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Reviewed by:
  • Robert Maillart: Builder, Designer, and Artist *
  • Jonathan E. Farnham (bio)
Robert Maillart: Builder, Designer, and Artist. By David P. Billington. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Pp. xxx+331; illustrations, notes/references, appendixes, index. $70.

Robert Maillart: Builder, Designer, and Artist, the latest in a series of books about the Swiss master of reinforced concrete by civil engineer David P. Billington, is the culmination of decades of passionate research and analysis. Billington has meticulously recounted Maillart’s private and professional lives and provided provocative insights into the engineer’s design philosophy. To the delight of historians, he has documented several [End Page 154] unknown projects as well as acclaimed masterpieces such as the Salginatobel Bridge (1930). More than 120 monochrome photographs, including many unfamiliar images belonging to the engineer’s daughter, communicate not only the subtle beauty of Maillart’s constructions but also a sense of the everyday life of this legendary figure. Additionally, numerous newly produced diagrams and line drawings elucidate the author’s interpretations, while valuable appendixes enumerate Maillart’s writings and built works. One wishes that documentation of this caliber was available for every pioneer of concrete engineering and construction.

Although written for historians of engineering and architecture, Billington’s analyses of Maillart’s structures and technical, pedagogical, and philosophical positions will interest all attentive readers. Further engaging readers of all backgrounds, the interwoven narrative of Maillart’s private life, although sometimes maudlin, is often compelling. The account of his escape from war-ravaged Russia, for instance, reads like an adventure novel. Regrettably, at other points Billington’s prose is awkward and even confusing. For example, concurrent sentences that relate Maillart’s “galling” loss of a competition and his wife Maria’s “gall bladder problems” (p. 66) leave the reader wondering about editorial oversights. But despite occasional frustrating and perplexing phrases, the book will appeal to historians of infrastructure and thoughtful laypersons alike.

Perhaps as interesting as Maillart’s spectacular bridges is the struggle between architects and engineers over his legacy, a struggle in which Billington himself has been pivotal. Little known beyond Swiss circles until the last decade of his life, Maillart is now internationally renowned as a designer of refined concrete structures and as a focus of debates over the boundaries of architecture and structural engineering. Venerated by modernist artists, architects, and critics such as Sigfried Giedion and Max Bill in the thirties and forties, Maillart occupies a central position in the orthodox history of modern architecture. For modernists, his Tavanesa Bridge of 1905 marks the birth of a truly modern architecture that reintegrated art with technology.

Since the 1970s, Billington has sought to liberate Maillart from architects and return him to structural engineers. In a series that includes Robert Maillart’s Bridges: The Art of Engineering (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1979), The Tower and the Bridge: The New Art of Structural Engineering (New York: Basic Books, 1983), Robert Maillart and the Art of Reinforced Concrete (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1990), and this latest text, Billington has endeavored to situate Maillart squarely within a self-consciously artistic practice of engineering. Compelling civil and structural engineers to examine the aesthetic dimensions of their work, dimensions often deprecated or ignored, Billington’s project is of great value. But, like every groundbreaking venture, it is not without controversy.

Across this series of studies, Billington has attempted to delineate an autonomous art of structural engineering based on what he calls “elegance.” [End Page 155] In this latest book, interpretations of the projects of Maillart and his contemporaries are predicated upon “elegance” and structured by a series of dichotomies labeled the “design” and “applied science” views of engineering (p. 1). Quoting Maillart’s mentor Wilhelm Ritter, Billington explains that the design view “is a view of the thing itself and is, therefore, the most natural way,” while in the applied science view “the subject hides behind unfamiliar symbols” (p. 8). Employing Ritter’s distinction as the basis for his assessments, Billington asserts that Maillart, the design-oriented engineer, grasps reality with his concrete, simple, practical, natural, honest, innovative, democratic methodology while the analytic engineer, like the architect, merely manipulates symbols and therefore cloaks reality with a dissimulative...

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