Structural engineering is usually seen just as a strictly technical discipline lacking the appeal and creativity of other disciplines such as music or architecture. However, the “technical” aspect is just one of the components of structural engineering since structures are multi-dimensional. Of course, the engineer needs to know the theory of structures in order to design them (scientific dimension), but he/she also needs to study in depth the social context and work within the constraints imposed by politics and economy (social dimension). In addition, the best works of structural engineering not only transform the environment, but they improve it; they have the capacity to move the observer and are beloved by the general public (symbolic dimension). Finally, the structures are also “living” elements, their shape and properties change with time (fourth dimension) as a result of their construction process and their aging, and, like human beings, they die (collapse) or suffer from important diseases (pathologies) if not properly maintained.
Structural engineering education and the general public are not usually aware of the multi-dimensional character of structures. As a result, too often we see works of engineering with beautiful shapes but they are too expensive or with little use by society. Sometimes we see useful and inexpensive structures but they are not integrated into the environment, or we see bridges out of service because they are poorly maintained. However, there is a growing thinking among educators and designers that this situation can be changed through the education of both the general public and future engineers. At Princeton University, the development of these ideas lead recently to a new course called “CEE463 - A Social and Multi-dimensional Exploration of Structures”. The course approaches structural engineering as a holistic discipline, teaches a sense of scale, and makes the students reflect on the constructability aspects of design, on aesthetics and on the technical, social and environmental context of engineering works. In addition, the course also teaches the students how to communicate ideas to the engineering profession as well as to the general public. To reach these goals the course includes several components such as the building of models of significant structures, an exhibition, a website, a field trip to the location of the structures analyzed, and direct contact with the engineers who designed them.
Every edition of CEE463 has had a different theme, and the topic for the Fall 2014 semester is “The Art of Spanish Bridge Design”. The Spanish tradition of bridge design is very special. It is rooted on the teachings and works of great engineers such as Eduardo Torroja, Carlos Fernández Casado and Eugenio Ribera and on the importance and character of individuals. Structural design in Spain is still mainly a work carried out by recognizable persons with a recognizable style rather than a work carried out by nameless and faceless people on an “engineering assembly line”. At its best, the Spanish tradition of bridge design is defined by the creativity of its engineers, their search for the perfection in all the details and their love for sketching, drawing and describing the overall behavior of the structure with simplicity and clarity. The best engineers also show a passion for design, for learning from past and current experiences, for using new materials (when appropriate) and finding the shapes that better express the characteristics of these materials. The best engineers study in detail the context of a bridge before facing the design as well as its construction process, and have a broad culture that embraces arts and humanities in addition to engineering. They love beauty and are aware of the fact that their bridges contribute to improve transportation but, even more important, that they can also improve civic life as they have an effect on the people that watch them and pays for them. These engineers master the “technical” but they are not restrained by it, and they work hard because, as the Spanish artist Picasso said, “Inspiration exists but it has to find us working”. And the result of this combination is an impressive catalog of structures that have all their dimensions balanced and reach a value beyond the material.
To see a brief video desribing the course and containing interviews of its professors, click HERE.
To see a news release, click HERE.