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Pioneering Engineers

The Economy of Materials from Robert Maillart to Shigeru Ban

Pioneering Engineers intro

Interior view of vaults, Church of Christ the Worker, Atlantida, Uruguay, 1958-60 by Eladio Dieste. Image source: “Eladio Dieste: Innovation in Structural Art” by Stanford Anderson.

UHC Secretary and Director of Research and Development Dave Hampton, also a practicing architect with Echo Studio, presented UHC Lecture #4 “Pioneering Engineers - The Economy of Materials from Robert Maillart to Shigeru Ban” this evening at Lincoln Park Branch Library.

The Economy of Materials

crane head and head of femur
Fig. 1: Crane head and head of femur

The presentation opened with a discussion on how structural engineers over the last century have moved closer to maximizing the work materials do while minimizing the resources needed to produce, erect, and maintain them - something nature does every day.

D’Arcy Thompson’s On Growth and Form documents how animals (including humans) adapt physically to their environment. Examples include how the top of a human leg bone deals with the stresses involved in supporting the weight of the body, drawing an analogy to a design for a crane which distributes weight in a similar way [Fig. 1].

Pioneering Engineers

Maillart, Dieste, Ban
Fig. 2: Robert Maillart, Eladio Dieste, Shigeru Ban

These three individuals (actually, Ban is an architect, but his work deserves to be considered alongside that of other structures heavyweights) exemplify a challenging, economic, and beautiful use of materials to span, shelter, and house.

Maillart Salginatobel Bridge
Fig. 3: Salginatobel Bridge, Switzerland, 1930

Robert Maillart (1872-1940), a Swiss engineer, created some of the most strikingly beautiful bridges in reinforced concrete which departed from the heavy appearance of many stone-clad bridges of the day [Fig. 3]. Maillart was not afraid to allow his bridges to show how forces are distributed, even removing material from where it was unneccesary.

Dieste Atlantida church
Fig. 4: Church of Christ the Worker, Atlantida, Uruguay, 1958-60

Eladio Dieste (1917-2000), an Uruguayan engineer and architect, recognized the need to minimize the expense and waste of formwork and created movable scaffolding for his brick and reinforced concrete thin-shell structures. His Church of Christ the Worker [Fig. 4, top of page] is an excellent example of the power, art, and economy possible when local labor, traditional building practices, and forward thinking are combined.

Ban India housing
Fig. 5: Paper tube housing, Bhuj, India, 2001

Shigeru Ban (1957- ), a Japanese architect, has designed structures ranging from the jaw-dropping Japan Expo Pavilion to a deceptively simple church to humanitarian solutions to disasters using an unexpected material - paper. His design responses for housing following earthquakes in Japan, Turkey [Fig. 5] and other disasters points to a growing dedication by the design and engineering fields to adapting technolgy for use where most needed. The results are often (especially in Ban’s case), startling in their simplicity, beauty, and humanism.

In the Trenches: The Warren-Boulton Residence

Warren-Boulton Residence by Echo Studio
Fig. 6: Engineering sketches by Louis Shell Structures (left) and possible location of shear wall at exterior wall of stair tower (right), 2006

Not meaning to put ourselves in the company of the above greats, the presentation concluded with a segment describing the process architects and engineers go through every day to make the tough decisions as to what sustainability, efficiency, and economy really means in the working world.

One wall of the Warren-Boulton Residence, the shear wall, will help the entire house resist wind and gravity loads after the rear masonry wall is removed to create the new addition. Architect and engineer have gone back and forth, discussing the pros and cons of possible construction types for this wall: engineered wood moment frames, structural insulated panels (SIPS), masonry, precast and tilt-up concrete [Fig. 6].

What was initially thought to be the worst possible choice from an environmental and cost standpoint, a 3-story braced steel frame, may well turn out to be the most efficient, effective use of material… we’ll see when the numbers come in.

Live Demos!

string polygon diagram
Fig. 7: String polygon and arch form. Diagram by David P. Billington from “Robert Maillart and the Art of Reinforced Concrete.”

Dave’s presentation also included live demonstrations of the basic physics principles of structures:

  • tension and compression
  • how a beam distributes a load and bends
  • representing the forces at play in an arch or bridge by hanging weights on a string model [Fig. 7]

Contact us for more information or to schedule this presentation to your organization.

Special thanks to my engineer Louis Shell for his patient ear and for his suggestions, especially the use of “On Growth and Form.”

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