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Common Knowledge 12.3 (2006) 354-378

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Prometheus and the Muses

On Art and Technology

Ship design differs from the creation of poetry only in its numerate content.
—J. E. Gordon, Structures

We tend to think of art and technology as having no important connection. What starker opposition than between the artist and the engineer—the irrational dreamer and the rigorous realist, the indulgent devotee of subjectivity and the austere technician? We tend not to think that engineering might be enhanced by the love of beauty, nor that it is impossible to be a really good engineer without understanding art. Yet we depend on essentially artistic skills in engineers, the capacity to feel technically and construct aesthetically. The invention of a seriously new alternative is an aesthetic moment in art and technology alike. No design is ever determined by calculations or technical necessity. Choice pervades technological design and is made, ultimately, on the basis of aesthetic invention (supplemented, of course, by careful testing). Engineering design is the analytical and imaginative synthesis of perception and technique, which is also the ideal, the point, the idea of art. There is art in good engineering and good engineering in art. To stand up and last, an artwork has to be no less well put together than a bridge. [End Page 354]

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Figure 1
Hell Gate Bridge, 1917, East River, Queens, New York, Gustav Lindenthal, designer. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Historic American Engineering Record, HAER NY, 31-NEYO, 167-11

Engineering Art

Engineering and technological design may be said to have a significant aesthetic dimension because they cannot fail to involve aesthetic choices: good engineering requires good aesthetic judgment. That aesthetics is integral to engineering has been affirmed a number of times by reflective engineers.1 Othmar H. Ammann (1879–1965), the designer of New York's George Washington Bridge (1931), made this point throughout his career. Writing in 1918, in a report on Gustav Lindenthal's recently completed Hell Gate Bridge (fig. 1), Ammann, who was "first assistant" on the project, pronounces the bridge "one of the finest creations of engineering art of great size which this century has produced," and adds: "A great bridge in a great city, although primarily utilitarian in its purpose, should nevertheless be a work of art to which Science lends its aid. . . . It is only with a broad sense for beauty and harmony, coupled with wide experience in the scientific and technical field, that a monumental bridge can be created." Three decades and half a dozen major New York bridges later, Ammann felt the same way: "Mere size and proportion are not the outstanding merit of a bridge; a bridge should be handed down to posterity as a truly monumental structure which will [End Page 355] cast credit on the aesthetic sense of present generations." "It is a crime," he once said, "to build an ugly bridge."2

This thought is complemented by the words of Felix Candela, a highly accomplished Mexican designer of thin-shell concrete structures: "Beauty has no price tag and there is never one single solution to an engineering problem. Therefore it is always possible to modify the whole or the parts until the ugliness disappears."3 I think Candela's remark touches the heart of the matter: the availability and necessity of choice. Every technological problem has alternative solutions; and the more engineering there is, the more alternatives there are to choose from. One might say that modern engineering does not exist until there is a relative density of technical alternatives and an art of technological choice.

"Engineering design," as one engineer has written, "is essentially a matter of thinking of a number of alternative solutions to each problem."4 The designer's skill and experience are most artful in choosing the best alternative. Concurring that technical design is "a sequence of comparative choices," another engineer has argued that "there can be no optimum in structures, but only many reasonable choices."5 A specification of the intended function of a new device or structure leaves...


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