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"The New Epoch" and the 21st Century Imperative for Engineering History

05/02/2008 2:00 PM Bartos theater
David P. Billington, Gordon Y.S. Wu Professor of Engineering; Princeton University;

Description: Great civil engineers finds an aesthetic appropriate for their building's material and structure, assertsDavid Billington, whose life work has been the study of some of the world's most stunning engineering feats.

He reviews his own intellectual journey, first honoring some of his forebears, including Elting Morison, industrial historian and a founder of MIT's Program in Science, Technology and Society, and R. G. Collingwood, philosopher/historian. Billington describes a momentous turn in his career at Princeton, when architecture students in one of his courses rebuked him: "They told me, we hate what you're teaching us. ... You're teaching us stick diagrams and formulas. That's how you teach structural engineering. Why can't we study beautiful structures?"

They showed him a picture of the Salginatobel Bridge, built by "an obscure Swiss engineer, Robert Maillart," about whom there was little published in English. This led to a major stretch of research by Billington, and opened up his lifelong interest in how great engineers delve deep into the nature of their building material, such as Maillart's reinforced concrete, and discover how to make it beautiful.

In studying the work of Maillart and other European engineers, Billington learned that "truly great bridges are extremely interesting aesthetically." They often result from competitions, satisfying criteria of structural art while wasting neither material nor money. Says Billington, the engineers "get elegance out of discipline -- they find play within discipline." While most of Billington's admired bridges were built in the 20th century (by men born in the 19th), he also pays tribute to Christian Menn, designer of Boston's Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge, completed in 2002 -- an asymmetrical cable stayed bridge that has become a regional landmark.

"Basic form and structure comes from the engineer's imagination," says Billington, which puts engineers "far ahead of us academics, who often think we make innovations and explain them to practitioners." Menn and his peers are "out there doing art," and Billington's mission is to teach it. He gives his students a sense of how the engineer's mind works, by assigning students to build small"scale versions of structurally significant bridges. These models show up in art exhibits, and Billington shows many slides of such work during his talk.

In a footnote, Billington discusses the dismal state of U.S. infrastructure, including the catastrophic failure of the Minneapolis bridge in 2007. This steel truss bridge, like so many in the U.S., was the product of an anonymous design process, says Billington, where bridges are copied decade after decade, in an "unthinking acceptance of designs that are already flawed."

About the Speaker(s): David P. Billington is also Director of the Program of Architecture and Engineering at Princeton University. He is well"known at Princeton for connecting engineering to other disciplines within the University -- to the humanities, art, science and politics. Billington has taught perhaps 5,000 Princeton undergraduates since joining the faculty in 1960. He specializes in structural analysis and design with an emphasis on concrete structures, bridge design, thin shell concrete structures, and the history and aesthetics of structures as an art form.

Billington's most recent publication is Power, Speed and Form -- Engineers and the Making of the Twentieth Century (with David P. Billington, Jr; Princeton 2006). He has written several books on Robert Maillart's work as well as on other aspects of structural engineering.

Billington was a Fulbright Fellow, and won the 1992 George Winter Award from the American Society of Civil Engineers. He has consulted for the State of Maryland on bridge design and for the State of New Jersey on highway accidents. He is a member of the American Society of Civil Engineering, among other professional affiliations. He has taught at Princeton since 1960.

Host(s): School of Humanities, Arts & Social Sciences, Program in Science, Technology and Society

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MIT World — special events and lectures

MIT World — special events and lectures

Category: Events | Updated almost 3 years ago

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