Qualities required by a bridge designer

Before the age of enlightenment engineers/architects built many splendid structures, soaring cathedrals, slender stone towers and daring arch bridges without knowledge of modern theory of structures or of analytical soil mechanics. Then in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, despite the primitive state of mathematics and structural theory, engineers built huge numbers of structures associated with the development of the canals, roads and railways, some of which were daring and dramatic, many of which have survived to the present day.

It is astonishing how little curiosity is shown by engineers and teachers of engineering about this huge body of successful structures which were built without the benefits of most of what is considered essential engineering training. It should make us question what are the basic skills required for a bridge designer.

The designer of engineering structures requires an understanding of how structures work and how they are to be built, an appreciation of how they look, and the communication skills required to describe his ideas to others. This understanding develops gradually, starting with his technical education and continuing with the feedback from completed projects, snippets of information read or overheard, back-of-the-envelope doodles or bath-time mental calculations. Sometimes, some item of information acts as the missing piece of a puzzle, suddenly illuminating an issue that was previously only partly understood. This process goes on throughout a career, and a creative engineer becomes progressively more creative until his faculties begin to decline. Clearly, some people are more gifted than others in this domain, and have an intuitive understanding of structures. Such natural engineers learn more quickly than others less talented, and make better use of their experience.

A designer's appreciation of beauty depends in part on his talent and in part on his training and experience. In the UK, prospective engineers concentrate on mathematics and science from the age of 16, and the appreciation and creation of beauty are absent from the majority of engineering courses. Mathematics and the other technical disciplines such as theory of structures and the properties of materials are the most tangible of the skills required by engineers, and thus are the ones that are given priority in their education. However they have become virtually the only skills that are taught, whereas the critical criterion that determines whether a structure will rise above the mediocre is the quality of the conceptual design. This requires in addition to technical knowledge and skill, imagination, aesthetic judgement and an appreciation of the context of the structure. These skills are much more difficult to teach.

Thus engineering designers have to rely on any innate talent for the vital aesthetic component of their practice, or alternatively seek input from architectural specialists. Enlisting the help of architects in the design of bridges is far better than simply ignoring the aesthetic component of design, but is much inferior to both aesthetic and technical components being in the mind of one person. An engineering designer should have an education that is reasonably balanced between the technical and the aesthetic.

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