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The yawning gap that lies between form and function

We’re used to the age old friction between architects and engineers, but in these unrelenting economic doldrums the clash of ideals between what is iconic and what is affordable or appropriate is heightening.

It is a debate that mostly centres on tall buildings and bridges – the most visibly obvious engineering structures. One thread of the argument has been played out in the news pages of NCE in recent weeks, with eminent bridge engineers criticising perhaps the only significant English bridge schemes being planned right now – the Mersey Gateway and the New Wear Crossing – for being overdesigned and over-priced.

The two bridges share little in common structurally beyond the fact they will be cable-stayed, but engineers say that each could benefit from a redesign to keep as much of the function of the structure while removing costly flourishes.

They are united in concluding that in both cases it would be feasible to redesign the structures as simplified box-girder bridges, thus removing the extravagant towers and cables that are not only technically more intricate but offer the greatest opportunity to create a striking profile.

Independent bridge expert Simon Bourne, who has 30 years’ experience of designing major bridges, took particular umbrage with the Wear crossing structure being overcomplicated and called it a “gross misuse of public money in a time of austerity” – a large proportion of the £118M cost of the scheme will come from the public purse.

But is the issue really one of cost versus design? Focusing on affordability in times of austerity suggests that in more buoyant economic times fewer people would take issue with spending big bucks on iconic structures regardless of their value. The implication is that either we’re happy to build expensive structures or we’re never happy to build anything other than what is functional.

Abroad, it seems, the situation is different. Certainly France has made room for affordable form as well as function where bridges are concerned. Completed last year, the 515m long cable-stayed Térénez bridge, designed by renowned engineer Michel Virlogeux and architect Charles Levigne, replete with sweeping curves and lambda-shaped towers, cost a mere £36.2M. Environment was a key consideration as the bridge had to blend in to its rural estuary landscape.

And, although it is now almost 10 years old, the elegant 2.5km long Millau Viaduct, also designed by Virlogeux alongside architect Lord Foster, came in at £200M. Meanwhile, the Mersey Gateway strives to achieve the same balance between sensitive icon and roadway, and yes it is twice the length of the Térénez bridge, but the cost is an eye-watering £600M.

It’s a little easier to see why flamboyant design may seem unaffordable to the UK.

Those with grand aspirations are all too aware of the issue with building controversial and complex structures for a less than enthusiastic audience. Last week witnessed one of the crowning moments in the construction of the Olympic Park’s ArcelorMittal Orbit sculpture, as invited guests were lifted up to its observation decks for the first time.

The 114.5m tall structure is certainly eye-catching and the designers have been all too prepared to deal with negative comments. Public funding is less of an issue as the steel giant ArcelorMittal is paying £19.6M out of the £22.7M total cost, but that hasn’t meant it has escaped criticism for its ostentatious form.

The Orbit was co-designed, by sculptor Anish Kapoor and renowned structural engineer Cecil Balmond. Kapoor believes time will tell with regards to the future acceptance of the Orbit and its artistic merits. Interestingly, he and Balmond noted that while the structure will require repainting in 50 years, the design life of their monument would be determined by “cultural need”. And Kapoor is honest enough to say that while he believes the helter-skelter form of the Orbit is beautiful, he concedes “it is awkward”.

But he points out that the Orbit is not alone in history. Balmond and Kapoor conducted thorough research on the perception of iconic buildings, for the Orbit is in fact a building as much as a sculpture. The Eiffel tower, but also the Houses of Parliament and St Paul’s Cathedral, all faced scathing reviews yet, in time, became iconic monuments. One wonders if they struggled with a public debate over their affordability during the build.

On the other hand, while in the UK efficient may mean utilitarian in aesthetic appeal, it is often not necessarily cheap. The Olympics have shown that to ensure legacy, and modest engineering that makes the most of temporary add-ons for Games-time, this in itself has come at a price.

The spartan, warehouse-like appearance of the International Broadcast Centre is one such example. Struggle as it did to gain a developer in legacy the temporary building is still coming in at a cost of over £300M.

There will never be absolute consensus on the artistic merit of a structure, and the struggle to put an affordable price-tag on them will no doubt continue.

As happens elsewhere, it should be the engineer’s job in the UK – in times of austerity or otherwise – to ensure that efficient structural design doesn’t lead to only utilitarian aesthetic attributes.

Readers' comments (2)

  • Has there ever been an analysis of expediture over time from conception to completion for such iconic structures described above from the UK and abroad? Perhaps a comparison as to where, oh where, money gets poured into in the UK for our major infrastructure. Most people enjoy bashing the UK construction industry, including HM Gov. but what is the foundation for this criticism. Are the figures like for like? How much gets spent in the planning stages in the UK compared to abroad?

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  • At last Alex, I had begun to give up hope. Your article touches on something fundamental that should have been debated a long time ago.
    What do the following projects have in common? The Channel Tunnel, the M3 at Twyford Down, HS2, Heathrow’s third runway, the Severn Barrage, nuclear power, wind farms, a new reservoir in Oxfordshire: what do they have in common? The answer is, of course, highly questionable justifications.
    Into the arenas where such schemes are contested, most engineers, being people with a preference for the analytical methodologies, (which might be called reactionary positivism by the ungenerous), would naturally align themselves with the schools of meticulous accountancy and intricate mathematics. Such people are known to have rounded shoulders and they are to be seen despondently shuffling from job to job, begging for a chance to build something. They are all, very, very boring.
    Next in this little talent show, we have the architects and planners. Probably not wearing socks, or a collar, or sleeves to his jacket, our stereotype is, by virtue of his appearance, an artistic spirit. He is a champion of the supremacy of intuition in decision making and he is therefore well-qualified to speak about all those benefits that no-one has yet managed to define, in words or with numbers.
    The panel, awarding the financial prizes, consists of celebs who have got themselves elected, or people who have got elected and then become celebs. The audience, being the rest of society, is quite happy to scream its delight in going with the intuitive decision of the panel. What do we want? Drama’s what we want! And when do we want it? Etc.
    Let’s face it, the contest has little to commend it. The positivist will only recognise the benefit he can measure, and cheerfully ignores all the vast ‘rest’ of the universe. A typical outcome of this approach being the current lack-of-a-transport system in the UK. On the other hand, the intuitive guesswork of the divergent thinker often only produces a comic result. Into this bracket might be lumped HS2, Milton Keynes and the two fingered symbol over the crossing of the Wear.
    Surely we - that’s us, the people who build these things - ought to start involving ourselves in the philosophies that underlie them; no-one else seems to be doing the job, so why not us? We need to open our minds to engage in public debate: raising awareness of the issues. For example, what should the nation’s priorities be? Should we be concentrating on energy waste in preference to building power stations? Should we be concentrating on e-commerce and transportation, before building roads and railways?
    How about the NCE taking the lead?
    How about a dedicated column or blog?
    But for goodness sake, let’s junk the grey suits and the respectable terminology.
    Here’s a thought for an initial topic: out of all the projects you’ve worked on, and all you have you done, what has been of the greatest benefit to society and why? Not just in money, but in every way. Was it that £500 million water supply system in Asia, now lining the pockets of a bent politician, or was it, in reality, some small improvement you made in a design process. Or maybe it was nothing to do with engineering at all; now that would be really revealing.

    Peter Wiltshire

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