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Elegant Design in Civil Engineering

Elegant Design in Civil Engineering

Some of the regular readers may have noticed that Being Brunel is currently undergoing a bit of restyling. It’s not finished yet, with a good few kinks to be ironed out; but for those of you in the know there’s a big day coming up at the end of July and I want to look pretty for it. Now, while the site dons a tux but is still Googleing dickie-bows, seems as good a time as any to talk about Elegant Design.

When you see it, you know that this was the only solution; anything else would have been an abomination.

So what is elegant design? There’s a notion in the father of all engineering; Mathematical Beauty. It’s the aesthetic pleasure derived from a solution; beauty in a method. Like farther, like 2/3rds son, Civil Engineering must have its inherited equivalent, but how do you define it? It’s a subject I’ve touched upon before, but I do believe that civil engineering beauty exists.

Unfortunately, when the average person is pushed to describe aspects of Civil Engineering to designate as elegant they are more often than not identifying decisions made by an architect. The Millau viaduct, for example, has become the Paul McCartney of beauty in structural design- wheeled out to show that structures can still make you reach for those tissues in the bedside cabinet. I am not doubting the importance of Civil Engineers in actually realising the design, but those x-rated slender curves are architectural.

Consider, also, that true elegance in design has to be applicable to all the disciplines within Civil Engineering. No water treatment works, or rail-road, is ever likely the fulfil a definition that sets beauty of form above that of function. Instead, let me give you a few examples of civil works I would say exhibit elegant design…

The Falkirk Wheel

The Falkirk Wheel

Elegance in the Method

Like even the most dedicated of ‘inner-beauty’ pageants; it does, of course, help if the design has it going on. But it’s not the yin-yang razors that make this structure a candidate for Elegant Design.

The true beauty is in its method, its function. You have to admire the simplicity, balancing two gondolas so that only the smallest push is required to set the structure in motion. When you see it, you know that this was the only solution; anything else would have been an abomination. That what’s makes it an example of beautiful engineering- succinct, but surprising, unusual but classical in its solution, elegance in its absolute purpose.

The London Eye

The London Eye

Beauty in the Execution

Don’t fret, not all examples of elegant design need rotate; in fact, the engineering beauty of the London Eye, to me, lies in its construction. Assembled flat across the Thames, using prefabricated sections floated along the river, the London Eye was raised at 2° an hour. This two-part lift is nothing short of insightful, a literally brilliant way of overcoming the tight constraints that exist within London by using the strengths of the final structural form.

That most Londoners can tell you how the London Eye went up, and, if pushed, identify that the people responsible for the process were engineers (instead of the Architects and Builders, who will get credit for the rest of the structure), shows how elegant design can capture the imagination of the public; doing some much needed work the raise the profile of the profession.

So what is elegant design? I would say its the right solution for the problem, succinct and insightful, simplicity in the face of complexity, absolute fulfilment of purpose. A road with curves so well designed that you barely need to touch the wheel, a precast bridge with just the right number of pieces, the rivets along a wrought iron beam… Subjective, perhaps, but objectively so.

It seems fitting to end with a quote from Mr Erdős (of tongue-in-cheek number fame): “Why are numbers beautiful? It’s like asking why is Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony beautiful. If you don’t see why, someone can’t tell you. I know numbers are beautiful. If they aren’t beautiful, nothing is.”

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  1. Ed Dablin

    I agree in in the beauty of aesthetic pleasure derived from a solution, but unfortunately the Falkirk Wheel’s form only gives an illusion of this. The horns have no mechanical purpose but were added by an architect post conception!

    • True- the razor-blade form isn’t an example of beauty in engineering- but the solution, balancing the gondolas, has got to be!


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