PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo - SEPTEMBER 2004 - VOLUME 14, NUMBER 1
refractions

Seeing Music
By Henry Petroski

THE ARCHITECT MAY GET MOST OF THE GLORY FOR THE NEW DISNEY CONCERT HALL, BUT IT COULDN'T HAVE GONE UP WITHOUT ENGINEERS.

I recently visited the new Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles and found it to be a striking example of how art can take the hard edge off a technological achievement without compromising the technology.

Frank Gehry's complex design might never have risen off the drawing board were it not for engineers and other technical professionals working in collaboration with the architect. The building was realizable because sophisticated computer software was employed to size and fit together the underlying structural steel components of the leaning, undulating, and soaring masterpiece. That same software has been used to design warplanes. But in this case it was employed to evoke flower blossoms and tree trunks and other organic forms that present the visitor with comforting and enfolding petal- and leaf-like spaces and surfaces.

The Disney Concert Hall's art and architecture may be more apparent than its science and engineering, but the building relies on both to succeed. If you climb the outside stairway—designed to serve as an exit from the hall—and follow its circuitous path around the building toward the welcoming rooftop garden, you come across a section that the architect left unclad. Here you can see the underlying maze of straight structural parts that makes the curvy stainless steel façade possible.

This inside glimpse of the engineering may not be visible from the street, but from between the folds of the building, its essential role is apparent. It reveals the symbiotic relationship between architecture and engineering that was exploited for the benefit of Los Angeles and the world. The Walt Disney Concert Hall is unique and representative of thoughtful design and construction everywhere.

Architects and engineers with strong creative capacities working together can change the look of things and change the way we look at things. The collaborative architect-engineer team of Bruce Graham and Fazlur Khan, which gave Chicago the John Hancock and Sears towers, epitomized this.

Such creative individuals have strong humanistic and social sensitivities, which manifest themselves in what they design. They are individuals who recognize that they are part of a larger society, which their designs affect in significant ways. All architects and engineers have that same potential to affect society through technology. They have the opportunity to express their own personality through their efforts, but the responsibility is not something to be taken lightly. Artful structural expression that does not rest on firm technological foundations can be a disaster.

There are two extreme views of failure. At the one are designers who cannot bear the thought of it happening, and so they are conservative to a fault. They take no chances whatsoever, and their designs reflect that. At the other extreme are those who test the limits of success. They dare to be different. Conservative designs are to daring designs as glass boxes are to masterpieces. They might both function as concert halls, but only the latter can be music itself. Professionals can build their career as a glass box that merely reflects the organic music halls and soaring skyscrapers surrounding it, or they can try to build it as one of those masterpieces. The former is usually the quicker and safer way, while the latter generally takes more time and involves much more risk. But if architects and engineers and other designers did not take chances, our built environment would be static and boring. It is made dynamic and exhilarating by the likes of Frank Gehry and other structural artists and engineers who lead rather than follow.

Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. His latest book, Pushing the Limits: New Adventures in Engineering, will be published later this month.

 

 

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