The Tower and the Bridge: The New Art of Structural Engineering’

Categories: ArtBridgeEngineering

How nature, science, materials and forms can collaborate under the pressure of economic and technological constraints to form aesthetically precious and socially important structures? David P. Billington provides a brilliant in its depth and scope account of all possible interactions between human genius, engineering models, and architectural means. His book ‘The Tower and the Bridge: The New Art of Structural Engineering’ (1985) guides the reader across countries and ages in an interesting and informative tour dedicated to structural art as manifested in construction.

A few words need to be said here about the author of this book. David P. Billington received his degree in engineering at Princeton University in 1950, and then he studied post-war innovations in bridge construction, structural design theory, and research in Belgium throughout the following three years. Upon returning back home, Billington worked as structural designer in New York from 1952 to 1960. His professional interests included construction of bridges, aircraft hangers, piers, thin-shell tanks, and missile-launch facilities.

Since 1960, Billington has been teaching in various universities of the United States.

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His first book ‘Structures Models and Architects’ was published in 1963. During more than forty years of writing, he created over 160 journal articles and books on engineering, architecture, and design. At the present moment, Billington serves as a structural engineering professor at Princeton and continues his career in literature.

‘The Tower and the Bridge’ closely examines the development of structural art in its full expressional value. The book consists of thirteen chapters, arranged in two parts. The opening section ‘Art in Engineering’ introduces a reader to the theme of the whole treatise and presents some key author’s assumptions concerning engineering and architecture as important branches of human activity.

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The closing chapter summarizes the role of structure in construction from the viewpoints of aesthetic value, practical utility, and economic expenditure. The current book review will observe the four chapters from Billington’s work: ‘Jenney, Root, and the First Chicago School,’ ‘Roof Vaults and National Styles,’ ‘The Directing Idea of Eugene Freyssinet,’ and ‘Discipline and Play: New Vaults in Concrete.’

In the chapter ‘Jenney, Root, and the First Chicago School,’ the author talks about the evolvement of concrete building in Chicago of the 19th century as emergence of structuralism in engineering and architecture. The countdown point of the trend is agreed to be the great fire of 1871 which destroyed the major part of old buildings. The so-called First Chicago School of architects represented by such important architects as Frederick Baumann, William Le Baron Jenney Martin Roche, William Holabird, and Louis Sullivan contributed significantly to the restoration of the city as an important social, economic, and cultural center of the United States.

 Billington refrains from displaying a mere chronological account of construction in Chicago. Neither has he presented bibliographical histories of some great architects of that time. Instead of wearing down his readers by technical details, the author demonstrates how the social environment influenced engineers and architects in their attempts to use new materials such as steel and concrete in construction of multistoried building that received the name of ‘skyscrapers.’

According to the writer, the representatives of the First Chicago School had to bear in mind the four important factors during their construction efforts. First, the very location of the city with its prevalence of marshland subsoil dictated several restrictions that were imposed on the form of buildings and choice of construction materials.

Second, there was an economic tendency of bureaucratization which led to the increased demand for business office spaces. The third factor of technical progress also contributed to the firmament of the Chicago style since concrete and metal forms became highly popular due to their cheapness and reduced labor costs. Finally, the architects were thrilled by the novel aesthetic ideas revealed to public by the French architect and engineer Eugene Violett-le-Duc in his theoretical treatise called ‘Lectures.’

Billington makes it clear from the very beginning that none of architectural and engineering innovations has been raised in isolation from the broad socio-economical and historical context. It is interesting to find out that Chicago of the mid-19th century and the medieval cities of northern France shared many common features that affected construction.

Urbanization of population and the need to save on construction materials led to the emergence of towers or high building which manifested civic prestige and the balance of means and ends. No wonder that the two architectural styles – the one of Gothic and another one of Chicago skyscrapers – were similarly shaped by the same ideas of economy, structure, and aesthetics.

The author observes that Chicago architects were guided by several principles in their professional efforts, including “well-lit office space, practical circulation, easily maintained spaces, [and] structure” (Billington 107). All these factors served to improve the functional or pragmatic appropriateness of buildings. And here one sees that the writer is concerned not only with engineering specifications but also with aesthetic implications of novel architectural trends since he contrasts the two leading architects of that time – John Root, Jenney, and Sullivan – in terms of their attention to structure as an important element of constructional design.

It should be stressed here once again that the writer present the biographies of his heroes as a sequence of facts to form a multilayered picture of the most popular trends in engineering and construction of that time. He emphasizes that all the three representatives of the first Chicago School were educated as civic engineers and received an extensive training as technicians. The key characteristic of architects was their urge to create buildings for practical use such as water vessels, private houses, and business buildings. They collaborated with one another so that to marry utility and beauty.

Billington admits that Jenney did not construct skyscrapers in the sense that his buildings did not exceed eight or ten stories in height. However, his manner of integrating vertical columns at wide spaces to the façade was utilized later on in the design of genuine skyscrapers. Jenney paved the road to his successors in the sense that he was aware of structure as an element of design.

From the author’s point of view, Root continued Jenney’s efforts to integrate structure to the realm of civic engineering. Root succeeded in overcoming the two Chicago-specific problems of shaky soil, which called for stable massive foundations of buildings, and of imperfect metal structures. That engineer pioneered the method of reinforcing concrete foundations with a grillage of steel rails to significantly improve the steadiness and safety of buildings. However, the author of the book states that Root was not a genuine structuralist in his construction efforts since he viewed structure as just another function rather than a valuable element of visual design.

The chapter provides the reader with insights on the history of architecture as based on many elements, including materials, economic tendencies, and the specifics of landscapes. It is interesting to trace commonalities in function and design which the writer finds between Gothic cathedrals and Chicago buildings. The analysis of a wide array of factors is carefully structured so that the reader is not distracted from the main goal of narration which is to trace the evolvement of structural design in its magnitude.

The chapter ‘Roof Vaults and National Styles’ researches the impact of national biases on architecture concerning the construction of roofs as structural systems consisting of domes of thin-shell roofs supported by beams, walls, and arches. Billington creates a wide-scale picture of roof construction in Germany, Italy and Spain. The narration is marked by the same aspiration to synthesize several perspectives to better understand architectural forms as impacted by national biases that have been formed throughout centuries.

The author explains that no single trend in construction can be separated from the social milieu and historical context:

… the history of 20th century structural engineering does not follow a linear progression … the laws of nature must interact with – locally based – aesthetics. It is not a question of one development leading directly to another and so on, but rather of parallel ideas arising in different societies and then flowering in ways that reflect particular patterns of those societies as well as the general laws of nature.  (Billington 172)

 The idea was illustrated by the three manners of roof design that received proliferation in Germany, Italy, and Spain. The architects mentioned – the Germans Franz Dischinger and Ulrich Finsterwalder; the Italian Pier Luigi Nervi, and the Spaniards Antoni Gaudi, Eduardo Torroja, and Felix Candela – differed from each other in approaches and backgrounds.

One could say that they had nothing in common because they originated from different countries and lived in different periods. However, the author rejects the very idea of architecture being a mere chronologically arranged account of segregated events. Billington argues that the abovementioned constructors shared many common features such as talent, success in economic competitiveness, and an emphasis on structure in their art.

Throughout the chapter is it made evident how national backgrounds affected personal manners of engineers. Dischinger and Finsterwalder as well as other German architects were guided by science in their attempts to build thin-shell roofs according to particular formulas. In their designs they followed the conventions of axial symmetry which led to the prevalence of circular over rectangular plans. The roofs of many important buildings that were constructed in Germany between the two great wars of the 20th century had the form of spherical domes and circular cylinders. The elements of structural systems which supported the roofs were made visually separate as it is evident in Dischinger’s shell domes in Leipzig.

Franz Dischinger proved that concrete could be used to create thin surfaces that would be rather cheap and safe. He designed a formula to make thin-shell concrete roof structures that is known as the Zeiss-Dywidag system. It was used while constructing a thin shell hemispherical dome roof for a planetarium in Munich. Finsterwalder designed a mathematical formula to utilize a simple barrel shell form in construction. His efforts resulted in the manner of supporting circular cross-sections with long horizontal beams which were in their turn were sustained by thin transverse walls along the entire arc length at each end.

Contrastingly to German Architects, the Italians were more occupied with the search for aesthetical value of roof constructions. The writer analyzes the architectural ancestry of Nervi to demonstrate how ribbed surfaces were integrated with supporting structures. To make his idea of sequencing structural tendencies across national history of architecture, Billington first analyzes the construction of domes in ancient Italian cathedrals and public building to approach the specifics of Nervi’s designs.

As the author evidences, the famous Italian architect considered structural elements to acquire artistic value when structure “arose out of correct form, careful construction practice, and a conscious aesthetic intention” (Billington 176). Physical laws of construction were researched by Nervi in depth during the creation of aircraft hangars in the period from 1936 to 1939. He observed that different structures such as tile coating and metal ribs reacted differently to temperature differential. Initially the engineer worked with unsymmetrical supports but upon observing the behavior of construction materials in natural settings he precast the ribs of concrete and made the supports symmetrical.

So far as Billington traces the evolution of structure in engineering, architecture, and design, many paragraphs are dedicated to the analysis of structural forms as utilized by architects. The history of Nervi’s constructions is no exception. The author examines the 1948 Agnelli Exhibition Hall in Turin as an example of expressionism in architecture.

Its thin-shell dome looks monolithic but at closer examination one can see that it consists of many diamond-shaped precast metal molds scaffolded in an elegant manner. There was little material used to create a safe and steady construction where aesthetical value was manifested through diagonally intersecting ribs and the function was expressed by letting light go inside the building.

The writer shows how Nervi tried to overcome the problem of buckling in concrete structures by playing with precast molds. Expressionalism in Nervi’s case found way through prevalence of stiffness over mass. The alliance of forms and structures is furthermore investigated in the creations of Spanish architects. Once again Billington shows how national biases contributed to the development of construction.

Spanish architecture, as the author asserts, was mainly influenced by the artisan building tradition that used vaults of laminated tiles. Upon introduction of reinforced concrete elements, new materials were used to integrate smooth curved ribless surfaces with supports.

The Spaniards preferred thin and curved structures to thick and flat ones. The national style was driven by the urge of “expressing visually the structural ideal of thinness, emphasizing smooth, ribless surfaces, searching more widely for forms never used before in large buildings” (Billington 183). That was a common tendency that unified the buildings constructed by Gaudi, Torroja, and Candela, although each of them attempted to achieve the goals in his own peculiar manner.

Throughout the rest of the chapter Billington shows how Gaudi created new forms that would express rationality, how Torroja experimented with thin concrete vaults to unify the form and structure, and how Candela tested the structural applications of concrete forms. It is important to say here that the writer is never tired of comparing and contrasting the architects one against each other across time and space. For example, Torroja with his preference for smooth surfaces is compared to Nervi who played with expressed ribs and buttresses. At the same time, Billington provides a technical analysis of structural constructions so his account is interesting not only for historians or specialists in art but also for engineers and technically minded people.

The writer argues that Spanish architects were lucky to find the ways in which “beauty and utility could combine and open up limitless new possibilities for form” as they possessed “a vibrant imagination liberated by the discipline of structure” (Billington 190). The shells looking like inverted umbrellas, cylinders, and hyperbolic paraboloid not only entertained the viewer’s eye but also explored the utility and design value of thin ribless curvaceous structural elements. Overall, the chapter is a careful and interesting analysis of various ways in which architects from different countries emphasized the importance of structure in their designs.

The next chapter called ‘The Directing Idea of Eugene Freyssinet’ observes the life and works of a French engineer who became famous for his invention of prestressed concrete. This personage is chosen by the writer as the one who examined vertical and horizontal reactions of arches that were constructed of metal and concrete and thus synthesized lightness and permanence.

As usual Billington analyzes the hero of the chapter as the successor of many other important engineers. In the case of Freyssinet these are Hennebique and Maillart. The author’s attention to structure in architecture and design is dictated by its “deep interplay between the rational and the emotional bases for structural engineering” (Billington 197). The narrator stresses that the evolvement of expressionalism in visual forms cannot be understood without an analysis of people and places.

Freyssinet started his engineering career in the south region of France where he constructed cheap and steady bridges. There he faced the problem of cracking in the lower parts of concrete and metal girders. The remedy to this ‘disease’ was using very high strength steel and prestressed concrete to form a horizontal compression force. During the construction of the bridge at Le Veurdre in 1907, the French engineer joined the abutments of the two arch ends by steel tie bars to subject the whole construction to permanent compression and continual contraction. He killed two birds at once since his span bridges became defended against creeping and used less material.

The analysis of Freyssinet’s bridges and hangars would not be full without reviewing his aesthetical principles. As the engineer stressed, when creating a particular construction, he attempted to achieve “the delicate harmonies between its parts and its site” (Billington 205). The author adds that Freyssinet’s were remarkable for “the contrasts of the pointed piers with the flat water surface, and the strong abutments leaning back against the hills with the lightness of the long-span arches” (ibid.). The thin-shell roof structures made by the French engineer were also marked by the same lightness and witty play on contrasts.

Several pages are dedicated to the comparison of Freyssinet’s constructions with the ones of Maillart and Candela. Billington argues that all of them were somehow trapped within their particular methods of making materials and forms to serve the goals of structural design: “All the great structural engineers combined aesthetic motivation with an inventive flair. New forms played both with and against new techniques, sometimes reinforcing each other and sometimes competing for the attention of their creator” (Billington 210).

The writer insisted that “the best engineers were precisely those who were the most aesthetically sensitive to the new forms arising out of the constraints of structural engineering” (Billington 212). It does not mean that the ultimate goal of Billington’s analysis is to identify ‘good’ and ‘bad’ engineers and architects. The author means to say that professionals should learn from the past in their attempts to achieve expressionalism through the balance of rational and emotional motives, i.e. form and aesthetics.

The last chapter under analysis called ‘Discipline and Play: New Vaults in Concrete’ tackles upon different methods of introducing aesthetically valuable and structurally significant forms such as concrete vaults. The author justifies scientific and empirical manners to discover practically usable solutions for civic construction.

Billington returns to discussing the principles of the German school that employed complex calculations to underlie architecture and concludes that theoretical modeling should not constrain architecture. He argues that computations in structural design should rather guide than determine design because formulas cannot predict such variables as cost of labor or inspiration. The latter element is acknowledged by Billington as no lesser significant than the theory of strength of materials or architectural styles.

To illustrate the point, Billington cites the Spanish architect Felix Candela who wrote: “Beauty has no price tag and there is never one single solution to an engineering problem. Therefore it is always possible to modify the whole or the parts until the ugliness disappears” (218). The criterion for a structural architect becomes the aesthetical value of the construction and not its purely pragmatic assessment.

The point is proven throughout the analysis of the Swiss style as manifested in the creations of Pierre Lardy. Billington concludes that a genuinely valuable and effective design process is a synthesis of “experiment and precision,” whereas a construction process is an attempt to achieve both “economy and control” (220). This is another argument speaking to the point of architecture as a synthetic form of art that expands the limits of human imagination beyond the constraints of dull practicality.

Billington’s book is easy to read even in those parts which are dedicated to purely technical analysis of constructions. Its pure and vivacious language provides the readers with a chance to penetrate beyond schemes and formulas to understand the evolvement of structuralism in its integrity and continuity. Synthesis and a broad perspective of narration are the author’s techniques to explain the elements of structuralism in their richness and logics.

By contrasting Chicago skyscrapers against medieval cathedrals, and the bridges of Maillart against the thin-shell constructions of Candela Billington makes it clear that technical and formal issues are the not the bases of success and importance in architecture. He examines a broader contest of social, religious, economic, geographical and other implications to penetrate deeper into the mystery of design as serving many goals and performing many functions.

The book is interesting for both professional engineers and non-professional readers since it utilizes many lenses to investigate the use of structure in design across epochs and countries. Engineers and architects would be interested in reading the book because it contains many important concepts related to the points of their professional interest.

Important engineers and architects are shown in progress of their careers so that to demonstrate that their efforts are scaffolded one over another to achieve the common goal. Those who were not educated as specialists in construction would also be interested in Billington’s book because it describes technical matters in plain and understandable language so that the value of design structure in people’s life is not buried under a pile of terms.

Cite this page

The Tower and the Bridge: The New Art of Structural Engineering’. (2017, Mar 08). Retrieved from

The Tower and the Bridge: The New Art of Structural Engineering’

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