…for properly speaking the conflict between gravity and rigidity is the sole aesthetic material of architecture…
~ Arthur Schopenhauer
mills studio statement
Structural Engineering provides for the structure that supports a building both literally and figuratively. The building’s physical structure assures the building will stand despite the forces that nature and man impose. And equally important in a work of architecture, a building’s structure implements the architectural agenda and helps makes the design intent visible. The way a building stands up either reinforces or detracts from the expression of the architectural agenda. It is assumed that a competent Structural Engineer can provide the engineering that makes a building stand, so the real challenge is integrating Structural Engineering that uses science in the service of creativity and gives technology a sense of romance.
Structure Giving Role of Institutions
A buildings structure has the opportunity to make experientially visible the important structure giving roles of institutions. Relevant institutions provide structure, standards, and parameters so that individuals have a criteria for making responsible individual judgements and decisions. A work of architecture can make the structure giving role of institutions, such as the family, tangible and tactile. The most relevant institutional structures provide sufficient stability that the community can endure, but simultaneously sufficient freedom that the individual can thrive. A building structure can serve the same role and can act as the physical embodiment of how we structure a society. Decisions regarding structure mean much more than just making a building stand up and have the opportunity to express much more than just an aesthetic choice.
There are two ways Structural Engineering directly affects the aesthetics of mills studio’s work. One is more generally philosophical and the other more specific to the physical implementation of Structural Engineering.
The nineteenth century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer described the source of an architectural aesthetic, “…for properly speaking the conflict between gravity and rigidity is the sole aesthetic material of architecture; its problem is to make this conflict appear with perfect distinctness in a multitude of different ways. It solves it by depriving these indestructible forces of the shortest way to their satisfaction, and conducting them to it by a circuitous route, so that the conflict is lengthened, and the inexhaustible efforts of both forces become visible in many different ways.
Schopenhauer posited that the brain read’s “a building’s forms as a conflict between gravity and rigidity” and the “beauty … of a building lies in the obvious adaptation of every part, not to the outward arbitrary end of man …, but directly to the stability of the whole, to which the position, dimensions, and form of every part must have so necessary a relation that, where it possible, if any one part were taken away, the whole would fall to pieces.”
mills studio’s building’s aesthetic is often literally the expression or purposely hiding of how this conflict between gravity and rigidity is resolved. This resolution is all important because it is a metaphor for the tension that all architecture must resolve: the tension between liberty and responsibility, between the individual and the group. The best resolutions provide individual parts that both bring stability to the whole, but also contribute something so unique that if removed “the whole would fall to pieces.”
The implemented Structural Engineering also has the opportunity to express mills studio’s intent that a building’s architectural aesthetic directly reflects the way it is built and how it is made. Structure, especially exposed structure, can create an aesthetic that is seemingly the direct result of how a building is held together, how elements are joined, how materials fulfil their unique purposes, and how craftsmen do their work. But raw structure only becomes romantic when its aesthetic is the reflection of a higher purpose than just an aesthetic choice.
Many, if not most, buildings look their best while under construction with their structure still uncovered. An unfinished building in process usually feels more alive than its completed version because an unfinished building is still equal reality and potential. Most finished buildings are in a sense no longer alive. The difficulty of capturing the dynamism of “potential” and “becoming” in a finished building makes lasting significant architecture very elusive. One attempt at this “unfinished” aesthetic is exposing structure in a way that captures the quality of always becoming, perpetually in process and yet to be completed. This “becoming” allows each individual to overlay the architect’s reality with his own imagination, hopefully providing a more intimate and personal attachment to the work of architecture.
In his book, The Great Bridge, the historian David McCullough correctly describes how Structural Engineering relates to aesthetics. In a lecture commenting on the construction and engineering of the Brooklyn Bridge, McCullough says, “When everything is using its material in best possible fashion an aesthetic happens – it becomes pleasing to the eye.” He goes on to describe how the two stone towers appropriately work in actual and visual compression while the spanning deck is held up in actual and visual tension with steel cables. McCullough correctly believes it is the contrast of the appropriate compression and tension and it is “everything working in the best possible material way” that produces the Brooklyn Bridge’s aesthetic experience and makes it beautiful.
Collaboration / Integration
Structural Engineer Roger Ridsdill Smith of Foster + Partners asked the very apt question: “Does structural engineering influence the design process or ratify it?” Is the current thought that early and close collaboration among disciplines produces better architecture borne out by a Structural Engineer’s early influence on design conception? The answer to Ridsdill’s question leads directly to how the architect and engineer collaborate and how that collaboration ultimately affects the architecture. mills studio answers the question: structural engineering, but not necessarily the Structural Engineer, must greatly influence the design conception, and the Structural Engineer does ratify the design, but also more importantly, help’s nurture the design concept to fruition.
The circumstances of modern times has unfortunately separated the discipline and practitioner of structural engineering and only a Structural Engineer can “ratify” a design. Throughout history significant architects have not strictly separated architectural design and structural engineering as both are required for any design conception. The architect provides an architectural vision integrating structural engineering that envisions how the structural engineering is to help achieve the architectural agenda. The best Structural Engineers then provide their unique perspective to propose innovative physical manifestations that meet the criteria of the architectural agenda along with ratifying the design. Unlike architecture, structural engineering does not exist for its own sake, but exists only in service of a useful purpose.
Architect / Engineer
The late 20th Century Irish Structural Engineer Peter Rice has had the greatest impact on mills studio’s thinking about what a Structural Engineer can contribute to an architectural project and the nature of the Structural Engineer’s collaboration with the Architect. Rice describes the difference between the architect and engineer’s perspective: “ I would distinguish the difference between the engineer and the architect by saying the architect’s response is primarily creative, whereas the engineer’s is essentially inventive.”
mills studio agrees more with Rice’s description of the Structural Engineer’s perspective than the Architect’s. The Architect’s role is to address essentially the same purposes of architecture that have not and do not change with time and place, while the Structural Engineer address’s what is more specific to time and place. Innovation is all important to addressing time and place issues. When there is no apparent differentiation between image and content in a building the Architect and Structural Engineer have truly collaborated.
The architect defines the purpose or “problem” of the architectural project and provides the criteria for judging the possible architectural and engineering “solutions” with his architectural agenda. The Architect conceives of the building with a plan for how structure will express the architectural agenda. The Structural Engineer applies his understanding of materials and structure to the posed “problem” leading to innovative technological implementations in service of the architectural agenda. In a work of architecture the structural implementation is the innovative execution of the vision, but the structural implementation cannot itself be the vision.
The Architect’s design conception arises from a myriad of concerns, but the Structural Engineer’s concerns are more focused. The Architect’s conception incorporates the personal and the subjective, but the Structural Engineer’s concerns are essentially scientific and rational, or as Peter Rice describes, the Structural Engineer “is essentially seeking to transform the problem into one where the essential properties of structure, material or some other impersonal element are being expressed.” The best Structural Engineers are able to work with fact based information and apply scientific and rational thinking without detracting from the romantic and poetic aspects of architecture.
The Engineering Story
In his book, An Engineer Imagines, Peter Rice described the goal of enginering: “what the engineering story is about: the attempt to make technology personal and identifiably human.”
Rice correctly points out that many, if not most, people find modern architecture cold and alienating because many modern buildings are not tactile and instead present themselves as an industrial product. In collaboration with the Architect, Structural Engineers have the opportunity to use their understanding of materials to give a building the visible and invisible tactile presence of authenticity. Materials and technologies are tactile and authentic when they express their inner nature and generative forces so that their expressions seem honest and inevitable without artifice, and the expressions arise from content rather than image. A building’s materials and technologies are tactile and authentic when they express through craftsmanship evidence of those who designed and built it or as Peter Rice says, “make human intervention evident.” People warm to authenticity, so authenticity has the power to intimately connect us to our buildings.
A Structural Engineer’s ability to innovate is critical. Innovation shows that humans control the process and results of our lives and forces seemingly beyond human control, such as industry, do not control these processes and results. Innovation shows that we are in control of industry and not the reverse. Innovation shows we are not at the mercy of precedent and the way things are, but have control over our destiny and an ability to determine the way things will be. It is purposeful innovation and not innovation for innovation’s sake that expresses man’s sense of exploration and adventure that helps us feel alive and has the potential to give life to our buildings.
…what the engineering story is about: the attempt to make technology personal and identifiably human.
~ Peter Rice