|By Henry Petroski
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.