The Art of Structural Design: A Swiss Legacy
In an elegant book that supplements his fascinating exhibition at Princeton, David Billington recounts the careers of six engineers. He chronicles a genealogy of excellence through the professional lives of two educators, Wilhelm Ritter and Pierre Lardy, and four practitioners, Robert Maillart, Othmar Ammann, Heinz Isler, and Christian Menn. Each biography forms a chapter with intertwining narratives. Summing up three decades of research on Swiss structural engineering, Billington tells an engrossing tale and reveals the broader import of a tradition the Swiss have always treasured. It is his best book yet, and it links the themes he has pursued over the years: innovation, education, aesthetics, and the relationship between analysis, pedagogy, and design.
Like all of Billington's writings, this book carries a pedagogical message. Billington sees "structural art" as an antidote to the linear thinking and fragmentation of traditional American engineering education. He carefully selects material to support his agenda and avoids an analytical historical standpoint, although he sometimes invokes an intriguing complexity. An example is the ambivalence with which he treats Max Ritter, Wilhelm Ritter's successor at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, who on the one hand opposed Maillart's work but on the other was among the first to study prestressed concrete mathematically. He thus furthered the field while educating his assistant and successor Lardy.
The chapters on Wilhelm Ritter and Lardy and on Maillart and Ammann (the latter coauthored by Jameson Doig) present issues common to each pair, but those on the two living men, Isler and Menn, provide a greater wealth of detail. Both were assistants and protégés of Lardy's.We learn how Lardy influenced them, and suspect how they influenced one another. We see how their careers intersect and how this fostered common ground. It is in these chapters that we perceive a possible "school of thought" from which one might distill material for further study. Billington hints at intriguing issues without exploiting them, perhaps because they might have led too far afield for the purposes of the exhibition. One is the suggested parallel between Alberto Giacometti and Menn. Both came from the Graubünden, each descended from eminent painters, and both had brothers who were architects. What could we learn from this about the cross-fertilization between engineering aesthetics and that in other fields?
Billington makes us thirst to learn more. Let us hope that he writes a sequel, so that we may gain deeper insight into the intellectual and cultural background that fed and continues to feed this development. The two earliest directors of the Swiss Federal Institute for Testing Materials, for instance, [End Page 851] Ludwig von Tetmajer and François Schüle, influenced the development of Swiss codes as much as did Lardy. The third, Mirko Ros, supported Maillart's experiments as adamantly as Ritter did. Together with Werner Jegher, editor of the Schweizerische Bauzeitung, he aggressively kept Alfred Rohn's and Max Ritter's opposition at bay.
Others contributed innovative structures, too, such as Alexandre Sarrasin, another bridge-builder with an architect brother, or Alfred Nötzli, a colleague of Amman's in the United States whose widow became the second Mrs. Ammann. Nötzli's membrane dams resist forces through form rather than mass, a characteristic dear to Maillart's heart. Then there is Richard Coray's elegantly economical centering that made Maillart's bridges possible. His grandsons continued to build Menn's centering. Did Coray's designs influence Isler's thoughts on formwork? Designer-builders like Eduard Züblin or Samuel de Mollins worked along lines similar to Maillart's, and with avowedly similar goals. How did their work foster this new thinking?
Billington mentions the relationship between craft and design in Switzerland, and touches on the contributions of Florian Prader and Eugen Losinger to the development of Menn's engineer father. Prader also built many of Maillart's bridges. These remain unsung, but they too contributed to innovative form in Swiss engineering. Perhaps, if one were to include them—and I do not advocate a Braudelian approach, but rather an inclusive one—the six men discussed in this book might shed their Olympian loneliness and appear more accessibly as highly gifted professionals working within an unusual cultural context.
Billington's book develops the relationship between education and design, and the way he couples lecture notes with interviews can serve as a model. Although his approach might not explain invention, it highlights education and mentoring as contributing factors and stimulates us to discover the outlines of an admirable school of thought in engineering design.
Dr. Peters is director of the Building and Architectural Technology Institute and professor of architecture and history at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He recently published an annotated bibliography of the French science popularizer Louis Figuier and is completing a historical novel on the early Chicago skyscraper.