Piyush Sharma Article Structural Architectural Conundrum

The Structural/Architectural Conundrum

As I went through the June newsletter of IAStructE, I stumbled upon a paragraph in the President’s message to the members of the association. He wrote about the declining trend in the number of ‘structural engineers of professional standing’ and young civil engineering graduates moving towards higher paying professions like IT, computer science etc. In the last couple of years in Delhi, I have come across several young practicing engineers who have echoed a similar sentiment. Another major grievance is that it’s the architects who take away a larger share of the financial reward and acclaim. Was it always like this? How did we get here? Why is an architect’s services valued more than an engineer’s? Most writing about structural engineering revolves around technical issues. Little space is given to the non-technical matters faced by people associated with the profession on a daily basis. The purpose of the article is to draw attention to such non-technical challenges.

In one of his interviews, popular author and MP, DrShashiTharoor quipped, “If we do not know where we come from, we won’t know where we are going”. History often provides clues to some of the protruding questions of our times. The textbook by Malcolm Millais, ‘Building Structures - Understanding the Basics’ offers some insight into the history of the profession - “Up to the end of 18th century, architects, or surveyors, as they were often called, were solely responsible for all aspects of building design. The term engineer was reserved for members of army engineering corps”. He reveals that the line between architects and military engineers was not firmly drawn with each, often performing the task of the other. His claims are reinforced by the fact that several joint bodies of architects and engineers including American Society of Civil Engineers and Architects, existed until mid-19th century. 

However, over time, the role of engineer and architect has become mutually exclusive. One of the primary reasons for this division was the development of mathematically based theory of structural behavior. While the engineer’s training programme became heavily based on theoretically based calculation procedures, the architect drifted in the opposite direction. Hence, the idea that the primary structure can be viewed conceptually as a separate entity is relatively recent, around the end of 19th century.

Today, the primary structure is mostly conceived from two different points of view. The architectural vision is based on a visual or sculptural understanding, often poorly informed by a real understanding of structural behavior. The Engineer’s vision, on the other hand, is focused on providing direct load path at the lowest cost with no role in the aesthetic aspects. This is far from an ideal arrangement, and it has had, and continues to have, technical and financial problems with many projects. A famous example is the Sydney Opera House which ran into several delays as basic ideas of structural behavior were ignored in the initial conceptual design stage. This situation can only improve when everybody involved in the design process has a sufficient understanding of both technical and aesthetic aspects.

The problems caused by an ill-conceived, architect-led structural concept is faced by us on a regular basis. Let us delve into the consequences of an engineer’s ignorance of modern architectural ideas. What encompasses the ideals of architecture? In my search for an answer, I came across an interview of the Pritzker awardee, MrBalkrishnaDoshi. In the interview, he said, “The ultimate purpose of architecture is to touch the human psyche; to create buildings that evoke certain feelings”. Can structural engineers play a role in fulfilling this purpose? Or should this responsibility be the exclusive domain of an architect? Are we paying a heavy price byignoring architectural principles, in exchange for the mathematical rigour of the subject? Is it possible to find a balance between the two apparently contradicting fields?

Another area of concern is strengthening communication links with public. Most professionals including doctors, lawyers and even architects deal directly with the public on a daily basis. Structural engineers, on the other hand, in most of the projects, deal only with either architects or government authorities, as a result of them being relegated to a secondary position in a design team. This ‘isolationist policy’ has proven costly for the profession, as it is the public that resides at the heart of any profession. Its consequence is experienced by us in our everyday interactions where we struggle to explain to a layman what a structural engineer’s job entails. Most are oblivious to the existence of such a profession. Forums like IAStructE could make significant contributions in this direction by opening doors of its seminars to not just engineers, but also architects and builders in particular and the public in general. Young school students could be introduced to the fascinating world of structures. Our efforts should aim at strengthening our ties with the people by making the subject comprehensible to them rather than masking it under the garb of complex terminologies.

By Mr. Piyush Sharma, Structural Engineer