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Reflecting glory


Channel Four's Building of the Year Award programme last Sunday left me disappointed and just a bit depressed by the total lack of credit given to the engineering profession in the creative processes being celebrated.

Not for very long mind.

Seeing the Gateshead Millennium Bridge carry off the Stirling Prize, architecture's top award, brought a wry smile. Not only was it well deserved but also very definitely a major coup for UK civil and structural engineering.

Justice perhaps. In particular, of course, for Gifford and Partners, who, working alongside architect Wilkinson Eyre, made the magnificent rotating bridge a reality.

I recently had the pleasure of hearing Gifford design project manager Peter Curran talking about the project. The quality of the structural engineering, mechanical engineering and craftsmanship in the bridge is matched only by his enthusiasm.

Every town should have one.

So what a shame that in last weekend's programme, much of the real creativity was glossed over. Channel Four gave us some fantastic images of the project, told us all about how the bridge works, how it lights up at night and we were even treated to a personal tribute to the structure by BBC war veteran Kate Aidie.

But there was no mention of the engineers that made the whole thing work, no mention of the engineers that turned Jim Eyre's felt-tip musings into a realistic structure and a realistic mechanism. No mention of Giffords' massive input other than one name check as the credits rolled.

But then again, I suppose the Stirling Prize is a celebration of architecture, backed by the Royal Institute of British Architects. At stake were artistic rather than technical reputations. Judges were looking for impact, for details, for context.

Complexities such as the structural engineering were probably not high on the agenda.

The fact that a bridge can be made so exciting that it can be named 'Building of the Year' can only be good. At least it gave the pundits an opportunity to marvel at the bridge's form. The prize gave an opportunity for 'knowing' architects to explain how the bridge provides a new focus for social interaction, how its lightness juxtaposes with the area's industrial crudeness, to explain that it, well, looks rather good lit up at night.

And anyway, the judges accepted that it was: 'a heroic piece of construction and engineering' - terms certainly not usually associated with Stirling Prize winners. All of which can do little to hinder the promotion of engineering as a creative, exciting and worthwhile practice.

So having thought it all through, I'm over my initial disappointment and am now elated that Channel Four gave airtime to such a celebration. Let's have more of it. Any celebration of architecture will naturally lead to interest in and celebration of engineering - so long as it is good enough.

As for Gifford, it will no doubt be shouting loud and long about its success. Rightly so. Regardless of how much credit is given on Channel Four, this project underlines that done well, engineering can turn a good design into an award winning design.

Sunday's programme highlighted that the days of engineers simply churning out calculations to meet architects' designs are long gone. We are already seeing the Building of the Year Award being dominated by structures - how long before it is actually won by a structural engineer?

Antony Oliver is the editor of New Civil Engineer.

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