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RE: Structural Engineering as Art

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Is the man without hands less able to articulate his design if he learns to
adapt to other instruments of communication? I have all of my appendages in
tact, but see the ability to draw a line by pencil or computer as only the
instrument which transports the message. Cad does not make the solution or
our ability to convey our a concept - it only makes it more accurately.

If you intend to explain how a bridge works to a child, I believe that he
would be able to grasp the idea better when viewing a moving, working model
(even a cartoon) than a sketch? Complicated ideas are more difficult to
grasp two dimensionally. They are much easier to understand when brought
into real space where they can be explored, moved within and around so as to
grasp the sum of the parts. This is why model builders convey architectural
concepts rather than sketch two dimensional or even three dimensional
renderings. Cad more easily automates this process and becomes more
sophisticated as technology improves.

Next consider the intimacy of the audience.  A pencil sketch can be viewed
intimately by a few at a time.  Committee meetings use sketches on a
chalkboard to convey idea's to small groups. Virtual committees can sketch
ideas to be viewed by millions of people. The only difference lies in the
instruments used to represent the ideas, and the size of the viewing

Nowhere in this discussion are we defining creativity or the ability to
convey creative ideas in any one medium. This was my point - the instrument
is not the creative spark, it is only the transport which moves our
creativity to a medium of choice. I suppose I can sketch if absolutely
necessary to prove my point to you. However, I am much more efficient and
can produce a much clearer representation of my ideas if left to electronic
instruments. This may not be representative of the majority, but I believe
it will become the most accepted device of future conventional tools.

You stated: "Of course we should not "work out a solution that is 1/2 inch
too large for the space."  When conceptualizing structures we can probably
work to the nearest meter or without dimensions at all because it is the
overall behavior and appearance that matter." In a concept stage where you
consider the model to be large enough as to allow a one meter tolerance this
may be true. However, would you convince a client to invest in a concept
that you can not produce because a reasonable amount of detail was not
considered from the start? I have seen this lead to litigation because
leasable profits were much less than anticipated. Other examples are lack of
consideration to details which lead to increased labor or lower profits in
the design stage that may have been avoided from the start had the
conceptual model been better thought out.

Residential design is much more intolerant of excess and a few inches can
cost the client thousands if it does not yield the results that they want.
However, your point is valid if your comments are directed to structures
which are engineered designs and are not those of architects. In this case,
the engineered design can creatively address solutions which become part of
the aesthetic model. I do not face these types of problem which might be
found in bridge design. I am restrained by the limits established in the
architects design and rarely am I allowed to compromise the architects ideas
in order to satisfy the structural design. This is the creative solution
where fractions of an inch matter and should be thought out in the concept
stages rather than after then design is set.

I am stating this from experience, as I often have designers and architects
who will sketch out their solution to a structural problem I am having. They
don't visualize the total picture - not because they are untrained as
engineers, but because their sketches lack the depth of detail that ensures
that all of the constraints of the problem are identified. This is the main
reason for sketching in the field of engineering - to solve specific
problems which may impact a design. The architect creates the general
appearance (and thus the problem) while the engineer makes it a reality by
using materials that must be assembled in conformance of the laws of nature.
This is the creativity of our field and engineers can not simply ignore the
fine details. Therefore, I would approach the problem from the start with as
much of the constraints defined as I can identify? Then and only then will I
have a hope to compromise within the constraints. This leads to resolutions
with fewer steps between concept and production - a far more efficient
methodology of the design steps.

Our field can no longer affords the luxury of time. We are paid to find a
solution - the best solution - within the least amount of time so as to
allow for the most profitable production of our ideas. This is the reality
of the business and the possible cause-of-death for the classic aesthetic
approach to the art of engineering.

Creativity is not dead or dying - Engineers just need to develop a mastery
of new instruments. By doing so, we can not only accomplish the same goal
but increase our audience and distribute our ideas in a fashion much closer
to our final production drawings. I believe this is the most efficient and
economically productive means to operate an engineering practice.

Finally, I do love to view the artistry of the past and revel in the beauty
of a set of drawings which represents a labor of love of our profession.
This is the romantic part of engineering which, sadly, will go unnoticed by
future generations.  We have, unfortunately, misplaced the importance
between concept and construction as we are required to work as closer to the
points of optimal performance, economy and profit. If you believe that this
denigrates and reduces the importance's of our profession, we will finally
have something to agree upon.


-----Original Message-----
From: Michael Valley [mailto:mtv(--nospam--at)]
Sent: Monday, January 04, 1999 2:17 PM
To: seaint(--nospam--at)
Subject: RE: Structural Engineering as Art


By saying "I have never been blessed with the ability to free-hand
my thoughts very well" you strengthen Milo's argument.  If some
aspect of your education had emphasized the importance of 'thinking
with your fingers' you would not have that limitation.  Most people
are not naturally great artists; it takes sincere (and sustained)
effort to develop and expand conceptualization skills.  Even the
great artists of the past (like Leonardo da Vinci) had to consider
dozens of options and "sketch" these ideas before they could even
begin to consider the details.  We are no different today.  While
developing concepts and when explaining the structure to owners,
architects, and others, we must be able to visualize and convey the
main ideas with pencil on paper.  If all our thoughts require
"electronic accuracy" we lose the immediacy in such situations and it
becomes clear that we lack the vision that characterizes a great

Keeping in mind that the final product is not a drawing (electronic
or paper) but is a structure that is shaped by the hands
(of construction workers, for instance), "the tool that can best
convey your abstract thought into concrete reality" is a rough
sketch.  The drawings and specifications provide the details, but the
"art" is in the concept.

Like most structural engineers, I spend most of my time
considering details (of analysis, design, and contract documents) and
I find computer-based tools (and their creative use) efficient and
personally rewarding.  However, when I'm explaining to a
seven-year-old (or an architect) how the Golden Gate Bridge works,
"electronic accuracy" is meaningless; artist expression and
structural innovation spring from the human--the mind and the hand.


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Michael Valley                                   E-mail: mtv(--nospam--at)
Skilling Ward Magnusson Barkshire Inc.                  Tel:(206)292-1200
1301 Fifth Ave, #3200,  Seattle  WA 98101-2699          Fax:        -1201