A shift in the architecture profession, already entrenched with issues of control and authorship, affords the engineer an expanded role during initial project design discussions, not just as consultants after the fact. Structural engineers like Chris Wise—formerly of Arup, now at Expedition Engineering—are literally drawing at the table, which is how he explains his collaboration at Arup with Norman Foster’s office on London’s Millennium Bridge. Engineers are featured prominently in conceptual design discussions, and they are even once again writing books on their philosophy of structures. The blurring of professional boundaries between architect and engineer is making the design process more flexible and malleable, and thus experimental, providing a new space for the structural engineer to merge the overemphasized divide between math, nature, technology, and design.
In part, this shift is due to a renewed interest in structures by contemporary architects, such as the Office for Metropolitan Architecture with Cecil Balmond, Michael Maltzan and Steven Holl with Guy Nordenson, Toyo Ito and Arata Isozaki with Mutsuro Sasaki, Coop Himmelb(l)au with Bollinger & Grohmann, to name just a few. This paradigm has emerged through intense collaboration, open design dialogue, and radical advances in digital design and fabrication technology, resulting in new arrangements of the “bones” of a building, the design of occupiable structural elements, new structural “skins” to envelop massive spaces, form-finding, and environmental integration. Structural designs that embrace a new holistic integration have also been inspired by the internal structures of nature, as found in things such as crystals, coral, and bones. Engineering falls between science and art, intuition and empiricism and is thus often not accepted in its full creative potential. Creativity results from intuitive interpretation of first principles of physics, mathematics, and code, which, while abstract, can result in new, nonstandard techniques in the physical world. Structure, so often only discussed in terms of economy and efficiency, is also about aesthetics.
In considering the rise of the contemporary engineer, what comes to light are three important moments of design input in the past century: the early Modern era; the 1950s; and again today, where geometry, structures in nature, and collaboration all play a role in shaping new spaces as described in this rather brief history. During the early Modern movement, the engineer came into the foreground, with or without architects, often patenting structural steel and concrete inventions for large spans, such as those by Owen Williams for Boots, Giacomo Matte-Trucco for Fiat, or the shell structures of Pier Luigi Nervi. Robert Maillart became a de facto Modern designer with his minimal bridge structures in Switzerland, as did the anonymous American engineers of grain silos admired by Erich Mendelsohn and Le Corbusier. The late London structural engineer Ove Arup started his career designing projects in concrete with Tecton Architects, such as London Zoo’s Penguin Pool (1934), which Arup designed with engineer Felix Samuely.

Midcentury masters

Those Modern structural design engineers engaged the next generation, who by the 1950s and 1960s inserted themselves into larger consultancy roles for new building typologies, such as massive skyscraper projects. For example, Frederick Severud, with architect Matthew Nowicki, made possible the design of the suspended roof of the Raleigh Arena in North Carolina (1952). With its unique saddle shape, it fast became a pilgrimage stop for engineers Frank Newby, Ted Happold, and Frei Otto on their first visits to the U.S. in the early 1950s. Severud’s ability to free structure to express the potentials of nonlinear space, breaking away from the rigid grid, also inspired Eero Saarinen’s concrete shell for Ingalls Rink in New Haven (1956–59).

Ove Arup was also outspoken in his dedication to structure as a force for design, articulating in his landmark 1970 “Key Speech” concepts of “total design” and “total architecture.” For Arup, these two points described a necessary and productive synthesis in the collaboration between architects and engineers, between design and construction. Although he died in 1989, his influence has been broad, not only through the 9,000 employees who constitute his present firm, but in the spawning of other firms, such as the late Ted Happold’s Buro Happold, the late Peter Rice’s RFR, Jane Wernick’s firm, Chris Wise’s Expedition Engineering, and Guy Nordenson, who started in Arup’s New York office and then founded his own practice. While Arup has had lasting influence for the development of the multidisciplinary practice—structural, mechanical, electrical, plumbing, acoustics, lighting, and so on—Arup, the man, was never alone in his pursuit of structural innovation. The work of Jack Zunz on Jørn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House in Australia (1957–73), which expanded the potential of shell structures, and Rice’s work on the “high-tech” Centre Pompidou in Paris (1971–76), with Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano, both represent signatures for the firm at the time, as more individual engineers developed collaborative relationships with specific architects. Since 2005, engineers at Arup have been completing a precise 3D digital model of the Sydney Opera House for future construction projects and analysis.

In Germany, Frei Otto’s collaborative investigations of lightweight structures took shape with the unique topographic roof surface of the Munich Olympic Park (1972), designed by Behnisch Architekten (then called Benisch + Partner), with engineers Leonhardt, Andrä and Partners. Engineers Jörg Schlaich and Rudolph Bergermann, who later formed their own influential practice, were also part of the team. The project epitomizes Otto’s ideas from his tensile structures of the 1960s, which used the principles of economy in large-span, lightweight membranes. This experimentation relied on Otto’s position as the founder of the Lightweight Structures Institute at the University of Stuttgart, where he could use numerous modeling techniques—such as soap film structures, hanging chain models, and mechanical models—in which the radically simple processes resulted in form. At the institute, the baton was passed to Jörg Schlaich, who then taught Werner Sobek, the current director of the renamed Institute for Lightweight Structures and Conceptual Design. Otto’s embrace of flexible and lightweight structures forms a contrast to monumental and weighty architecture.