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Heritage: Looking to the past to build the structures of the future

In his keynote speech to the International Conference on Construction History in Chicago, Bill Baker of US architecture firm SOM, called for the teaching of construction history so engineering graduates have a good grasp of the techniques and methods used by past generations.

He said concentrating purely on current practices closes an engineer’s mind to alternative approaches and evolving to meet future challenges.

The creator of the Burj Khalifa Tower discussed Frank Lloyd Wright’s proposal for a mile high Illinois tower, and made it clear that for this to be realised, new approaches would be required. He brought out Wright’s engineering career, highlighting the Johnson Wax Research Tower of the 1950s as an example of his innovative approach to tall buildings, with a central core and cantilevered floor slabs with curved corners.

Also speaking in Chicago, Telford Gold Medal winner Santiago Huerta indicated how much work remains in addressing Baker’s call for better teaching of construction history. Drawing on quotations by Popper and Poincare, Huerta said any subject requires a profound knowledge of all its elements - not only are the facts required, but also an understanding and intellectual system in which to place them. Construction history is most obviously about drawing, design, analysis and construction techniques, but also of economics, finance and the socio-political environment.

Construction history is not new - Vitruvius’ De Architectura effectively summarised the practice of classical Greek and Roman builders and engineers, and today there are half a dozen national construction history societies. Around 2,000 construction history papers represent the output of several hundred PhD students, many of whom have taken the subject on to post-doctoral research.

Understanding of developments in reinforced and prestressed concrete, and iron and steel construction is growing, partly resulting from the study of construction history - the next step is wider synthesis of this knowledge. International comparison is still largely lacking, teased out only by discussion at conferences like these and through correspondence with authors.

The papers from all the conferences, and original texts like those by Vitruvius and Sturm, are all available in the ICE Library.

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