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REFRACTIONS - By Henry Petroski

Creating Failure

Engineers, not artists, should drive interdisciplinary design projects.

A recent U.S. News & World Report article on graduate engineering programs began by stating that in designing a bridge, engineers “tend to draw upon designs that have worked in the past.” As if that were a totally bad thing, the article suggested we look to artists for a “more creative approach.” By collaborating, engineers and artists could “push the limits of what is already known about their respective fields.”Photo: HENRY PETROSKI - CERN’s collider, like NASA’s rover, depends on ingenious systems design.

The quotes came from a graduate engineering student who had enrolled in what the article described as “a new movement in engineering schools toward the interdisciplinary study of science and art.” Reinforcing those ideas, another graduate student opined that “engineers tend to make very small, incremental improvements on things” and “don’t really allow their creativity to take full force.” Furthermore, she added, “artists can teach you to be more open to new things.”

Even a supposedly sympathetic professor of music did not seem to be reaching out when he implied that engineers were responsible for “ugly buildings and clunky gadgets.” He did admit, however, that engineering advances were “allowing artists to think new thoughts and express new ideas.”

Interdisciplinary programs obviously can help both engineers and artists to think outside their respective boxes, but there is a down side to interdisciplinary thinking carried to extremes. It may be exciting to push the limits, but since engineering’s true boundaries are often unknown, figuring out how hard to push can prove difficult.

What should not be left out of the curriculum of any interdisciplinary program are case studies of success and failure that provide concrete examples of what engineers have done right—and interdisciplinary teams got wrong. Only by bringing the conversation down to this level of specificity can students and their professors fairly test generalizations and hypotheses about engineers and artists.
While it may be true that engineers tend to advance the state of the art in small increments, there are plenty of counterexamples. The main-span length of suspension bridges grew by only about 12 percent over the half century following the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge. However, the main span of the George Washington Bridge, completed in 1931, was 95 percent longer than the previous record holder. A similar observation could be made about the tallest building in the world today—the Burj Khalifa in Dubai—which surpassed the former highest building by 63 percent.

The involvement of artists on interdisciplinary teams can promote creative approaches to design, but the case of London’s Millennium Bridge provides a cautionary tale. The design competition for this structure required that teams include an engineer, an architect, and an artist. Aesthetic appearance played such a dominant role in the bridge’s design that it wobbled under the first crowds of pedestrians and had to be closed and redesigned. The design of the infamous Tacoma Narrows Bridge, completed in 1940, was so driven by aesthetic goals that its unprecedented slenderness proved its undoing.

Interdisciplinary teams and goals are wonderful in the abstract, but the reality of past experiences warns us about valuing art and aesthetics over engineering and function. Failures stemming from ill-advised interdisciplinary enterprises, in which the creative urge to do something different has distracted designers from applying sound technical thinking about consequences, should be essential reading for students and teachers of all disciplines. Effective interdisciplinary design teams should involve not only creative engineers and visionary artists but also ghosts of the past who rightfully haunt us with their monumental failures.


Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. His latest books are An Engineer’s Alphabet: Gleanings from the Softer Side of a Profession and To Forgive Design: Understanding Failure.


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