In This Issue
Winter Bridge on Frontiers of Engineering
December 18, 2019 Volume 49 Issue 4

Invisible Bridges: Composite Minds

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Author: Guru Madhavan

In architecture, fundamental concepts such as aspect ratios—how the width of a structure relates to the height—matter a great deal. But Sir Ove Nyquist Arup interpreted them broadly. For him, such elements were only a component of “total design.” He believed that structures were the product of not just sensible engineering but a sensitive engagement with the world. “What we decide to do is much more important than how to do it,” Arup wrote in 1984, “and that opens the sluice valve for a whole flood of questions, social, political, ethical, which threaten us all with confusion, or worse, because we are not able to agree on what to do.”[1] The design of the team building the structure, he asserted, was as important as the design of the structure itself.

Before Arup became an engineer, he studied -philosophy. The British-born, German-Danish--educated polymath, who founded his now global firm in 1946, was an admirer not only of modernists like Le Corbusier but also of ancients like Marcus Aurelius—it is fruitful for the mind not just to look at olives but be attentive to how they ripened. Biographer Peter Jones portrayed Arup as an “endlessly doodling, whimsically rhyming, cigar-waving, beret-wearing, accordion squeezing, ceaselessly smiling, foreign sounding, irresistibly charming, mumbling giant.”[2] Arup sometimes carried a “pair of extra-long chopsticks in his top pocket, to poach enticing dishes from his neighbor’s plate.” Were these chopsticks perhaps a metaphor for something else? As in, how to pick and transfer nutrients across what we resignedly call “disciplines”?

Arup assiduously disrupted professional boundaries through his work, most famously with the groundbreaking design and construction methods that turned an architect’s rough sketches into the engineered reality of the Sydney Opera House. He and his firm (after his death in 1988) brought his sensibilities to such projects as Copenhagen’s modern metro stations, the “Bird’s Nest” in Beijing, the Grand Egyptian Museum, Heathrow Terminal 5, and the Channel Tunnel. The firm’s creative approach led to the insight that off-site construction of custom prestressed stone masonry panels could speed the construction of the technically challenging central towers of Gaudí’s Sagrada Família.

Crossing disciplines in building projects, however, entails costs, just as it does in other realms. A real dichotomy exists in meeting a client’s needs and generating profits versus achieving the moral aims of a work, as Arup reminded. Perhaps that’s why the current relentless calls for “interdisciplinary,” “multidisciplinary,” “transdisciplinary,” or whatever-buzzword-is-in-vogue engineering feel simultaneously vital and vapid. Hardly a professional meeting now exists where the “silo mentality” is not criticized, even as it persists in practice. The divisions so industriously created are now the ones we struggle to remove. We have to expend effort to gain even a basic perspective on the consequences of our creations.

How then can engineers deepen their reflections on the connections between problems, their solutions, and their contexts, connections that Arup thought were “so ruthlessly severed”?[3] In 1962 he observed that “the chances of achieving harmonious integration decline with the proliferation of experts and available techniques. The moral is the often stated one—all the facts and possibilities bearing on a design must be thoroughly understood and digested before the design is frozen, and the whole must take precedence over any of its parts.”[4] Arup went further in his 1970 Key Speech[5]:

I can’t see the point in having such a large firm with offices all over the world unless there is something which binds us together.… Unless we have a “mission”—although I don’t like the word—but something “higher” to strive for—and I don’t particularly like that expression either—but unless we feel that we have a special contribution to make which our very size and diversity and our whole outlook can help to achieve, I for one am not interested.

In Arup’s material conception of total design, tracking and accounting for the effects of an engineer’s work were as much a duty as delivering on the tasks or satisfying a sponsor. That is, design was not merely a contract to be fulfilled but a rigorous reflection on responsibility. He despaired, though, whether this vision could be realized in practice. “We cannot avoid the splitting up of the business of building among dozens or hundreds of collaborators. Specialization is the way civilization moves forward—and perhaps it is the way it will destroy itself,” Arup wrote in 1968 for The Times of London.[6] “Faced with a complex entity we split it up, catalogue the parts, study and develop them separately and then fail to put them together again.”

British scholars Andrew Chilvers and Sarah Bell, who have studied the moral elements in Arup’s engineering practice, offer a valuable perspective on this. The constraints and trade-offs inherent in engineering often create a professional “lock-in.” In some order, this is the tendency to jot down the requirements, finalize the paperwork, control the costs, start the operations, and be very process oriented—that is, the logistics of engineering. Open negotiations with the full set of stakeholders in a project are treated as optional, and the synthesis of specialty knowledge, values, and languages is not pursued seriously (if at all). These so-called “nonengineering” issues, which deeply concerned Arup, thus remain fluid.

An argument can be made, though, that the technical and normative goals of engineering should ideally derive from the negotiations among a wide range of parties, and there could be manifold benefits in delaying the “lock-in.” In this mindset, even the basic numerical parameters for a project and its efficient execution become diffuse, and uncomfortably so for many engineers. The parameters develop different utilities, even identities, when subjected to different perspectives. These kinds of abstractions are not a hindrance but part and parcel of engineering rigor and responsibility.

One of Arup’s signature projects provides a cautionary example of the costs of locking in. His and architect Berthold Lubetkin’s 1934 penguin pool for the London Zoo is considered a triumph of both art and engineering for its dramatic spiraling reinforced concrete ramps that seem suspended without support. The project was done in consultation with renowned biologist Julian Huxley (the brother of writer and futurist Aldous Huxley) and represented the best in 1930s scholarship. But the zoo later decided to replace the Antarctic penguins with a South American burrowing species ill-suited for a concrete home, and the surface (layered with quartz crystals) ended up so abrading the penguins’ feet that it caused dangerous infections. With its parameters all cast in stone, as it were, there was no practical way to update the structure. One might even wonder why the original paving with rubber pads was turned into concrete. The pool was abandoned in 2004 and stands today as a lovely but empty monument. Frustrated with the disuse of this Grade I listed pool, Lubetkin’s daughter recently said: “Perhaps it’s time to blow it to smithereens.”[7]

So, can the thinking and practice that produce lock-in be changed? “Just like when dieters appear to command a sufficient market share to make a difference, salad bars start appearing in McDonalds,” Chilvers and Bell write, “if enough engineers, engineering firms and engineering educators challenge prevailing conventions and standards, issues of professional lock-in might, in time, be broken.” [8] If prevailing constraints and conventions are posed in defense, Chilvers and Bell argue that then we need to have a more honest and scrupulous discussion on why certain constraints and conventions exist. This is when the conversations about buildings (and engineering) cease being primarily technical and become more culturally—and morally—germane. To get to this maturity and gain the capacity to reflect and better synthesize, we may all need to unspecialize a bit. But is this too much to ask?

In a world where structural design is defined and circumscribed by a narrow focus on engineering costs, schedule, and requirements, Arup may have sounded unnatural, even unreasonable. Indeed, at the time, his intent was better appreciated outside the spheres of engineering. Among his admirers was Walter Gropius, the founder of Bauhaus, the Weimar movement now celebrating its centenary. Bauhaus too aimed at a concept of a complete building. At its core, that building would be requisitely unfinished and intended for “people’s needs instead of luxury needs” as the Bauhaus architect Hannes Meyer put it. That’s a design beyond individual preferences and also beyond chic and cost-effectiveness. This is not some modernist bravery; this is open-minded engineering.

In an August 1966 letter, Gropius wrote to Arup expressing appreciation of the “total unity [of] form, structure, and economy being inseparable within it.” Gropius explained that: “Education of architects, engineers and artists alike must…, first of all, be directed towards understanding and accepting the collaborative process, the ‘composite mind,’ which by itself will make for more humility and mutual respect.” In doing so, the individuals with the broadest scope are best equipped for total design. “You have shown evidence in your work that this can be done either by an ‘architect,’ or an ‘engineer,’” Gropius wrote. “Good reason to be happy!”


[1]Inspired by the name of this quarterly, this column reflects on the practices and uses of engineering and its influences as a cultural enterprise.

  Ove Arup, Foreword to Understanding Structural Analysis by David Brohn (New Paradigm Solutions, 2005), p x.

[2]  Peter Jones, Ove Arup: Masterbuilder of the Twentieth Century (Yale University Press, 2006), p 1.

[3]  Arup, Alfred Bossom Lecture, March 11, 1970; published in Journal of the Royal Society of Arts 118, p 391, June 1970.

[4]  Arup (London, 1962), foreword to Candela/The Shell Builder by Colin Faber (Reinhold Publishing Corporation, 1963).

[5]  Arup, speech delivered to his firm, July 9, 1970, Winchester.

[6]  Arup, “Teams for Total Design,” The Times (London), July 15, 1968.

[7]Camden New Journal, January 3, 2019.

[8]  Andrew Chilvers, Sarah Bell, “Professional lock-in: Structural engineers, architects and the disconnect between discourse and practice.” In: Engineering Practice in a Global Context: Understanding the Technical and the Social, eds. B Williams, J Figueiredo, J Trevelyan (CRC Press, 2018), p 219.

About the Author:Guru Madhavan is the Norman R. Augustine Senior Scholar and director of NAE programs.