In Robert Maillart's Bridges: The Art of Engineering (1979), Princeton professor of civil engineering Billington made an...


THE TOWER AND THE BRIDGE: The New Art of Structural Engineering

In Robert Maillart's Bridges: The Art of Engineering (1979), Princeton professor of civil engineering Billington made an auspicious if not novel case for the Swiss designer's famous structures as art; now, he wishes to establish modern structural engineering as a new art form--""parallel to and fully independent from architecture."" It has, he maintains, three distinguishing traits--efficiency, economy, and elegance--and it is by nature ""democratic."" ""The primary reason that the Eiffel Tower and the Brooklyn Bridge became dominant symbols was that their forms were new, transparent, and accessible to the general public. . . . The workings of a democratic government are transparent, conducted in full public view, and although a democracy may be far from perfect, its form and its actual workings (its structure) are inseparable."" Neither part of that neat parallelism stands up to scrutiny: to the lay person, a Pier Luigi Nervi dome is, if anything, less comprehensible than the dome of the Pantheon; and one need not be a political scientist to question the ""transparency"" of democratic government in the US, Britain, or wherever. Nor does the oft-mooted equation of autocracy with heaviness, democracy with lightness, hold up: consider the transition from the rococco to the neoclassical in monarchical/revolutionary France; consider the explicit Japanese recourse to transparency for surveillance. Billington also overreaches in another direction: structural art, he feels obliged to prove, is not applied science--because, he contends, science and technology most often develop independently. But the very development of industrialized iron, the material on which his engineering-as-art argument rests, exemplifies the interdependence of science and technology (and economics, and ecology). Still, the existence of ""structural originality"" is inarguable--modern or otherwise. (Why a Roman aqueduct should differ in this respect from an iron bridge, Billington does not attempt to prove.) Also inarguable--though demonstrated here more fully than heretofore--are Billington's crucial claims that neither efficiency nor economy dictates a single solution to engineering problems. From British bridge-builder Thomas Thetford through Eiffel and Roebling to recent, soaring work in prestressed concrete, there is evidence aplenty of ""independent vision,"" ""aesthetic sensitivity"": engineering as art. Is structural art, then, different from architecture? Contrasting Maillart's forms with Corbusier's, Billington persuades that there are grounds for a distinction, if not a clear separation. Is the Hancock Tower ""dehumanizing""--or gloriously expressive of Chicago's(and the designer's) personality? Does it more genuinely embody ""the aesthetic of thinness"" than Mies' elegant nearby structures? The book is grandiose--but provocative.

Pub Date: Nov. 15, 1983

ISBN: 069102393X

Page Count: -

Publisher: Basic Books

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 1983