Our Predecessors

by Don Friedman on January 13, 2017

Ove Arup’s Penguin Pool at the London Zoo, with its incredible concrete ramps, courtesy of Chris Samson:

The Guardian had a nice write-up of Ove Arup’s life, as a review of a museum exhibit. Unfortunately, I missed the exhibit: I was in London last April before it opened and had no excuse to go back just for this show. Arup deserves a museum show and more for his influence on the world of building design and for the specific projects he worked on.

Engineering is not the only profession where the practitioners are not well known – most people are hard pressed to name more than two lawyers or doctors who are famous for their professional work – but it suffers by comparison to architecture. There are always some famous architects* at any given time, while most people can’t name a single famous structural engineer.**

Years ago, I had as my computer’s desktop two photographs on a black background. The photos were of Washington Roebling and Isambard Brunel, two engineers whose work influenced me greatly when I was deciding to join this profession. The picture of Roebling was a formal portrait taken after he was retired from bridge building, but the picture of Brunel was taken at work. Brunel had designed SS Great Eastern, the largest ship built before 1900, and was struggling in 1857 to launch it. In the end, it took three months of effort to get the ship afloat. The photograph was taken during the launch period, and Brunel is standing in front of the huge chains that were part of that effort. He’s obviously posing for the photographer, but I’m sure that the mud on his pants and boots, and the distracted expression on his face, were authentic.

Arup was a genius and deservedly famous, but there are plenty of less-well-known engineers deserving of recognition. I hope that a major museum exhibit devoted to Arup can serve at least as inspiration. One day when I had that desktop, maybe in 1999 or so, someone I worked with looked at the pictures and asked “Your grandfathers?” I said no, of course, but that doesn’t mean I can’t honor my predecessors.

* I loathe the word “starchitect” with a white-hot passion.

** People who know nothing about engineering but know New York usually cough up Washington or John Roebling, but few know Othmar Amman, who designed six major bridges in the New York area, or Gunvald Aus, who designed the steel frame of the Woolworth Building.

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