Bridge Engineering – The Lost Art

Like many, I grew up fascinated with how things work – how they are put together, how they stay together, who makes them – and how I can become involved with them. After some research (with books, dial-up internet time was restricted so my father would not miss a call), I found out my true calling – to be an Engineer.

Of all the interesting and challenging engineering disciplines, I decided that I wanted to be a Bridge Engineer. To put it simply: we take a problem (river), add a requirement (need to cross said river), and come up with a solution (bridge). Believe it or not, in most cases designing the bridge and its components is not the hardest part – it’s having to build them fast, cheap, and sometimes beautiful (more on this last point later). As the American Civil Engineer, Arthur M. Wellington put it,

An engineer can do for a dollar what any fool can do for two.

This is the key to the engineering profession. We innovate to save society money, which increases the number of infrastructure projects, which leads to more innovation and cost-savings. It’s a wonderful cycle! But there is something that seems to be missing in the modern day definition of a Bridge Engineer. In the below image, we have a bridge. This was designed by an Engineer, and is a common form for a present day highway overpass – but not many people would refer to this bridge as beautiful.

Typical Concrete Bridge. Photo Credit: 570 News.

Many people believe that this can be solved, simply by adding a “Bridge Architect” to these projects. Indeed, the Ministry of Transportation of Ontario (MTO) has taken this to heart, by recently making it mandatory on some signature projects. The most famous example of this is the engineer turned architect, Santiago Calatrava. As shown below, he cares deeply of the artistic originality of his bridges.

The Peace Bridge. Photo Credit: Global News.

However, this all comes at a large price tag – which is always paid for by tax payers. For example, the Peace Bridge was built for $24.9 million, and construction was delayed by 1.5 years. In addition to the high initial cost, the city has needed to repair broken windows ($152 K) and install new lights ($700 K), partly due to design problems (read more: Calgary Herald). This seems to be a recurring issue with Calatrava projects (read more: D Magazine).

Luckily there is a solution, and it’s very simple – education. Engineers study long and hard for years to master the physics behind bridge structures. However, very little time is put aside to teach students how to use this knowledge to create beautiful structures. As engineer David Billington put it, the art of bridge engineering is to balance form, function and economy. If you need proof, consider the Salginatobel Bridge shown below, designed by Bridge Engineer Robert Maillart.

Salginatobel Bridge. Photo Credit: Structurae

This bridge was the cheapest solution submitted, and for this reason only, was it built. Because Maillart had studied both the physics and form of bridges, he was able to create this masterpiece. But this is an extreme case. Consider this simple flyover bridge in Ontario. It was clearly not designed to be a signature bridge – but the attention to detail and form paid by the Bridge Engineer resulted in both an economical and arguably beautiful structure.

Hwy 401 Flyover. Photo Credit: Ontario Ministry of Transportation

Therefore, it is essential that bridge engineers stop selling their services as a commodity, and start re-discovering the influence that a good Bridge Engineer can have on society.

This must start in the classroom.

One Reply to “Bridge Engineering – The Lost Art”

  1. Rami, I stumbled across your article on Twitter. What a beautiful illustration of how enculturation impacts our whole society. As I teach my students to love the good, the true, and the beautiful….my hope is that their bridges and houses and road and clothing and art and even relationships will be created not only for the sake of function but also for the beauty they see within and without. I may have to read this to my fifth graders as they complain about having to write beautifully in penmanship or revise paragraphs to make them beautiful. Thank you for creating beautiful bridges!

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