by Don Friedman on March 17, 2016

The word “style” as applied to engineering is publicly anathema to most engineers: it conjures up the unfair stereotype of a fashionably-dressed architect making poor decisions about structural systems because those decisions will place a building within a particular aesthetic. Putting that image aside, engineering designers all have personal styles and there are stylistic trends in the profession as a whole.

As Reyner Banham put it in “The New Brutalism,” in a discussion of architectural style:

The history of the phrase [“the New Brutalism”] itself is revealing. Its form is clearly derived from The Architectural Review‘s post-war trouvaille ‘The New Empiricism,’ a term which was intended to describe visible tendencies in Scandinavian architecture to diverge from another historical concept ‘The International Style.’ This usage, like any involving the word new, opens up an historical perspective. It postulates that an old empiricism can be identified by the historian, and that the new one can be distinguished from it by methods of historical comparison, which will also distinguish it from a mere ‘Empiricism Revival.’ The ability to deal with such fine shades of historical meaning is in itself a measure of our handiness with the historical method today, and the use of phrases of the form ‘The New X-ism’ – where X equals an adjectival root – became commonplace in the early nineteen-fifties in fourth-years studios and other places where architecture is discussed, rather than practiced.

Note that style requires a sense of history on at least a limited basis: if you don’t know what has come before, how can you define a style? Maybe this is why engineers think they are without style. On the other hand, too much history can be bad, too, as Elting Morison put it in Men, Machines, and Modern Times:

It is obvious that there is always danger from the gadget-happy, whether the gadget is a machine, an idea, or a procedure. Amasa Stone, for instance, a very able man, killed a trainload of people because, against advice, he built a bridge at Ashtabula from a truss design for which he had an ancient attachment.

Style is easier to see when structure is exposed, which is why the obvious examples of engineers without pronounced styles worked on bridges and similar structures: Eiffel, Brunel, Roebling, Ammann, and Menn, among others. It’s far more difficult to see style in buildings, where the structure is typically hidden. There are exceptions, of course, such as Fazlur Kahn‘s John Hancock and Shell Plaza buildings, which were the leading edge of the tube-frame wave of the 1960s and 70s.

This discussion raises an obvious question: what’s my style? I can think of a lot of small problems that I like to solve in a particular way – none of them are always solved in one way, but there are tendencies – but one stands out: I like to resolve forces within an individual floor if possible. If I have to cut a floor beam for a new stair, for example, my preference is to find a way to support the beam in the same floor’s framing. I have a good reason for this preference, which is that most of the time doing something else simply pushes the same problem one floor up or down, but this type of problem could easily be solved without ever using my preferred solution.

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