Common Knowledge 16 (1):157-157 (2010)

Barry Allen
McMaster University
Andrew Saint is General Editor of the Survey of London. His book is a study of relations between these two professions since their modern emergence in Europe and the US. Relations between the two professions are complex and varied. Sometimes it is the Renaissance fantasy, where the architect designs a masterpiece, then hands it to the engineer to figure out how to make it. Sometimes engineers are part of the design process, working closely with architects from the beginning. Other times, engineers are doing the work we might expect architects to do, and producing buildings that continue to delight. The inventors of form may even belong to neither profession. Posterity remembers Eiffel as an engineer, though we more accurately think of him as a contractor-fabricator. There is more to the book than this descriptive history, though. Saint chronicles the rising tide of cant in the fond notion of the architect as Artist, with completely different skills and values from an engineer. An engineer is a technician, he makes things work. An architect is an artist, he make things beautiful. Any way you look at it, however, this dichotomy fails. In engineering, the invention of structure is, in part, aesthetic invention. Engineering forms are never calculated. There are calculations aplenty, but the form is not arrived at by calculation like a mathematical result. Engineering is a highly inventive practice, or can be. The invention of structure is just as “intuitive,” “irrational,” and “aesthetic” as anything in architecture. Then from the point of view of art, aesthetic accomplishment cannot be limited to design; it requires a work, and that it be well made. Le Corbusier tried to deny this and the result is revealing. For him the design is the architecturally important accomplish; the rest is just mechanics—an indifference to building that shows in all his work, which began to look shabby almost immediately. Inventive engineering has an aesthetic moment, and memorable architecture has a structural moment. Engineers must visualize and make aesthetic choices, and only architects who appreciate the work of engineering can take the invention of form to the limits of new technologies.
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DOI 10.1215/0961754x-2009-077
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