the sense that is flattered by the seemingly rational transfer of loads by the ribs of a Gothic vault).

The drive towards buildings that invite nicknames (the Gherkin, the Shard) reflects a desire for identifiable landmarks. In city after city, the prismatic office blocks which at first contrasted so crisply with older, heavier-looking buildings, have become dull. One response is technical. Fazlur Khan, the engineer in charge of the Haj Terminal project, was also partly responsible for the ‘framed tube’. By abandoning the inner structural frame in favour of a tube of columns around the perimeter of the building, he and Bruce Graham of SOM designed towers that could rise to greater heights without losing the necessary stiffness. Floor space was freed up and building was cheaper. In the John Hancock Center in Chicago of 1966, cross braces were added to strengthen the structure: it is as though a bridge truss has been upended.

Saint’s account of the relationship between engineer and architect on three projects for which Ove Arup and Partners were engineers illustrates the effects of such shifts in taste and technology. His first example is the Sydney Opera House, one of the 20th century’s most remarkable pieces of architectural sculpture. The troubled story of how Utzon’s competition-winning design came to be built, slowly and expensively, has been told from all sides. Ove Arup angled for the job of engineer and got it; his firm had already proved that a more co-operative dialogue between architects and engineers was possible, but this time things didn’t go well. There were rows, and Utzon resigned. According to some, he was a prima donna, with no experience of large projects, who betrayed the engineers who had made it possible to construct something close to his original model. Others claimed the architect was betrayed by those – including the engineers – whose arguments about time and money compromised a masterpiece. Saint’s ‘excuse for adding to what has been written is that the Sydney Opera House advanced, deepened and maybe darkened the new style of collaboration’. The building was finally completed in 1973, but long before that, in 1968, John Yeomans, in The Other Taj Mahal, felt able to predict that ‘the names of all the honest, able and in some cases brilliant men who worked on the building will have been forgotten and Utzon’s name alone will remain.’ While the Opera House was important in raising Arup’s profile, the Boulléan creative idea will be there to be seen as long as the sail-like roofs rise over the water. Inevitably, it has had a staying power that a story of engineering problems set and solved can’t manage.

In 1971, Arups persuaded Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers to join them in submitting a design to the competition to build the Pompidou Centre. What they offered looked more like a scaffold than a building: circulation (walkways, escalators) and much ductwork were on the outside. At the competition stage the engineering proposals, like the architectural configuration of the parts, were a promise of what would be worked out rather than a fully calculated structure; Saint reckons that by forcing engineers to behave like architects, competitions have contributed to their professional convergence. The French expected to be handed a set of drawings by the architects that would be worked up in a local office, but in the end Arups took on a role more like that of traditional consulting engineers than of job managers.

When it came to the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank their place in the design hierarchy was different again. Foster and Partners were in charge, and while Arups’ contribution to the structural design was crucial, the architects played a much more significant part than they had in Sydney in the management of subcontractors. Foster, meanwhile, ‘was nurturing his own romantic dream of procurement, whereby partnership and cutting-edge methods of industrial production would converge to create a perfect building’. The cladding, worked out by the engineers and architects with Cupples of St Louis, ‘classiest of the American cladding designers’, was evidence that the dream was not unattainable. Saint provides enough examples of the unpredictability of the relationship between individual architects and engineers to give pause to anyone who believes you can generalise about the link between aesthetics and structure, or between job definitions and the work people do.

Saint writes as much about people and their training as about buildings; here too pictures say a lot. Torches are passed on. Walter Gropius, teaching at Harvard in 1946, sits surrounded by a huddle including Harry Seidler and I.M. Pei. Styles of learning change alongside styles of building. Saint invites us to contrast the architectural students ‘rigid at their tables’ in Mies van der Rohe’s high, glass-walled Crown Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology around 1956 with the ‘unmistakeable’ art-school atmosphere of the group at the MIT School of Architecture fifty years earlier. Nations exchange ideas when architects travel. An enchanting photograph of Hermann Muthesius, who was sent from Prussia in 1896 to investigate British prowess in design (he stayed in England for more than six years), shows him as he mounts his bicycle and sets off on his researches. He looks back to his wife, Anna, who stands outside a typical English house (it was in Hammersmith) in distinctly Pre-Raphaelite dress.

A finished building can be beautiful, stately or useful, but it is most exciting while it evolves in the mind and rises from the ground. Saint’s account of the ambitions of the sibling rivals of his title takes you to the sometimes divided core of the structural imagination.