I read somewhere that artists create dreams and visions, that may have no purpose except to be an expression of something to be admired and enjoyed, but engineers design and build something that is useful, and serves an intended purpose with reliability.

Can engineers also be artists?

Obviously, they can be. An engineer can be a great painter, or musician, or photographer, a writer or politician, a leader.

But that is not what I am referring to. Let me put the question more explicitly. Can an engineer be an artist in his or her own field? Can a structural engineer be a structural artist, for instance? Can they design or create something that has purpose, and yet embodies artistic expressions?

Let me start with a personal perspective: When I was in my early years, my interest and passion was in drawing, painting, photography and also in making and building stuff from Meccano (of that time) and building blocks, so when it was time to apply to university for my first degree, an obvious choice seemed to be architecture. But that was several decades ago, and common wisdom of the time was that if you want to “make it” in life, and if you are good in studies, the choices are either a doctor or an engineer.

As fate would have it, my elders weighed in their preference and my choice shifted to engineering and my inclination was towards mechanical engineering, so I could design and build stuff, as an extension of my other interests. However, once again, I was nudged towards applying for civil engineering, which was at the top of the rankings at that time, so I did.

Now that I have been practicing, researching and teaching the profession of civil and structural engineering, I often ponder and talk about how an engineer, and a structural engineer in particular, can become a designer and an artist, designing and creating structures that can be marveled at.

One can argue that the whole discipline of architecture and product designing is devoted to artistry and expressionism. But again, that is not what I am talking about, I am referring to a “pure” engineer being an artist of his or her trade.

Before I continue, let me share with you a link to a related event, that will focus on this aspect of structural engineering and structural engineers, in addition the development of built environment:

To me, and please feel free to disagree, an “engineer” is trained to solve a well defined problem, using well defined and established procedures. A “designer” is the one who conceives or develops the solution to a problem and even the process that an “engineer” can follow to complete the solution. An engineer-artist on the other hand is one who conceives an idea that has meaning and purpose beyond the solution of a problem and has their unique “signature” in the outcome.

To illustrate this, I normally give a seemingly trivial challenge to my graduate students in the design of structures. It goes something like this.

a)     Calculate the reinforcement in a rectangular water tank of 10m x 20 m x 5m

b)    Design a tank of any shape, in any material to hold 1000 cubic meters of water

c)     Create a monument, on the top of a hill, as a tourist attraction to hold 1000 cubic meters of water

The first task is rather straight forward, assuming procedure to determine wall thickness, and to determine the moments and shear due to water pressure and the procedure to compute reinforcement from the moments have been learned and the tools to do the computations are available.

In this case, “engineers” are expected to come to a somewhat similar output in terms wall thickness for the area of reinforcement, although the selection of bar sizes, spacing and arrangement of bars may vary. Still one output may be better than others in terms of economy, constructability, durability, etc. and can distinguish the engineers on that basis.

In the second case, many of the engineers would find it hard, even to start. They would want to know some limits or guidance on types of material or the form or the proportions to use.  And when I tell them, that there are no pre-set limits, and any form or material is acceptable. Here, the solution requires creativity and prior understanding and experience to narrow down the limitless options to a few feasible ones and then do a quick sizing, comparison and selection. The selected design would then need to be “engineered” to be built. The focus of the design, however, would remain to come up with an economical, constructible structural selection to contain the required amount of water. The aesthetics, visual impact, environmental impact, sustainability, the “wow” factor, etc. would probably not be a prime consideration.

The third case however requires a completely different way to look at this challenge. Here the expectation is to create something that has purpose, artistic expression and impact beyond its basic function. It has beauty and has a wow factor and something that a casual on-looker can admire and would like to take a picture of!

Is an engineer, or a designer up to this task?

If history has anything say it will be a “yes”. The master builders of the past were artists, architects, engineers, sculptures and builders, all in one. Even in not-so-long ago times, one only needs to look at the iconic and symbolic nature of the Eiffel Tower, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Hoover Dam, the Sydney Harbor Bridge, the London Bridge, the great Millau Viaduct, and the like. A lot has been said about these.

So, what does it take for an engineer to be an artist!

In my view, this requires three essential ingredients

1.     An awareness that the culmination of an engineering undertaking is a physical creation, that serves a purpose, but can also represent more than just fulfilling that purpose. Knowing.

2.     A holistic view of what is being designed and created, with an avid eye for detail and understanding, and an appreciation of aesthetics. Creating.

3.     An ability to formulate, articulate, narrate, and present the engineered work. Expressing.

It’s unfortunate that most of the formal engineering education as well as practice does not even recognize, let alone cultivate these qualities. Engineers are also not trained or encouraged to study and appreciate or critique the works of great engineering artists. A major part of being a philosopher is to study other philosophers and their work, a study in architecture focuses on history of architecture, and the work of other architects. It’s unlikely, that engineers in any field can name a handful of great engineering works, and even more importantly, great engineering artists, who helped create them.

Taking the example of structural engineering once again, to be a structural artist, one does not need to design or create a monumental work. Artistic expressions can be evident even in small and simple work. For example, the design of a bridge pier, or the way a bridge bearing is exposed or concealed. It is evident from the choice of form, proportions, details and textures.

It is about the intent to create something admirable. It is the artistic expression of a structural solution that contributes to resilience of the built environment.

Through this intent, engineer can become a designer and a designer elevate to be an artist.!

A related event that you are invited to join:

A visionary event that focuses on the achievements and future of structural engineering and structural engineers.


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