The Rebellion of the Engineers

12/2005

Quickly, tell me the name of an architect. (I suppose you will have come up with at least two). And now, tell me the name of an engineer. It is enough to have a quick test to show that that culture of the image, which so well feeds the name of the architect, has eclipsed the fabulous works of the creators of structures, skeletons of dreams, into a controversial – although false – trial of strength, between art and technique.

Hugo Corres serves this bunch of nonsense with an anecdote: “When engineers, who make bridges, attend the inauguration of one of our projects, especially one which has outstanding characteristics and an important formal impact, the Authority Representative, who is generally a politician, tends to present us to the audience as “The Architect”. Juan de Herrera, architect of El Escorial, is the author of an enormous amount of public Works, with very important bridges in Madrid and infrastructures such as the supply of water and no-one however says “ Juan de Herrera The Engineer”, where even the foundation the School of Architecture has, is called by his name. Moreover, the incredible amount of infrastructure which has been fulfilled over the last 20 years, has been done, fundamentally, by engineers and curiously goes by totally unnoticed by people who use it. And whilst the creativity and the extraordinary technological exploitation in bridge construction have turned Spanish engineering into a model for Europe, in our own country, if an engineer is creative, they are automatically socially converted into an architect”. It does not stop being a very meaty issue.

By the way, Hugo Corres and his team are the authors, amongst many other things, of the new Madrid Airport, possibly the greatest European building work in recent years. It is formed by two buildings, containing 85 kilometers of post-tensioned beams for more than a million meters squared of constructed surface area, which was built in a record breaking two and a half years. Nothing short of a miracle. “ But no-one talks about us – says by force of habit, the President of Ache (Asociación Científico-Técnica del Hormigón Estructural(Scientific-Technical Association of Structural Concrete)), who unites with the crème de la crème of Spanish engineering – but about Lamela and Rogers, who are the architects. And this is, without doubt, a project which is the result of the perfect communion between architecture and engineering

But that, unfortunately, is not always like that. The engineer Leonardo Fernández Troyano states how “the proximity and complementarity of both professions has given rise to friction and controversy between them, and mainly due to corporative problems, that is to say, professional competences, but also problems of identity for each profession. This controversy began in the XIX Century with an uncharacteristic violence, which was more or less overcome at the beginning of the XX Century, but even nowadays there are still conflicts of competence and identity. A current example of this problem has arisen since the inrush of architects in the field of bridges as exclusive designers. This has come about after their consideration, that the resistance phenomenon has taken second place. Moreover, a bridge is purely an object of design, irrespective if it measures 20m or 200m in length, forgetting completely the fundamental scale factor. A case to be brought to light in this way of making bridges is the ‘Millennium Bridge’ in London by the architect Norman Foster and the sculptor Anthony Caro, which had serious vibration problems, to say the least. After all, adds Fernández Troyano- the architect and the engineer will always have a difficult relationship, because each knows that where they are weaker the other is stronger. And as the scale of the project gets larger, the importance of the engineer becomes ever greater”.

Spurning what is practical

This constructor and Professor also regret that society “uses but ignores engineering. Don’t forget – gets your attention – that what is practical counters what is beautiful, a dichotomy which entails that what is practical is looked down upon as it is not worthy of further consideration. Moreover, - he sentences – architects have always had more press”. Builders with whom his father, the illustrious Carlos Fernández Casado, Professor of Bridges and, in the broadest sense of the word, sage, whose 100 years since his birth is now being celebrated, worked a lot and very well". He was open to all knowledge, and he felt he was an engineer from a very young age, he entered the school at 14 and finished his degree at 19, moreover he obtained the titles of radiotelegraphic engineer in Paris and telecommunications in Spain, as well as Licentiates in Philosophy & Arts and Law. He was a Member of the Fine Arts Academy who you could say belonged to the generation of great constructors of the XX Century. His legacy highlights overall his interdisciplinarity and his conception of teamwork. But those were other times when architects were more afraid of structure and needed more support on it; not like now, that this fear has gone, and the architect goes ahead using the engineer more as a subordinate”.

When Julio Martínez Calzón is asked why people have been led to be so stingy when offering engineers glory which has been dispensed to architects, and why the injustice behind this arbitrariness, he answers “It’s true we are slightly disinherited, which is a pity for us. You don’t know how you hit the target with that in relation to my life”. Later he adds, almost with a sigh, that he has reflected upon it and believes he has an approximate answer. He then explains: “really, the architect was an engineer in the past. Since the Baroque Period, when the specialization in human activities began to take on certain strengths and it was necessary to work in the line of formalization, on one hand, and analysis, on the other. When people like Newton manifested that calculus could reflect nature very accurately, this generated a series of specialists in this direction and hence scientists and technicians appeared, and there we are, the civil engineers who are studying the resistance of materials and systems, in very scientific terms. Moreover, construction becomes more and more complex and the need appears to find mathematical instruments which are able to respond to the problems which are laid down. But when the media phase arises, the architects are closer to the people in the cities whilst the engineer, far away, are dedicated to doing things in the countryside.

"We mustn’t forget either, that architecture is a Fine Art which is offered immediately, whilst all our art, which is there, has a more qualified derivative. Moreover, much of that ‘so admired’ architecture would not be possible without the participation of the engineer, and it will become more and more like this, reaching the point where in structural architecture the structure itself will become an element with its own sufficient artistic identity”.

The ‘Space Tower’ Building which is currently being erected in the enlargement of the Madrilenian Castellana Boulevard, is one of the latest Works by Martínez Calzón, who also configured the skeleton of the neighboring ‘Sacyr Vallehermoso Tower’, although the first, which is 223m in height will win the title of ‘Roof of the Capital’ at the beginning of 2007.

Marriage by Computer.

"Society is beginning to see that large structures can be beautiful independent of the fact that they are architecture or not. You go to a cutting-edge-technology stadium and the structure is what offers everything to the architecture – it is truly enthralling. There is no doubt – says this ace in engineering – that the hour of the engineers is arriving, and in a very beautiful way, because since our separation in the XVIII Century, the computer is bringing architects and engineers back together again. That is the element which is allowing all that numerical-mathematical complexity, and which forced the engineer to specialize and to separate in some way to the shape of things, to dilute away. And whilst the computer removes barriers between shape and function, the architects are beginning to see their autonomy reduced as they need that architectural engineer to do those buildings of today. There will be architects and engineers for many a year, but probably in the long term, they will merge into one”.

Asked by ABC, Santiago Calatrava, a paradigm of the architect – engineer, refuses to declare upon the issue. And Javier Manterola does not see it so clearly. “The real hour of the engineer was in the XIX Century – he states. At that time they were buried in cathedrals like heroes, in the very Westminster, alongside Nelson. It seems now that the engineer is reappearing again, but without exceeding the limits of the profession”. He says this in the Príncipe de Viana de la Cultura Prize, this year, the latest award in a string of prestigious distinctions for the author of Works such as the San Mamés Stadium, the Gran Kursaal Auditorium in San Sebastian or the Ventas Bridge in Madrid.

"Architecture nowadays is passing through a period of great formalism. Its exterior aesthetics prevail its interior content, and it’s not me who says so, but the architects themselves. The great Frank Lloyd Wright once said how could one be a good architect without having the gift of the gab. Because it is fundamental for them to create beautiful, colorful eye-catching things without caring too much if they are good or bad, looking more to impress than to convince, a general bad state in society but which has hit architecture in the bull’s-eye. But as it has not mattered too much to the engineer that their work is not recognized, the propaganda machinery has not been started up; They could get a publicist and do it, Watch Out!, they have many needy architects who want to promote their fame to obtain contracts.

And from the fickleness of fame to the mundaneness of the crude reality, more so when it deals with the breaches, which cross from part to part, in the damp face of Madrid. Then Manterola says: “This craze to put things underground affects me directly because I designed the Cuatro Caminos Flyover many years ago and now it has been substituted by a tunnel. Today, society puts up with air traffic very badly. I have always thought that the bridge was better than the square, and for that reason they should have conserved the bridge and in any case, demolished the square, which never stops being a personal opinion for many will not be reciprocal. It was great, powerful… and now the bridge becomes suburban. But, would anyone understand New York, London or Paris without bridges?” Neither progress – it is stated – without engineers.

BY VIRGINIA RÓDENAS



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