Research Lens and Report Organization
This lens has a number of components. In keeping with the fellowship’s aim of fostering an appreciation of the aesthetic potential in the structural design of buildings and bridges, the travel itinerary highlights precedents that make noticeable structural gestures and solve decisively structural challenges. In this way, the research is grounded in the field of structural engineering. Assessments of the studied buildings are primarily made in terms of structural efficiency, clarity of form and expression, level of technical proficiency and innovation, durability, and other facets within the field.
Although the structures documented in this report were chosen because they are exemplary in one or more of these structural aspects, the examples are diverse in terms of age, geography, scale, ambition, and fame. As such, a contemporary observer can often appreciate especially creative or technically sound aspects of a design, while also criticizing other decisions, often with the benefit of hindsight. In order to compare the different structures and most effectively extract concrete and valuable design lessons, it is tempting to place these building assessments on some type of scorecard. A system of rankings, or an evaluation of performance across set categories, would communicate the outcomes of this research in a way that is comfortable, or even potentially useful, for many engineers.
At the same time, it is important to acknowledge the limitations of a ranking methodology for addressing the initial question about design for multiple objectives. First, despite everything that can be learned through site visits, conversations with designers, and even drawings or secondary sources about a building, it is difficult to fully know every constraint acting on a particular designer. This is especially true of the older or more obscure structures, which are not as well documented. If this research fellowship was addressing only one quantifiable building aspect such as its carbon footprint, and reliable information could be found about material quantities for each one, a ranked list would be more useful.
However, as the research was proposed and conducted, it would be unfair to evaluate the buildings and their vastly different intents and expectations according to a rigid scale. In addition, each of the buildings on the list was conceived of by a designer who has more experience than I do. In most cases their knowledge and understanding of design and construction totally dwarf mine, since I am an early career researcher and aspiring designer. Also, my primary training is in structures, and so I am not an expert in all the other aspects of performance-based building design—energy, daylighting, acoustics—that are discussed in terms of how they interact with structural considerations. Although the fellowship has allowed me to visit many high-quality design examples and I consequently have some context for critique and comparison, it would be dangerous to presume that I know more than the experienced designers who built these remarkable structures.
Furthermore, when the notion of aesthetics is involved, both in the limited sense often used by engineering historians to describe visual quality, as well the more general definition of being concerned with beauty, the question of evaluation becomes even more murky. A method for evaluating aesthetic quality would have to leave the field of structural engineering and probably enter the field of architecture. Architects are of course comfortable sharing their opinions on the expressiveness and experience of buildings, and this report similarly contains discussions of many nonquantifiable aspects of structures. However, trying to fit aesthetic assessments into an overall rubric would require value judgements that may yield less-valuable results.
In some ways, the question of how to effectively pursue multiple design goals simultaneously, even if one goal is explicitly structural or especially dominant, cuts to the heart of design itself. In my experience presenting research on the topic of multiobjective optimization, which is a computational approach that can help navigate performance-based design spaces, architects and engineers have strong opinions about its usefulness and role in the design process. These sentiments largely stem from underlying views about the more complicated question of how buildings should be designed in general. Some designers are noticeably defensive against computational methods for managing different design objectives, due to skepticism about the ability of computers and their programmers to fully understand the complexity of design, fear that optimization will be too deterministic, or because they see architecture as an expressive human endeavor and do not want to cede control. Others are more optimistic about computation but are frustrated that although computers have become ubiquitous for documentation and simulation, they are too limited in their ability to affect the iterative design process owing to a combination of technical issues and lack of imagination. Despite these disagreements, it is at least clear that advances in computation have challenged architecture and engineering schools and practices to wrestle with deep questions about the design process, and how to both teach and execute design synthesis.