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Bridging the gap

There has been some delicate debate in the magazine recently about the roles of architects and engineers, which as it was talking about bridge design, was clearly a touchy subject.

Generally, it is accepted that architects lead in the design of buildings, with engineers playing a supporting role. The architect 'lives or dies' on the perceived value of his or her design, while engineers prosper as a result of the value of their contribution.

Rather like session musicians who join bands for individual recordings, these engineers will only be credited in small print. But like their fellow session artists, if successful they are revered and highly sought after by architects.

Although they may now and again do their own thing (supported by a discreet architect) it will be as if they know their place, and don't seek the limelight.

The truth is, however, that they, more than anybody else, can see what it is to be an architect and in all honesty don't seek to become one (as Ted Happold once said, leave the architect to hunt the bear while we kill and skin it).

These engineers enjoy the design sessions and are happy not to be around for the final account. We know we earn more on average than our fellow architects, and it could be suspected that a few engineers earn at least as much as the most successful.

For the profession of engineering this is, however, a bit of a problem. Here we have happy, prosperous engineers who, for reasons of diplomacy, do not seek to express the extent of their contribution to a design, relying alternatively on a body of work as a testament to their ability. For the profession they have little or no public image and do not become role models for potential entrants.

Hence the delicate subject of bridges. If there was anything we needed to be seen doing in order to inspire youngsters with the business of engineering, it is to be seen to be leading the design of bridges; yet clearly we are not. We have quite simply gone from involving architects in our projects (Albert Yee on the Severn Bridge, letters 16 March) to being involved in theirs (Foster at Bankside).

Perhaps this is unfair, as we all know Arups are team leader at Bankside, but I said seen and if we were to ask anybody other than an engineer who was designing it - even an architect - they would say Foster. Worse still though, if we asked the same group who designed the new Severn Crossing, I doubt they could even pick the name of the right engineer from a choice of three.

However, all is not lost by any means. Mr A Grant suggested (letters 16 March) that the lead in bridge design should go to designers combining a proper study of both disciplines - people like Calatrava, possibly qualified in both professions.

Ten years ago I wrote in New Builder, a sister magazine to NCE, criticising the concept of architectural engineering courses. Now I rather like the graduate output of these university courses at Leeds and Sheffield. Perhaps we need to be doing more to support them and groom these graduates to lead our bridge design teams. Perhaps I've changed my mind.

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