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Engineers not the underdogs, but sometimes feel “hurt”

A set of brave individuals took the podium at a panel held on Monday, October 15 at the Design Exchange in Toronto's downtown. Under the title "Limits of Architecture," the event explored the relationship of architects and engineers, a...



A set of brave individuals took the podium at a panel held on Monday, October 15 at the Design Exchange in Toronto’s downtown. Under the title “Limits of Architecture,” the event explored the relationship of architects and engineers, a relationship which the organizers themselves described as having been “long and at times tumultuous.”

As the promotion for the event put it: “An infinite struggle is enacted almost daily during the building process, yet these two seemingly disparate professions co-exist — but how?”

The panel was moderated by Professor Ghyslaine McClure and Dr. Effie Bouras, both of McGill University’s Department of Civil Engineering and Applied Mechanics. These two individuals have also organized a concurrent exhibition at the Design Exchange entitled “Considering the Quake/Seismic Design on the Edge.” In focusing on the intersection of engineering with architecture, both the exhibit and the panel courageously delve into territory that is rarely explored in the public realm.

The panel included two speakers from Arup Toronto: engineer Hassan Ally, and Richard Terry, buildings practice leader. Also on the panel were Professor Constantin Christopoulos, P.Eng., leader of the University of Toronto’s structural dynamics and earthquake engineering team, Toronto architect Stephen Teeple, and Calvin Smith of HOK Canada. Lisa Rochon, the Globe and Mail’s architecture critic made the introductions.

Bouras fanned the flames of debate by using quotes from Arthur Erickson and Walter Gropius to ask the question, “Is rationalism the enemy of architecture?” Not surprisingly, all the panelists agreed this was not the case but in fact that engineering and architecture are deeply integrated.

Terry (newly arrived from the United Kingdom), gave the work of Richard Rogers as a prime example. Rogers’ buildings such as the Pompidou Centre in Paris or Lloyds in London wear their engineering services on the outside, so that the engineering IS the architecture. “At the other extreme,” Terry cited the Guggenheim Museum in New York where the engineering structure is buried within its spiral organic form.

“Engineering is what enables spectacular architecture, and will enable it in the future,” said Professor Christopoulos. He cited the Bahai Temple of Light being constructed in Santiago, Chile (designed by Toronto architects Hariri Pontarini Architects) for which new glass materials have been developed and which “floats” on seismic isolators. Christopoulos also mentioned the work of his ex-students at Cast Connex who have designed massive cast steel structural nodes that are being used by architects around the world as an aesthetic and functional element.

“To make an island for an airport is an incredible thing,” said Smith, while Ally cited the York University Subway Station under construction in north Toronto as an example of engineering helping to dictate the architectural form.

The panel discussed questions such as the impacts of sustainable design and BIM, but the most interesting discussions were on the question of “Are engineers undervalued?”

“Of course!” was the laughing response from the engineers. Terry went on to say that the oft-quoted analogy of master-servant for architect-engineer “is not helpful.” The panelists agreed that it was important to set the right attitudes around the design table.

But while everyone on the panel was stressing the importance of engineering, it was evident that some engineers do feel undervalued. Bouras recalled an occasion from her days as an engineering student when she ventured into a studio class. After she introduced herself to the group, the professor summarily dismissed her with the rude remark: “I hate engineers!”

During the question and answer session, a member of the audience said it was amazing that engineers are not considered as playing a critical role in our buildings. Ghyslaine said that perhaps it was because “engineers are typically not looking for exposure,” and don’t mind being in the shadows. “We take our enjoyment from the work,” she said.

“We don’t have big names to throw about; we don’t have iconic engineers. But I don’t think we feel like the underdog,” said Ghyslaine.

Terry agreed, but at the same time he remembered several times in his career being disappointed when others were thanked for their role in a project, and “we were not.” “It hurts,” he said.


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