Civil Service

Posted in Vol 12 No 4 by bsaab on November 9, 2009

Salginatobel Bridge by Robert Maillart, Schiers, Switzerland. Photo by Rama, Wikimedia Commons, Cc-by-sa-2.0-fr.

An engineer extols the virtues of efficiency, economy, and, yes, elegance.

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Jeff Stein: A decade ago, Engineering News Record named you one of the top five educators in civil engineering since 1874.

David Billington: I don’t know how they measured that but it was nice to hear it. I hold the world’s record for having taught architecture students more years than any other civil engineering professor. Most civil engineering professors don’t like to do that.

Jeff Stein: And in fact you teach one of the most popular courses at Princeton.

David Billington: It wasn’t always that way. I was teaching architecture students in the early 1960s. After three years, they came to me and said, “Mr. Billington, you’re a nice guy and you’re a good teacher. But we hate what you’re teaching us. You’re just teaching us stick diagrams and formulas; we would like you to teach structures through something beautiful.” They showed me pictures of bridges designed by Robert Maillart. I’d never heard of Maillart. And I had never heard of teaching structures that way.

Jeff Stein: Because you had been trained as an engineer.

David Billington: Yes. I had designed a lot of things that were built, but I must say, I’m not very proud of them aesthetically. They weren’t bad, but they really weren’t great. I had never designed with the thought of making something elegant. I decided to look into Maillart and found that not only were his works beautiful, but they were also the best engineering I’d ever come in contact with. That sent me on a whole new track, and I began to teach a structures course to architects through beautiful works, slipping in the technical part. I finally decided that the course should be given to the whole university, not just to the architecture students. So I began in 1974 the course called “Structures in the Urban Environment,”and it became popular. After that, the associate dean came to me in 1984 and said, “We need a freshman engineering course.” People are always trying to design freshman courses for engineers, and they all fail because they tend to lack an intellectual basis. Princeton had been offering a course that had just failed miserably — it had reached the list of the five worst courses in the university. It took me about five years to develop a course we called “Engineering in the Modern World.” Between the two of them, we now teach something like a third of all students who go to Princeton.

Jeff Stein: In your courses, you don’t just present the history of beautiful things and the lives of the great engineers, but you also talk about what they built and how — the notion of infrastructure and engineering generally, as well as the formulas that they use.

David Billington: If we didn’t include the technical engineering aspects, I wouldn’t teach it, even though the liberal-arts students groan sometimes. One thing that is interesting about “Engineering in the Modern World” is that it satisfies either the university’s lab-science requirement or the history requirement. In my mind, that is only possible in engineering.

Jeff Stein: You recently wrote a wonderful book with your son, the historian David Billington, Jr. — Power, Speed, and Form — in which you talk about Othmar Ammann, the engineer of the George Washington Bridge. Ammann used a formula that you describe: H=qL2/8d. Take that simple relationship, which refers to weight and size, and you can design a suspension bridge.

David Billington: Of course, many of the formulas he eventually used were quite complicated. But that’s the one he used for conceptual design. And there’s a similarly simple formula in every branch of engineering.

Jeff Stein: In fact, you say that the people who have made the great leaps in engineering all used very simple math.

David P. Billington. Photo courtesy Princeton University, Office of Communication, Denise Applewhite.

David P. Billington. Photo courtesy Princeton University, Office of Communication, Denise Applewhite.

David Billington: That’s right. I’ve found in my research that it’s a characteristic of all the great innovators, because they had to think deeply and they couldn’t get confused with complex mathematics. The people who followed them tended to focus on more refined details, and therefore used more refined mathematics. But the initial breakthroughs were not done that way. It was a surprise to me.

Jeff Stein: In effect, you found that there are two kinds of engineering thinking: normal thinking and radical thinking.

David Billington: Yes. In the courses that we mentioned, I’m interested in the radical thinking. Teaching upper-level or graduate courses in engineering is of course quite different — then I focus on more refined calculations. But first-rate conceptual design work happens on a much simpler level.

Jeff Stein: In the engineer’s imagination.

David Billington: That’s correct, the engineer’s imagination. It’s an interesting subject. Do you know who Jack Kilby was?

Jeff Stein: No, I do not.

David Billington: That’s a little test. Almost nobody knows him. But he was comparable in the late 20th century to Thomas Edison in the late 19th century. He was the inventor of the microchip and the handheld calculator and eventually won the Nobel Prize. He once gave a lecture in which he talked about his early days. He had just been hired at Texas Instruments, and everybody had gone off on vacation. And so, as he said, he was alone with his “thoughts and his imagination.” For a few weeks he worked on his own, and out came the microchip. No teamwork, nothing like that. It was entirely out of his imagination. But he was very well trained, of course. He knew the field. It wasn’t blue-sky. Another great engineer, Robert Noyce, came to the same idea alone a few months later and the two men are recognized as co-inventors.

Jeff Stein: You have said that a number of engineers are like solo musicians who perform a complex work on their own without other instruments or accompaniment or even without a conductor.

David Billington: Teamwork has a value, of course, when you’re doing incremental development of an idea, when you’re trying to be competitive, or when you’re refining a concept. And you certainly need teamwork to build things. But what’s really interesting is what the engineer does best: imagine.

Jeff Stein: You have pointed out that modern engineering falls into four basic kinds of work: structures, machines, networks, processes. I am intrigued by the ways in which one engineering discipline can influence another. For example, you mention that the processing of iron ore brought about a broad rethinking of the whole tradition of building, which eventually led to a whole new aesthetic. Engineers in the 19th century started to talk about the new thinness of structural members in terms of elegance or beauty. The lightness of the material allowed structures to stand in contrast to the rest of the natural world. Did that appreciation of elegance have an enduring effect?

David Billington: In general terms, the ethos of modern engineering is efficiency. Efficiency is a loosely-used word, but I try to make it precise. Efficiency in engineering terms means minimum use of materials consistent with good performance and assured safety. That’s the ethos of the engineer, and all engineers work under that in the modern world. That’s different from the ethic of the engineer, which is essentially “Don’t waste money” — consistent, of course, with good utility and minimum maintenance. Elegance is a personal expression of the designer, in structures anyway. But because something is efficient does not mean it will be elegant. And elegance does not depend upon efficiency.

Jeff Stein: That’s a really important point, because people who aren’t engineers imagine that that would be the case. In fact, architects tend to imagine that the elegance of engineering comes from its efficiency.

The two disciplines of structural engineering are efficiency and economy; the key to successful design is to find beauty within them. David P. Billington

David Billington: That’s wrong. For instance, the typical steel truss is probably the most efficient structure you can imagine for a lot of uses, and it’s almost always ugly. The two disciplines of structural engineering are efficiency and economy; the key to successful design is to find beauty within them. Or as Félix Candela, one of our heroes, said, to avoid the ugliness without wasting materials and money.

Jeff Stein: You wrote, “Some bridge forms have been imagined by architects, but the best are purely the work of engineers.” I’m sure that will make some architects unhappy.

David Billington: The engineer makes forms that control forces, whereas the architect makes forms that control spaces. The architect is essentially lost when trying to design a great bridge. So the architect tries to make up for it, and in the process, loses the disciplines of efficiency and economy. Santiago Calatrava is a good example. He has caused the quality of bridges to drop precipitously in this country, because what he does is immensely expensive. I talk to DOTs [Departments of Transportation] all the time, and they all have the same opinion: “If we want a beautiful bridge, we have to go to Calatrava, and it will cost three times what the others cost. We can’t afford that, so we’re just going to pull out of the drawer the standard bridge.” What they’re saying in effect is that the engineer has no aesthetic at all — or that the aesthetic is the purview of architects and something they can’t afford. And so the DOTs are defaulting to ugly, standard bridges.

Jeff Stein: What about Christian Menn? David Billington: Christian Menn is probably the greatest living bridge designer. He’s a pure engineer.

Jeff Stein: We adore his work here in Boston, where we have the Zakim Bridge [Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge]. It’s meant to signify the new Boston.

David Billington: You’re lucky to have it. Princeton is building a Menn bridge on the campus now that will be the second one in this country. It’s too bad we don’t have 25 bridges of his.

Jeff Stein: Menn is from Switzerland; you’ve written about him as well as several other engineers in The Art of Structural Design: The Swiss Legacy — Wilhelm Ritter, Robert Maillart, Othmar Ammann, Pierre Lardy, Heinz Isler. What in the Swiss culture has led to so many talented engineers producing so many beautiful bridges? Is it the country’s dependence on tourism?

David Billington: No, I would argue with that. It all comes from the Federal Institute of Technology and their first professor of engineering, Karl Culmann. I don’t remember that he ever talked about tourism. His greatest student, Wilhelm Ritter, became a professor in Zurich and wanted his students to design beautiful, elegant, efficient, economical bridges, and that’s what he taught. Maillart and Ammann studied under him. Unfortunately for potential tourists, Maillart’s bridges are very hard to find, because the higher art world wouldn’t allow him to build anything in a city, with the exception of the Vessy Bridge in Geneva. Everything else he did is way out in the wilderness, where they needed somebody who could build on difficult sites and still do it economically. But some of Menn’s bridges are in prominent locations and could be tourist attractions.

Jeff Stein: In fact, two of Menn’s bridges in Switzerland are understood to be among the 10 most beautiful in the world. He says he hopes to create “motionless objects of stunning elegance.”

David Billington: That’s exactly what he does.

Jeff Stein: One of the challenges for great works of civil engineering is that they are expected to last for a very long time, but are exposed to all kinds of weather and conditions. Design and construction is one thing; maintenance is another. Here in Massachusetts, there are 1,100 bridges that have been inspected but not maintained and are in what the inspectors describe as a state of mild failure.

Sunniberg Bridge by Christian Menn, near Klosters, Switzerland. Photo by Christof Sonderegger, CH-9424 Rheineck.

Sunniberg Bridge by Christian Menn, near Klosters, Switzerland. Photo by Christof Sonderegger, CH-9424 Rheineck.

David Billington: They perhaps exaggerated a little bit to get attention, but at the same time it is perfectly true that our infrastructure — and bridges are a most visible part of the infrastructure — is in bad shape. Every once in a while, one falls down and kills people, and then everyone gets excited. And then they forget about it. It’s a very difficult issue to keep on the front page. The problem of maintaining bridges and avoiding those catastrophes is a live problem.

Jeff Stein: You have said that we live in an engineering culture, which has dominated our history at least since the Industrial Revolution, and that it is therefore very important for the general public to know about engineering. Would greater engineering literacy help us solve this issue?

David Billington: The tendency in America is to be fixated on what’s new, and that leads to a misunderstanding of how things were built to begin with. People tend to think that brand-new ideas drive change, but that’s not the way things develop. We don’t make radical changes until there is a real crisis. Infrastructure gets lost in this kind of environment. People might talk about new materials, for example, but having a new material isn’t going to help the bridges much: you can’t tear them all down and rebuild them out of some kind of plastic.

Jeff Stein: It’s part of our culture, as you’ve noted — we learned to see engineering as a way to solve many of the problems that arose in this big, uncoordinated, disconnected continent. Your work puts engineering and infrastructure in a context that we don’t often think about by humanizing engineers, describing their connections to particular places, and exploring the sources of their ideas.

David Billington: The way we view engineering has changed, and needs to change more. The average engineer in the late 19th and first half of the 20th century was a farm boy, the result of the Morrill Act that created the great engineering schools of the Midwest. Most of the schools in the East gave up engineering; fortunately, Princeton didn’t. It wasn’t considered an elite or intellectually interesting subject; it was for farm boys. That was great for a while, but it’s not great now. Engineering needs to be shown as a very stern and deep intellectual subject.

Jeff Stein: That’s how it’s always been perceived in Germany and Switzerland.

David Billington: Perhaps more so in Switzerland than Germany. And they have benefitted from it. We can learn a lot about infrastructure from small countries like Switzerland, the Netherlands, Norway, because those countries have confronted and solved some very difficult infrastructure problems. A good example is the Lower Mississippi, which is the most crucial problem for us right now. There is a solution, and it comes from the Netherlands, because they have faced the same problem — a big delta. One of my missions in life is to try to make that connection, because I’ve lived in the Netherlands and can read Dutch, and so I know in some detail what they were able to accomplish. You have probably never heard of Johan van Veen or Cornelius Lely. But they are the heroes of the 20th century, because these two people literally saved a whole country. They had help along the way, of course, but they were the radical innovators that made all the difference. They both combined engineering and political talent with a depth of knowledge that puts them in the same category as any philosopher, historian, or intellectual. Our vast country is made up of regions that are quite different from one another, and we need to understand those differences and find appropriate designs, the best of which are sometimes found abroad and can stimulate us to better designs here.

Jeff Stein: Right. The Lower Mississippi has a very different set of conditions from the West Coast, which in turn has seismic conditions that we don’t have in the Northeast.

David Billington: Now I want to say something about Boston, which you won’t want to hear. I think that the Big Dig was a huge mistake. First of all, it was supposed to cost $3 billion and is now about $22 billion. And that is wasted money. The reason it’s wasted money is that Boston, as you well know, is a landfill city built on muck. And you don’t easily build tunnels in muck.

Jeff Stein: Well, we’ve learned that by building tunnels in muck.

David Billington: It’s the wrong form. I can understand why they wanted to tear down the Central Artery. But they should have built a truly elegant set of overpasses, and they would have had a dramatically beautiful solution that would have cost $3 billion, not $22 billion. Seattle is about to make the same mistake, building a tunnel in landfill so they can have a park on top.

Jeff Stein: They had the same problem — an aging overpass running through the city.

David Billington: The key is to ask the right questions or raise the right objections in the beginning. Going back to the Lower Mississippi, Katrina is, of course, a real national tragedy, and still there’s nothing being done about it. We criticized the previous administration for their handling of it, justifiable criticism for sure. But the real criticism has to go way back to the 1970s, when officials were preparing a plan after Hurricane Betsy. It was torn apart by environmentalists who were worried about the shrimp in Lake Pontchartraine. The environmentalists beat back the Corps of Engineers, and the Corps of Engineers was too flaccid. It gave up. So the city did not receive the protection it needed. It’s not just the environmentalists’ fault — the point is that there was no strong engineering presence such as a Lely or van Veen to argue for the bigger picture and common sense that might have protected the city.

Jeff Stein: And now, of course, there are arguments about whether to go ahead with anything much in New Orleans. Given the warming of the Gulf of Mexico, it’s certain that Hurricane Katrina will not be the last devastating storm — the next ones will be even worse. And so how many times can we afford to rebuild that city?

David Billington: Just once more, I think. If we don’t do it right this time, then we’ll give it up. But I think it would be a terrible mistake to give up now, a terrible thing to do to that city. And Baton Rouge, too, as well as the whole lower Mississippi River corridor.

Jeff Stein: You are in an unusual position as both an engineer and an historian — it allows you to look backward and forward at the same time. The kinds of things we’re talking about present enormous challenges. Can you predict how or where we will find solutions?

David Billington: I do not use history to make predictions. Since the Industrial Revolution, certain patterns have emerged and been constant through the late 20th century. That says, I believe, something very fundamental about our political system and about people in general — which is somewhat different from a prediction.

Jeff Stein: So what do those patterns tell you?

David Billington: What they say, to me anyway, is that real advances take place through the work of people acting individually, not committees and teams. When we have a problem in this country, we create a commission. And the commission creates a report, which is usually anonymously written. There’s no author. But there are always large numbers of people involved. And the results are often not as compelling as they could be. In an engineering society, such as the society we’ve lived in for 200 years, individual people make a huge difference. Once they make a huge difference, you need teams to implement their work. But if you’re going to have real change, it has to be done by individual engineers and they need to be recognized along with presidents and generals.

Caption: Salginatobel Bridge by Robert Maillart, Schiers, Switzerland. Photo by Rama, Wikimedia Commons, Cc-by-sa-2.0-fr.

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